Ubuntu targets new and casual Linux enthusiasts with its Unity desktop environment, and Linux Mint says the same about its Cinnamon desktop. Each distribution claims to have the end user in mind, and these two distributions offer very similar experiences (unlike Ubuntu vs. Fedora).
Which one will come out on top in the end?
Out of the box, Ubuntu and Linux Mint look very different. From colors and icons to the placement of launchers themselves, each distro offers a completely unique experience when compared to one another.
But perhaps the biggest difference between the two distributions is each one's overall direction. Ubuntu is attempting to become a jack of all trades, offering Ubuntu experiences for the desktop, Ubuntu TV and smartphones. Linux Mint on the other hand, is quite content in keeping its original mission of providing a great desktop experience.
For example, Mint offers a typical desktop experience when it comes to browsing your menu, locating installed software and browsing files. Ubuntu however, has sweetened the experience a bit by allowing the Unity desktop to provide a dock for frequently used application, in addition to being able to locate and launch software using the Unity Dash. The idea, of course, is that the Ubuntu approach is easier to navigate. Personally, I tend to disagree, but others seem to enjoy Ubuntu's approach.
Going even further, Linux Mint further departs from Ubuntu in officially providing support for not only Cinnamon, but also the MATE desktop environment. And to further ensure that Linux Mint continues regardless of the path Ubuntu takes, Linux Mint has been slowly working on a rolling distribution based on Debian called LMDE.
Despite reading a lot of conflicting reports, I've found that both Linux Mint and Ubuntu offer the same level of hardware compatibility. Considering that Mint is based on Ubuntu, it shouldn't be too surprising that they share a level of hardware detection.
Both distributions provide excellent hardware and peripheral detection out of the box, with next to zero extra configuration required. However, when it comes to how certain hardware and peripherals are handled by the distribution, Ubuntu and Mint do differ here.
For example, Ubuntu volume management remains tired and dated. Under Ubuntu, toggling the volume control next to the clock provides me with a single volume slider. Despite the fact that I'm using both a USB headset and the default sound card, one single option is provided unless I click into Sound Settings to change this. With Linux Mint however, the same volume control immediately presents me with both the default sound card and my USB headset. Each has a separate slider, which means I can adjust each device separately without opening up any extra settings.
Next up, we have proprietary driver management. Both Ubuntu and Linux Mint provide tools to manage this, however, Ubuntu has integrated it into the Software and Updates manager. Linux Mint takes a slightly different approach, offering this same proprietary driver management concept in a standalone Driver Manager. The reasoning, according to Mint developers, is that they feel it looks better than the Ubuntu approach. Personally, I think it's really a matter of personal preference.
If there was one single complaint I've had about Ubuntu software management, it would be the lack of PPA tools provided by default. Luckily, there are great third party PPA managers out there for Ubuntu users; however, newbies won't know this upon installing their first PPA repo. Instead they'll be left to determine how they wish to handle these repositories later on.
This is another area where Linux Mint really shines. As of Mint 15, users are benefiting from the brand new tool called MintSources. It's similar to Ubuntu's Software Sources management tool but with all of the stuff missing from the Ubuntu offering. Mint offers an improved visual tool for testing out which official repositories are the fastest for your area, a separate PPA section for easier PPA management, and a repository maintenance tool as well.
Next up, we need to address the software center applications provided for each Linux distro. The Ubuntu Software Center is the most commonly known method of software discovery and management on the Ubuntu desktop. Visually, it looks pretty decent. The downside to using the Software Center is that it can be incredibly bloated unless you're running very modern hardware, then it runs just fine.
Linux Mint also has a software management tool called the Linux Mint Software Manager. It works similarly to Ubuntu's own software tool, with the exception that it's a bit less resource intensive and less attractive to look at. Neither distro's software management tool is very appealing, especially when compared to the Linux Deepin Software Center.
Corporate vs. Community
From a technical standpoint, both Ubuntu and Linux Mint are considered "community" based Linux distributions. Both may have corporate sponsors funding the development of the two projects, but only Ubuntu takes its direction from its corporate sponsor. Linux Mint remains very clear in its independence from its sponsors.
Both distributions seek out ideas and feedback from their community of loyal users; however, neither of them has truly held itself to a true democracy. In the end, the teams who work on each distribution will go in the direction set forth by the powers that be. The community is merely a source of input...not the de facto source of either distribution's direction.
Where Ubuntu and Mint differ in direction is with long-term focus. Ubuntu seeks to become a unified operating system running on practically everything from phones to computers. Linux Mint is simply an operating system for computers—there are no plans of supporting other devices.
Display servers are another area where Mint and Ubuntu are divided. Ubuntu is wanting to create a display server called Mir, whereas Mint will likely be sticking with Xorg and may even move to Wayland at a later point in time. As explained above, Mint is designed to be run exclusively on computers, so any desire to use Mir is absent here since it would offer zero benefit to the Mint project.
Debian Is Mint's Plan B
As I combed through this interview with the Linux Mint founder, it quickly became clear to me that LMDE is strictly Linux Mint's research and development project. While the Ubuntu base is and likely will continue to be the base from which Mint is built from, the Linux Mint developers are ready to move on to something else if Ubuntu's direction becomes too disruptive to Mint's development.
Some have argued that, in many ways, Linux Mint pays more respect to Debian than Ubuntu does. I can't say I completely agree with this statement; however, I would suggest that Linux Mint is more likely to thrive without corporate sponsorship than Ubuntu would. This is because Mint is in a position where they can roll out one sponsor and insert a new one fairly easily. Since their sponsors have no say in the project's direction, this makes Mint a more resilient project overall.
Ubuntu, on the other hand, may not be able to weather losing Canonical as its primary sponsor. Since Canonical dictates the direction of the project and pays for the developers to work on the distribution, Ubuntu would suffer tremendously if Canonical suddenly dropped out of its support role. However, most Ubuntu users don't seem to realize or agree with this line of thinking. My research indicates that Ubuntu would likely evolve into a less popular or separate project at best, if the unthinkable happened and Canonical moved on.
Both Ubuntu and Linux Mint are newbie-friendly distributions that push the envelope by constantly improving usability. However, lately it feels like Ubuntu is taking a path that makes the desktop user feel like a second class citizen. In Ubuntu's defense, they did make awesome strides in Linux gaming with their partnership with Steam. I think this is great and should be acknowledged. It's Ubuntu's push into the mobile space that has me concerned overall.
At one time, I had high hopes for Mir. On the surface, it sounded great. Flash forward to now, it seems that the Linux community couldn't be less interested in Mir and using it on other Linux distributions. Wayland, seems to be the focus for most other distributions. As for how this will affect future Ubuntu vs. Linux Mint debates, only time will tell.
But one thing is for sure, Linux Mint, while far from perfect, is likely to see more new converts in the future if Ubuntu isn't careful.