Linux Mint is an independent distribution, but it continues to have close links with Debian. Since 2015, Mint and Debian have had the largest number of page hits on Distrowatch, with Ubuntu closely behind them. However, although both have a similar record for stability and software choice, small differences between the two may make you prefer one over the other.
Because of its history, Debian has a reputation for being an expert's distribution. Increasingly, this reputation is undeserved -- at least if you can follow instructions during installation. Today, Debian's home page labels it "the universal operating system," hinting at its efforts to support as many different types of hardware and levels of user as possible.
By contrast, Linux Mint is intended more at new users. Its About page summarizes this focus by stating that "The purpose of Linux Mint is to produce a modern, elegant and comfortable operating system which is both powerful and easy to use."
However, these statements give only the broadest overviews of the differences between the two distributions. Installation, desktop environments, administration and package management all combine to make using Linux Mint a different experience from booting up Debian.
Debian vs. Linux Mint: Downloading Choices
In its efforts to be all things to all people, Debian supports 10 official hardware architectures. It can afford this broad level of support because Debian contributors number in the hundreds, including over a thousand certified package maintainers. In comparison, Mint is developed by dozens, and is available only on 32 and 64 bit Intel hardware, and, more recently, a version to install on Windows. However, since these are the most popular hardware platforms, for most people, this limitation is not a problem.
To download either distribution, you need to download an installation image and transfer it to an optical or flash drive. Debian assumes that you understand this procedure, while Linux Mint explains it in detail. Debian is available in both torrent downloads and network images of under 150MB (minimal images that require an Internet link to complete software repositories), but most Mint mirrors offer only a single, 1.3GB image. Debian supports releases for three years after they are replaced by another release, Mint for five years.
An official Debian release, of course, is taken from the project's current Stable repository. The most popular versions of Linux Mint are taken from Ubuntu, which borrows many packages from the Debian Testing repository. In theory, this source is less reliable than an official Debian release, but, since it is partly tested by Debian, and further tested by Ubuntu and Mint, it is generally dependable enough.
Alternatively, several months after an official Mint release, Linux Mint Debian Edition is released, based on Testing. The Debian Edition has the advantage of being more compatible with Debian repositories, offering a wide selection of software, at the cost of sometimes being a version or two behind the same software in the standard Mint releases.
Debian vs. Linux Mint: Installation Quirks
Mint uses a rebranded version of Ubuntu's installer. Depending on how much software you install and your Internet connection, this installer can give you a working system in 5-15 minutes. The tradeoff is that you have minimal control over the system. The desktop environment depends on the installation image you use, and you can set your keyboard locale, time zone, user name and password -- and not much else.
The Debian Installer is more involved. Available in text, graphical, and voice versions, it defaults to a moderate amount of user control. It takes 15-30 minutes to install, depending how often you deviate from the defaults. If necessary, you can control almost every aspect of installation, an effort that is likely to take 45-60 minutes at a minimum. Despite what you may have heard, the Debian Installer becomes easier to use with each release, but its options mean that completing an installation does not become much faster.
Debian vs. Linux Mint: Desktop Environments
Linux Mint organizes its installation images by desktop environment. Both 32 and 64 bit installation images are available with KDE and Xfce, as well as Cinammon and MATE, Mint's two in-house images.
Mint's MATE desktop is a fork of GNOME 2, one of the most popular desktops ever. Aside from some name changes, made so that MATE and GNOME 2 could be installed alongside each other without any conflicts, MATE offers a classical desktop. Although it offers a few enhancements over GNOME 2, it tends to be conservative in its development.
Cinnamon is another classical desktop, but one developed by Mint. With each release, Cinnamon gains features, including desktop hot spots and desklets (widgets on the work space), making it second only to KDE in innovations. However, without hardware acceleration, it can be sluggish and occasionally erratic.
Cinnamon is offered as one of Debian's six choices of desktop environments during installation. For some reason, though, MATE is not -- possibly because recent versions of GNOME include extensions that can result in much the same desktop.
