However, the greatest differences between Ubuntu and Linux Mint are in the user experience. After all, Unity is a simplification of the desktop inspired by the interfaces of mobile devices, while Linux Mint is a fusion of GNOME 2 and 3.
This fusion is accomplished by adding MGSE options to the Shell Extensions tab for GNOME Tweak, which an increasing number of users consider an essential addition to GNOME 3.
MGSE includes extensions to restore many of the features of GNOME 2 while converting GNOME 3 innovations such as the overview mode to options rather than unavoidable necessities. When toggled on, each extension takes effect immediately, allowing you to evaluate them without delay.
For many, the most important of MGSE's innovations will probably be the bottom panel, its menu and its notification tray. Together, these extensions are enough to allow users to work on a single screen, instead of constantly switching to the overview mode to open applications or switch virtual workspaces, as GNOME 3 requires. These innovations do not fully restore GNOME 2 functionality, since the panel is not customizable, but they might minimally satisfy those discontented with Unity or GNOME 3.
The menu included with Linux Mint 12 is reminiscent of openSUSE's Slab or KDE's Lancelot. It is less obtrusive than both GNOME 2's classical menu and the screen overlay that replaces the menu in Unity.
The notification tray is a similar combination of the traditional and the innovative, invisible until toggled by the icon on the far right of the bottom panel, and as long as the bottom panel itself. This arrangement eliminates the usual problem of some of the tray being invisible, making it an improvement over both GNOME and Unity.
Yet what is just as important as the extensions themselves is the fact they partially restore the most important feature that Unity often removes or limits: the freedom to work the way you want. In Linux Mint, you can, for instance, work with the bottom panel menu, or go to the GNOME 3 overview to open applications.
Similarly, you can work with three virtual workspaces that are part of the panel, enabling the GNOME 3 overview mode to allow the shell to manage virtual workspaces, or use both at once.
Although this range of choice needs to be extended before it can match the flexibility of GNOME 2, it is far more than anything provided by Unity, which generally imposes a single way to work on all users, regardless of their preferences.
For those who already use Linux, the trend of Linux Mint is promising. MGSE in particular suggests that Linux Mint is in tune with the existing user base, a group that seems to value the ability to work in their preferred style more than any other factor.
At the same time, I suspect that many existing users may feel that Linux Mint does not go far enough in its tendencies. While many will find it an improvement over Ubuntu with Unity, the improvement may not be great enough to be worth the effort of switching distributions.
I wonder, too, whether the same qualities that might endear Linux Mint to existing users -- or, at least, make it the lesser of several evils -- will appeal equally to the new users that Unity seems calculated to attract. So far as the Distrowatch figures have meaning, they may reflect only the curiosity of existing users.
For now, the most that can be said is that Linux Mint seems to be heading for a destination of which many existing users approve. Unfortunately, in the current release, it has moved part ways down the road but still has a ways to travel.
To me, the important question is whether it can arrive before community interest shifts. Also (the question nobody is asking in the focus on Ubuntu) will GNOME or other distributions seize on MGSE as a graceful way of recovering from the embarrassing reception of GNOME 3?
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