For the last few years, there has been something of a popularity contest between two well-known Linux distros: Linux Mint and Ubuntu. Both of these distributions share the same code base, as Ubuntu is based on Debian and Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu.
In both instances, the distributions took the foundation that Debian built, then added their own flavor to make it more user friendly. The similarities between the two distributions go even further, in that Ubuntu packages work flawlessly on Linux Mint, just as Ubuntu PPAs work well on Linux Mint.
When Linux Mint was first being developed, the degree of separation from Ubuntu was very minimal. The first few releases of Linux Mint were considered to be a "re-branded" version of Ubuntu using a slightly different desktop theme. Today however, Linux Mint has less in common with Ubuntu than most people realize.
For this article, I’ll tap into my own experiences with both distributions over the years. I'll compare how Linux Mint and Ubuntu differ, and talk about which of the two options are best for the casual Linux enthusiast.
Easy isn't a dirty word
All too often, I hear the word "easy" being tossed around as if it's a bad word when describing Linux distributions. It's unfortunate that in some circles, an easy-to-use Linux distribution is looked down upon. Thankfully with both Linux Mint and Ubuntu, this isn't the case. The communities for both distributions are both very focused on a new user experience. I happen to see this as a positive thing.
Despite the mutual goal of offering an easy to use Linux desktop, I've noticed that Ubuntu and Linux Mint have different approaches as to how they appeal to their users.
In recent years, I've actually found the two distributions shift further apart than ever before. This change isn't a negative thing, rather a positive highlight that allows both distributions to differentiate themselves better. The shift began with different approaches to tools and software. Later, the differences between the distros evolved to include the desktops as well.
Today, Ubuntu firmly embraces Unity while Linux Mint holds tightly to their own re-imagining of the Gnome Shell. In both examples, the goal is to provide the most seamless experience to new users as possible. Interestingly enough, the approach taken with each distribution couldn't be more different when it comes to the desktop environment.
Unity wasn't that unifying at first
Ubuntu has made tremendous strides with Unity. Despite what amounts to a mess with previous releases of Unity, Ubuntu has managed to turn Unity into a solid desktop option for newcomers and veterans alike.
No matter how you slice it, Unity under Ubuntu looks light-years better than Gnome 2 ever did. Even if you don't like it, you must admit that it presents a nice, polished look.
The idea behind Unity was to bring everything that the Linux desktop to the end user with minimal hunting for applications and settings. This translates into less dancing through menus, and more enjoying the installed software or discovering new titles via the software center. It was a bold idea that clearly is beginning to win new users over. Add in the available installable Unity lenses, and suddenly the idea of using Unity isn't so bad.
In the beginning, my own experiences with Unity were far from pleasant. The Early releases of Unity left me frustrated and seeking an alternative desktop environment almost immediately. I found that the lack of system indicator applets that I once enjoyed was nearly impossible for me to overlook. It amounted to a complete redo on how I used my desktop, and I simply wasn't a good match for earlier revision of the Unity desktop.
Flash forward to now, Unity in Ubuntu 12.04 is well thought out and responsive. I'm also thrilled that they're replacing previously missing system indicators and improving dual-monitor control.
Unity has come a long way, despite the fact that I've had to retrain my brain in how to interact with the desktop. Yes, Unity has finally come into its own. But to be clear, it's very different from what we experienced when using the Gnome 2 desktop in earlier Ubuntu releases.
Cinnamon sweetens the Gnome desktop
In contrast, Linux Mint opted early on to not emulate Ubuntu's desktop choices. Today, Linux Mint comes with a number of desktop environments. Unlike Ubuntu, Linux Mint 12 offers its users the Gnome 3 and MATE desktop experiences out of the box. Gnome 3 is basically just the next evolution of Gnome. And MATE is essentially a fork off of Gnome 2, for those who prefer the legacy interface.