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Netbook OS Roundup: Linux Mint

Linux Mint is another Linux distribution based on the Ubuntu and Debian projects. Unlike Jolicloud, Moblin, and the Ubuntu Netbook Remix distributions, it’s not specifically targeted at the netbook niche; rather, it’s an all-purpose, full-featured consumer operating system, comparable in many ways to the last fifteen years of Windows distributions.

Ease of Installation

Linux Mint has been by far the easiest installation so far, with full support for all of my netbook’s hardware (including that Broadcom wifi card) as soon as I booted up the first time. The wizard-like installation is essentially the same as the one that comes with Ubuntu and Moblin, and includes a partitioning utility (as with all previous installations, I simply allowed the operating system to set up its default partition structure and erase the existing structure; all hail Dropbox and the solid-state memory of netbooks!).

Application Support

Like Ubuntu Netbook Remix, Linux Mint comes with a package manager that lets you easily find and install applications. I found that I didn’t have to use it much, though, because the distribution came with a full suite of administrative tools, a few games, Firefox 3.0, Gimp, OpenOffice, and . Indeed, the distribution was a tad heavy for a netbook; a minimalist approach seems better suited to the limited resources of the smaller platform. There are no options during installation to include or exclude packages, so removing unneeded applications would have to be a post-installation chore.

One of the drawbacks of the package manager system in any of these releases is that the user is limited to the application versions that have been vetted for your OS distribution; newer versions of applications are not typically included, and though they can be installed and run with some success they require more work at the command line than going the package manager route. Firefox 3.6 went gold while I was playing with Mint, and though I was able to easily upgrade on my Windows computers I found the process of upgrading on Mint just a bit daunting to proceed for short-term usage. Making application upgrades faster and easier, especially for applications like browsers that are frequently patched, would go a long way toward making Linux a more viable option for casual users.

Stability

I was very pleased with the stability of Linux Mint; I experienced very few freeze-ups or unexpected shutdowns, and network connectivity stayed alive when in use. Like most of the other platforms I’ve tried on the netbook, recovering from hibernation proved to be a challenge for the wifi, but Linux Mint was much more likely to recover than Moblin or Jolicloud.

Performance

Mint starts up quickly, and establishes wifi soon after booting. Network applications experienced occasional sluggishness, usually under expected conditions: multiple Firefox tabs, pages heavy in Ajax and dynamic presentation, etc. Overall, Mint has been a strong operating system in the areas that matter most.

Appearance

The Linux Mint UI resembles the Windows UI established back in 1995, with a “start” menu, task bar, and desktop on which the user can place frequently-used applications, folders, and files. Overall, the appearance is polished and professional; the green cast to everything can be a bit overwhelming, even around St. Patrick’s Day, but switching colors and backgrounds is as easy as it is on Windows.

The desktop setup is not especially well-geared to the netbook platform, though; the “start” button is a bit small, the desktop seems a bit wasteful of space, and the task bar becomes difficult to read when multiple applications are running. After working with the Moblin and Jolicloud interfaces, which are specifically targeted to the netbook footprint, I felt like I was using a far-too-small screen for a full-sized interface.

Overall Assessment

If I were looking for a Linux distribution to run on a desktop system, Linux Mint would be one of my first choices. Its interface is well-suited to larger displays, and the full suite of applications greatly simplifies the installation process. Mint appears to be a solid operating system for most home and small-office applications, and can certainly hold its own against commercial platforms.

On the netbook, though, it just didn’t feel like as good a fit as Moblin. If there weren’t other interfaces available that are geared to the netbook, though, Mint would be the best distribution I’ve tried out so far.