On the surface, trying to write a comparative review of Linux Mint 8 (Helena) and Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic koala) would seem like a pointless exercise. After all, Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu. So what’s the point? Well, as in cases such as this, where one product is based on another, there begins to emerge – at some point – a product differentiation. In the case of Mint and Ubuntu, that differentiation has been apparent almost from the first year of Mint’s existence.
Even though it depends and it’s based on Ubuntu, the Mint team has been steadily and aggressively adding features and developing custom (graphical) administrative tools. Tools and features that you won’t find on any other distro derived from Ubuntu, and on Ubuntu itself.
The folks at the Mint lab claim that their distro is based on Debian and Ubuntu, but I disagree. Truth is, it is based on Ubuntu, which is based on Debian. What I’m saying is that Mint is not derived directly from Debian, only by proxy.
Ok, let’s get down to business already, and lets begin by looking at what they have in common.
What do they have in common?
- Both distros come in Live CD iso images. A Live CD-ed distro offer users the opportunity to test the operating system without first installing it on their computer. This is a very common practice in the Linux community, a practice pioneered by Knoppix (?). In addition to providing an option to boot into the Live mode, Ubuntu also gives you the option to install directly to disk without first booting into the Live mode. With Mint, however, you must first boot into the Live mode, unless you are doing an OEM installation.
- Installer and installation process – Ubuntu’s installation process, and, therefore, Mint’s, follow the same simple six-step drill (seven, depending on the options you choose). As Linux installers go, it’s nothing to write home about, but it does its job. The installer has no support for setting up LVM, RAID and full disk encryption (it is only capable of encrypting the home directory).
If you are trying to set up a dual-boot environment between Ubuntu and Mint, the installer will give you the option to import your documents and settings from the first operating system installed on the computer. It is not clear to me if this option is also available if you are trying to dual-boot between Ubuntu/Mint and any other operating system or if it is only available between Mint and Ubuntu.
- Same package manager – Since Mint is based on Ubuntu, and Ubuntu is based on Debian, they both use the same package manager – Debian’s Advanced Packaging Tool (APT), with Synaptic as the graphical interface. Like other graphical package managers, Synaptic makes it easy for users of all skill levels to install/uninstall software on either operating system.
- Applications installed – The software packages installed by default are just about the same, and those in their package repositories are the same too.
Where Helena is better:
- Graphical firewall client – Like Ubuntu, Mint ships with ufw, Ubuntu’s uncomplicated firewall, running out of the box. To make it easier to configure ufw, Mint installs Gufw, the graphical interface to ufw, out of the box. While installing and configuring Gufw is a breeze, we give Mint some props for installing it by default.
- Next generation menu – Whereas the Ubuntu desktop features the classic GNOME dropdown menu, Mint’s desktop has a variation of the kickoff-style menu – mintMenu. One really neat feature of mintMenu that makes it better than the Ubuntu menu, and, in fact, that of virtually other distros I’ve reviewed, is that it enables you to search for an application from the filter box, and if the application is not installed, offers you four options, one of which is to install the application (see all the options in the screenshot below).
Another neat feature of mintMenu is that by right-clicking on an application, it gives you the option to add it to the list of startup applications.
- Graphical administrative tools – Mint has more in-house-developed graphical administrative tools than Ubuntu. This list include mintInstall (the Software Manager), mintNanny, mintWelcome, and mintMenu. These are applications for which there are no equivalents on Ubuntu (ok, Ubuntu has Software Center, it’s own version of mintInstall, but …). I should point out that Mint’s graphical management tools are not as feature-rich as the ones you’ll find on Mandriva.
- Totem is the installed video player on both distros. On Ubuntu, Totem is not able to play encrypted video DVDs (most, if not all, commercial DVDs are encrypted). For that, you will need to install VLC media player. On Mint, Totem wil gladly play your commercial DVD videos.
- Software Manager – Aside from being able to install and manage applications by using Synaptic and the Linux command line, Ubuntu and Mint offer a third means of managing applications. On Mint, it is called Software Manager (mintInstall), and (Ubuntu) Software Center on Ubuntu. While they are identical, Ubuntu’s Software Center is a work in progress, lacking some of the features available on mintInstall (all software applications are works in progress, but mintInstall is further along the development path than Software Center).