Suddenly, everyone's talking about Linux Mint. A six-year-old distribution based on Ubuntu and Debian, Linux Mint has always enjoyed considerable popularity, but, in the last month, it has started receiving dramatically more attention.
This attention has two main reasons. First, pundits have been debating the meaning (if any) of the fact that Linux Mint has received over two and a half times more page views than Ubuntu on Distrowatch for the past month.
Second, Linux Mint's new 12.0 release, codenamed "Lisa," features the Mint GNOME Shell Extensions (MGSE), a set of modifications that offer alternatives to the most obvious cosmetic and conceptual changes in the GNOME 3 release series. MGSE offers a desktop much like the GNOME 2 series while preserving the most useful of GNOME 3's innovations.
This development is so bizarre that it could only make sense in the free and open source software community. Still, the combination of possible new popularity and MGSE is enough to start the community speculating whether Ubuntu users, discontent with the new Unity shell, are looking to Linux Mint as a replacement.
At first glance, the idea is absurd. Given that MGSE modifies the GNOME 3.2 release, you might convincingly speculate that Linux Mint has provided the solution for the many who are unhappy with GNOME's current directions.
But challenge Ubuntu? Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm, claims twenty million users, and is promoting the distribution heavily.
By contrast, Linux Mint is a much smaller, non-commercial organization that appears to be less organized, and to have fewer resources to draw upon. In fact, it relies on donations and ingenuity for funding.
Yet is the idea even technically possible? Certainly Linux Mint's team and its supporters think so, considering that for several years they have been calling Linux Mint the fourth most widely used operating system, which sounds like a deliberate challenge to Ubuntu's claim to be the third. One way or the other, a closer look seems in order.
Although Linux Mint offers a Debian-based edition, the majority of its releases are based on Ubuntu. Nor, so far, is the new release an exception. On the one hand, Linux Mint and Ubuntu share the same installer and boot in more or less the same time on the same machine.
They share, too, the same array of GNOME-based software, down to Ubuntu 11.10's replacement of Evolution with Mozilla Thunderbird for email. Both offer fallback environments for systems without 3-D hardware acceleration, and proprietary drivers for video and wLinux Mint and MGSE vs. Ubuntu and Unityireless cards.
Linux Mint 12 even introduces a new music player indicator reminiscent of Unity's. Neither includes provision for applets on the panel or application launchers on the desktop, the way that their mutual ancestor GNOME 2 did, although both do support folder and document desktop launchers.
On the other hand, most of the differences are minimal. The package managers differ only in their branding, with Linux Mint's being less blaring and obtrusive, as usually happens with a community-based distribution.
Admittedly, Linux Mint's system requirements list 500 megabytes of RAM compared to Ubuntu's 384. I suspect, though, that Linux Mint is simply being more realistic about how much memory is needed to do normal productivity without being completely frustrated.
So far as applications are concerned, the greatest difference is that Linux Mint defaults to the little-known DuckDuckGo search engine, whose advertising revenue Linux Mint shares. This is the closest that Linux Mint comes to matching Unity's extensive branding, but the exception is worthwhile. DuckDuckGo offers more options, greater privacy, and noticeably different search results than Google's, and needs only image searching to be a complete replacement.