Every year or so, I find myself wanting to give Linux another try. So far, each attempt is met with a combination of positives and negatives that ultimately leads to my turning away from the platform in favor of either Windows or OS X. Linux advocates rave at the flexibility and amount of control a user can have using the open source platform. Frankly, I personally much prefer the ability to have a smooth and easy experience over the bells and whistles.
In the past, I’ve tried Ubuntu, Fedora, Red Hat, and even FreeBSD. While Ubuntu offered the best experience thus far in terms of usability and easy setup, the problems I came across while using the other operating systems were more than enough to sour my palate to Linux for some time. More recently, Matt Hartley (another LockerGnome writer) turned me on to Linux Mint.
The first thing I noticed when installing Mint was that the installation process was very similar to that of Ubuntu. This is likely due to the fact that Mint is actually based off Ubuntu. The questions I was asked during installation were simple. What time zone do you live in? What keyboard format do you use? Would you like to configure the hard drive yourself, or let us handle it for you? What would you like your username and password to be? All of these questions are fairly easy for users of any experience level.
After installation was complete (a very quick process compared to Windows 7), the magic begins. I decided to install Linux Mint on a system that has endured countless OS changes in the past. One thing virtually every Linux distro had in common as the need for further driver configuration after the install. This can be very frustrating, especially for users not familiar with the way Linux works. Surprisingly, Mint picked right up on my hardware and everything appeared to work almost immediately.
The first thing I do when I load a fresh operating system is update the browser and try to use YouTube. This is the best way I’ve found to see if I need to search for a way to get Flash to work (a big hassle on many Linux distros). Thankfully, everything played perfectly. I was almost taken aback by this, as I expected to spend a few hours getting the OS ready to do anything.
Mint also has a pretty interesting menu system ready to go by default. It looks a lot like the Windows Start menu, and because of this, it may seem a lot more usable by Windows users. Things are laid out where you would naturally look for them, with a few minor differences. The menu is split into three parts: Places, Favourites (British spelling), and All Applications. Places sits at the far left while the other two allow you to switch back-and-forth to the right. This has roughly the same functionality as the Windows menu, and shouldn’t take more than a minute for a new user to figure out.
At this point, I decided it was high time to start searching for and loading the core programs needed to get work done (Audacity, Dropbox, etc.) and make sure they work. In this, Mint is not without its surprises. The Software Manager could be a close cousin to the Mac App Store. Programs are split into categories, and some of the more popular offerings are placed in a “Featured” section for easy browsing. Users are able to rate programs (another similarity to the App Store) and post their reviews for others to consider. Everything here worked exactly the way you would expect it to. One trend common within the Linux platform is that packages carry names that make it hard to understand exactly what it is you’re downloading. It’s safe to say that in an open source environment where branding really isn’t a top priority, this is to be expected. Thankfully, the Mint Software Manager gives you helpful descriptions of each item directly below the package name. This came in handy when I almost downloaded the Catalan language package of OpenOffice in place of the calculator application.
As a side note, why can’t Linux applications just have easy names? If I’m looking for a Flickr app, the name “Dfo” doesn’t exactly draw my eyes and make me think, “Oh, that may be what I’m looking for.”
Anyway, Linux Mint 11 may well be the easiest and most well-rounded Linux distro I’ve tried to date. Yes, I know many of you reading this will no doubt comment about how superior advanced distros like Gentoo and FreeBSD are. I get that, but if Linux is ever going to truly rise up and compete against the likes of Microsoft and Apple, it needs a distribution that makes sense for even the least experienced users. Linux Mint comes very close to accomplishing this. If Microsoft releases another Vista-level failure to the market, this may be the platform OEMs look toward for a viable alternative.