For the past five months, the most talked-about free desktop environment hasn't been GNOME, KDE or Unity. It's been Linux Mint -- specifically Cinnamon, a project to re-create GNOME 2 on top of GNOME 3.
Cinnamon has been growing dramatically with regular monthly releases ever since its first announcement. Now, with the release of version 1.4, it has largely succeeded in providing the necessary basics. The result is a GNOME 2 look-alike that combines the best of both GNOME 2 and 3, while adding a few enhancements of its own.
Linux Mint 12, the current release, already comes with the Mint GNOME Shell Extensions (MGSE). MGSE is a collection of extensions that add a dozen GNOME 2-like features to GNOME 3, such as a menu and a second panel. Each extensions can be toggled on or off by going to Shell Extensions in the Advanced Settings.
In addition, users can install the cinnamon package, which adds more GNOME 2-like behavior. Users might also want to add the port of alacarte, the standard GNOME 2 menu editor. Both the cinnamon and alacarte packages are available for most major distributions, including Ubuntu and Fedora.
Admittedly, this separation of the configuration options is mildly confusing. Since Linux Mint is obviously strongly committed to answering the demand -- or nostalgia -- for GNOME 2, I wonder why a minor version upgrade wasn't announced along with the new version of Cinnamon in which both MGSE and Cinnamon are turned on by default. A common configuration window would also be a logical step.
However, experimentation soon overcomes any confusion. From the main screen to the virtual workspaces and overview mode, when it works, Cinnamon can be a pleasing mixture of the old and new. The real problem is that results seem to vary from one machine to the next.
In GNOME 3, the main screen is almost totally redesigned. The workspace, panel, and menu are all re-thought, mainly in the interest of removing clutter. By contrast, Cinnamon mitigates or undoes most of those changes, restoring greater choice of workflow in the process.
GNOME 3 greatly de-emphasizes the role of the panel, leaving it a place for app-indicators and a few basic applets like a clock and calendar, and the Activity button that switches to the overview mode. Even the menu and notifications are switched to the overview mode.
In contrast, the combination of MGSE and Cinnamon preserves the app-indicators and the basic applets, leaving them in more or less the same positions as they are in Ubuntu. Otherwise, though, their result is much more GNOME 2 than 3.
To start with, Cinnamon adds the option of a second panel, as many distributions did for GNOME 2. In addition, notifications can also be toggled on or off on the panel, although the notifications tray has not been restored.
The panel itself now has an entire window of settings. The text and icon for the menu are both editable, perhaps in part to pacify Windows refugees accustomed to looking for the Start button. You can also auto-hide the panel, or enter a KDE-like edit mode for adding applets.
The only shortcoming is that panel editing is somewhat basic compared to GNOME 2. Panels still can't be positioned on the left or right sides of the screen, and, for other positioning changes to take effect, you need to reboot. Similarly, icons can only be moved to a left, center or middle zone of a panel.
But at least the idea of configurability options has been introduced. With any luck, later releases will make them more reliable and allow more choice.
Just as important, Cinnamon restores the menu to the workspace, instead of shifting it to the overview, Cinnamon also offers a menu on the panel.
This menu is not the classic menu of GNOME 2, with sub-menus opening across the workspace. Instead, Cinnamon opts for a menu confined to a window, with a Favorites bar, two menu levels and a search field, much like that of KDE's. I wouldn't be surprised to see an option for a classic menu in future releases, but the current choice does have the advantage of allowing users to ignore the overview if they prefer.