When most people think of Ubuntu derivatives, they usually categorize them into an "Ubuntu with a different desktop environment than Unity" category. However, according to Ubuntu, they refer to Ubuntu-based distros with different desktop environments as a derivative as well as distros using their own tools/apps/goals as customizations.
In this article, I'll be exploring the upside and downside to Ubuntu-based customized distros.
Ever since its inception, Linux Mint has inspired those who didn't care for Ubuntu to try something based on it. Mint goes further than simply offering a Unity-free experience, it actually comes with its own "Mint Tools," in addition to its own desktop – Cinnamon.
Mint's differences start with the user interface it provides by default. While both Unity and Cinnamon are arguably modern looking desktop experiences, I promise you that if you park a newbie in front of Mint and ask them to locate and launch an application not visible on the desktop, they can do it easily. The same can't always be said for Unity, especially if they don't know what to search for.
On the flip side, however, some new Mint users will attempt to seek out assistance from the Ubuntu forums, since it has a much larger community of users from which to get help. While both distros share much of the same stuff on the back-end, there are some configuration differences that make using Ubuntu-specific advice problematic on a new Mint install.
Considering both points above, one has to ask themselves – is Linux Mint a good option as an alternative to Ubuntu? The obvious answer is that it depends on each user's experience. The fact is, most people are not familiar with Linux, which means those coming from Windows will definitely find the Cinnamon desktop to be much more familiar than Unity.
So what about stability? Factually speaking, bugs are going to be found on both distros. I've experienced bugs most recently on Ubuntu, but have also felt the sting of bugs with Mint when using past releases as well. In the long haul, I'd suggest that even if you dislike Unity, Ubuntu has proven itself to be the mature choice. And to present this point with greater clarity, consider this – Ubuntu Deb packages and PPAs. Yes, most of the time these will work okay with Mint, but there have been a number of occasions where they don't work as expected with Mint due to minor differences between the two distributions.
The last thing I would touch on is customization. Without question, Linux Mint wins this one. Ubuntu's Unity desktop is completely neutered unless you install a tweak application, along with applet-centric PPAs to include needed functionality. The fact that I need to use PPAs to simply access basic indicators is just painful. I shouldn't need to install PPAs, just give me the applet indicators instead!
Is Linux Mint a safe and viable alternative to Ubuntu? Mint's safety has been called into question a few times, due to its handling of security patches. Then again, I don't recall any world-ending moments of security lapses with Mint, either. So in my opinion, it comes down to personal choice: Potential regressions versus having the latest security patches. Mint allows you to make this choice easily, Ubuntu, not so much – it's all or nothing.
For my money, if you like the Cinnamon experience, I think Linux Mint is a great option. I'd even go so far as to suggest it's the ultimate option for Windows XP converts, because they'll feel more at home than with Ubuntu.