Other graphical interfaces can be added after installation in both Debian and Mint. The availability of desktops is mostly a matter of emphasis, with Mint encouraging the use of its own desktops and the last two Debian releases being more agnostic.
Debian vs. Linux Mint: Package Choices
Since Debian is a common source for both distributions, the available software is much the same. Linux Mint claims 30,000 packages, and Debian 50,000, but whether those figures indicate that Mint is more selective is not certain, since Debian might be including all packages in all repositories in its figure. However, apart from packages developed specifically for Ubuntu, Mint packages should be largely compatible with Debian ones, although more recent than the ones in Debian Stable.
Probably the largest difference in package selection is that Debian installs with only the main section of its repositories enabled -- the section that contains only free-licensed software. If you want non-free software, or software that depends on non-free applications, you need to add non-free and contrib sections to each repository listed in the /etc/apt/sources.list. This arrangement is a compromised between Debian's free software philosophy and its policy of allowing freedom of choice.
Mint, however, offers proprietary software such as drivers freely, on the grounds that they make life easier for users. In this respect, you might call Mint more pragmatic or realistic, and Debian more idealistic.
Debian vs. Linux Mint: Administration and Package Management
Security models are different in the two distributions. On the one hand, Debian defaults to a traditional root account with a password that the administrator uses only for troubleshooting or maintenance. On the other hand, Mint defaults to Sudo, which allows a user root privileges by entering their own password -- an arrangement borrowed directly from Ubuntu.
You can use Sudo in Debian by leaving the root password blank during installation, or change either arrangement after installation. Opinions on which offer more security differ, so you should consider arguments on both sides before making a decision. An often overlooked possibility with either distribution is to use sudo's options to develop your own security model, such as splitting up root privileges among several accounts.
Debian's three main repositories -- Stable, Testing, and Unstable -- reflect the level of quality assurance. To be as safe as possible, you can stick with Stable. If you want more recent software, you may be tempted to venture into Testing or Unstable. My advice is to use Testing or Unstable packages only for applications with few dependencies, and rarely for core system packages or desktop environments. Otherwise, you may break packages or even your entire system. Usually, you are safer with Backports, a minor repository that helps update Stable with more recent popular software.
Mint's repositories are Main, Upstream, Backport, and Romeo. Although the names are different, something of the same balance between quality and the latest versions exists, with Main being the basic release, and Upstream and Romeo (formally "proposed") carrying higher levels of risk. As in Debian, Backport bridges the latest and stable releases.
In keeping with Mint's mandate for ease of use, its Cinammon desktop has its own set of graphical tools. These tools include an Update Manager, a Driver Manager, and tools for managing language and software sources. Debian, though, relies on the tools available for each desktop environment. That means that, for new users, Debian might be easier to administer, since the tools are already familiar. However, Mint's unique tools fall into recognizable categories, so perhaps users can easily adjust to them.
Debian vs. Linux Mint: Community Organization
For users who like to become involved with their distributions of choice, Debian and Mint offer very different experiences.
Debian is shaped by its size and its dedication to openness. Major issues and the Project Leader are voted upon, and endless discussions are the norm on its mailing lists. However, the most common route to becoming a voter is to become a maintainer, which can be a lengthy process.
Superficially, Linux Mint looks less democratic. General policy is set by the three person Leader team, and more specific ones usually by the working teams, whose members sometime overlap. Yet, in practice, Mint leaders monitor mailing list discussions closely, and their decisions generally reflect user interests well -- perhaps because Mint came into its own at a time when other free software projects were being criticized for ignoring users.
Making a Choice
Whether you choose Linux Mint or Debian depends on several criteria. What is your level of Linux expertise? Do you prefer customization or choice? Do you want software freedom, or is ease of use your main priority? Do you prefer a small project where your voice is easily heard, or a larger meritocracy?
None of these questions have an absolute answer. If nothing else, you might need to juggle several of these questions.
Still, regardless of whether you choose Debian or Mint, your choice will be a solid one. Both are part of the larger eco-system of Debian distributions, and both have improved the other the years. Whether you choose Debian or Mint, you will be choosing one of the most influential distributions in modern Linux -- and neither reached its position by chance alone.