In a recent post, I spoke about some things that Linux distros need to do better to accommodate end-users. I was reminded that there are some Linux distros which are, at least to some extent, following my recommended playbook, and have been re-evaluating two of them over the past couple of weeks: Linux Mint and elementary OS. I installed these on one of my laptops and used it as my daily driver for a day or two each.
Both of these distributions are similar in a few ways. For one, both distros required zero printer configuration: it just worked. I was very impressed with this. Both distros are also based on Ubuntu, though with different levels of divergence from their base. Ubuntu is a reasonably good choice: it is very stable and mature, and commercially supported by Canonical.
I started with elementary OS, which does exactly what I proposed in my earlier article: charge users for the OS.1 The last time I tried elementary, I was less than impressed, but they’ve been selling the OS for a while now so I hoped that with a consistent source of funding and a few years to improve they would have an opportunity to impress me. However, my overall impressions were mixed, and maybe even negative.
The biggest, showstopping issue is a problem with their full disk encryption setup. I was thrilled to see first-class FDE support in the installer, but upon first boot, I was presented with a blank screen. It took me a while to figure out that a different TTY had cryptsetup running, waiting for me to enter the password. This is totally unacceptable, and no average user would have any clue what to do when presented with this. This should be a little GUI baked into the initramfs which prompts for your password on boot, and should be a regularly tested part of the installer before each elementary release ships.
The elementary store was also disappointing, though I think there’s improvements on the horizon. The catalogue is very sparse, and would benefit a lot by sourcing packages from the underlying Ubuntu repositories as well. I think they’re planning on a first-class Flatpak integration in a future release, which should improve this situation. I also found the apps a bit too elementary, haha, in that they were lacking in a lot of important but infrequently used features. In general elementary is quite basic, though it is also very polished. Also, the default wallpaper depicts a big rock covered in bird shit, which I thought was kind of funny.
There is a lot to like about elementary, though. The installer is really pleasant to use, and I really appreciated that it includes important accessibility features during the install process. The WiFi configuration is nice and easy, though it prompted me to set up online accounts before prompting me to set up WiFi. All of the apps are intuitive, consistently designed, and beautiful. I also noticed that long-running terminal processes I had in the background would pop-up a notification upon completion, which is a nice touch. Overall, it’s promising, but I had hoped for more. My suggestions to elementary are to consider that completeness is a kind of polish, to work on software distribution, and to offer first-class options for troubleshooting, documentation, and support within the OS.
I tried Linux Mint next. Several years ago, I actually used Mint as my daily driver for about a year — it was the last “normal” distribution I used before moving to Arch and later Alpine, which is what I use now. Overall, I was pretty impressed with Mint after a couple of days of use.
Let’s start again with the bad parts. The installer is not quite as nice as elementary’s, though it did work without any issues. At one point I was asked if I wanted to “enable multimedia codecs” with no extra context, which would confuse me if I didn’t understand what they were. I was also pretty pissed to see the installer advertising nonfree, predatory services like Netflix and YouTube to me — distributions have no business advertising this kind of shit. Mint also has encryption options, but it’s based on ecryptfs rather than LUKS, and I find that this is an inferior approach. Mint should move to full-disk encryption.
I also was a bit concerned about the organizational structure of Linux Mint. It’s unclear who is responsible for Linux Mint, how end-users can participate, or how donations are spent or how other financial concerns are addressed. I think that Linux Mint needs to be more transparent, and should also consider how its allegiance with proprietary services like Netflix acts as a long-term divestment from the FOSS ecosystem it relies on.
That said, the actual experience of using Linux Mint is very good. Unlike elementary OS, the OS feels much more comprehensive. Most of the things a typical user would need are there, work reliably, and integrate well with the rest of the system. Software installation and system upkeep are very easy on Linux Mint. The aesthetic is very pleasant and feels like a natural series of improvements to the old Gnome 2 lineage that Cinnamon can be traced back to, which has generally moved more in the direction that I would have liked Gnome upstream to. The system is tight, complete, and robust. Nice work.
In conclusion, Linux Mint will be my recommendation for “normal” users going forward, and I think there is space for elementary OS for some users if they continue to improve.
I downloaded it for free, however, because I did not anticipate that I would continue to use it for more than a couple of days. ↩︎
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