I had read and heard so much about how Linux has improved over the years. I have also been endlessly postponing my plan to take Linux on a test drive with no help whatsoever. Recently, I came across Linux Mint and decided I was going to take the plunge.
I downloaded Linux Mint , then I "burnt" it on a CD (not copy it on to a CD) and went through the installation process on a regular Windows PC. The CD took me through the steps of partitioning my hard drive (so I could still maintain my Windows installation) . The User Interface during the partition process was a little tricky. It was not obvious how to allocate the size of the partition. After a while I figured out that the sizing is done by a simple drag operation using the mouse.
The claim is that you can run Linux Mint from the CD to get a feel for it before installing it. But I found this to be unacceptably slow on most machines (especially older PCs).
Linux Mint comes with all the basic programs Firefox 3 , Open Office , Thunderbird for email etc. already pre-installed. Open Office fires up really fast unlike on a PC where I find it "dog slow".
Installing new programs is not the easiest. I for one struggled to install flash! I downloaded and assumed that a simple double click would do it. But it wasn’t as straight forward. I had to eventually save flash in the ~/mozilla/plugins directory (try figuring that one out on your own!).
Taking screen shots is done using the pre-installed GIMP Image Editor. I got to this program fairly easily but figuring out how to take a screen shot using it wasn’t as easy as Ctrl-Alt-Print screen in the Windows environment.
The software named Wine helps you run Windows applications on a PC. It does not work with Office 2007. Besides, I found configuring it to be not so straightforward.
You don’t need to install PDF. There is a pre-installed Document Viewer that opens up PDF documents. Open Office lets you write out PDF documents but I wouldn’t risk that for "official" documents, especially those with serious formatting (like Table of Contents etc.).
The UI is pretty and pleasing. If you are a long time Windows XP user (like most people on this planet), getting used to the UI should be fairly easy though it could take some time, especially if you don’t posses "nerd-like" tendencies somewhere deep inside of you. The ability to access remote servers via the Internet, mount and unmount them and access the files and folders is really easy (most average users don’t need this).
A Few Suggestions
- The Filter feature should be made a little smarter. When you search for something that’s not obvious it opens up a dumb blank screen instead of something like "Were you looking for ….?" At a minimum it should display the Help files instead of a lame blank screen. Even typing in "Help" returns the same blank screen!
- I have never been able to find the "Help" files. This should not be a big secret!
- When I go into Hibernate mode it displays a message about not having enough "swap space" and that I should look into the Help files (which I can’t seem to find). I am sure I can figure this out with some effort. The reality is that most average users won’t have the time or the patience for this.
- The audio stops working every time I return from suspend mode. I realized later that it was a known problem with a crazy hack available. This is an essential feature and should not be a "known problem".
Who is Linux Mint most suited to?
If you are a developer (developing web applications on non-MS platform) you could very easily survive with a PC running Linux Mint. In other words, a Windows PC would be a complete waste for a developer. Employers can save the extra investment in Windows when buying a PC for a developer. It gives users the pleasure of a terminal and command line interface along with a nice UI if they ever care for one. Installing the latest versions of PHP, PERL, MySQL and the like is a breeze.
On the other hand, if you are a sales, administrative and marketing type, you most likely live and breath MS Office. For such users it is a little too scary to abandon MS Office for Open Office or run MS Office on Linux using Wine . For example, if you are sending a proposal in MS-Word to a customer, most people I suspect wouldn’t want to risk writing it in Open Office, Google Docs or the like.
If you are one of those users who has multiple computers, and are open to a little experimentation, then Linux Mint can be a good addition to the mix.
In short, the Linux Mint is still very much a developers’ system first. Considering that it’s development is an entirely voluntary effort, this observation should not be a surprise. I am not sure if Linux Mint is tested with non-techies (at least non-developers) before it is released. If not, this would be a worthwhile step towards improving its overall usability.
My personal experience tells me that with some pain, pretty much anything that you can do on a Windows PC can be done today on a machine running Linux Mint (minus MS Office and not counting Open Office). For instance, I was able to get my printer, scanner and audio working on Linux Mint. I was also able to print using a wireless connection from a Windows PC onto the printer connected to the machine running Linux Mint, among other things.
Every time you run into a problem, it takes time to figure things out. In fact, it often requires serious patience and perseverance. The good news is that there is plenty of information available around the web. The bad news is that the average user is not ready for this kind of torture, though, after the initial "getting used to" phase things should be pretty smooth sailing especially if you are open to running web applications and need the machine mostly to send and receive email, browse etc.
The tag line for Linux Mint is "From Freedom Came Elegance". While it is certainly elegant it does carry with it some pain (some might say severe pain or other might even call it misery!) in the form of a learning curve, and problems while installing basic applications as I experienced. On the other hand, a few years back I could not have imagined being able to install Linux and use it on a day to day basis without external help. Today, I am able to do it and I believe so can many other users. At a minimum, Linux Mint in its current form is a definite sign of progress for the open source movement but it still has ways to go before it can attract the average user. Further improving the ease of use (I don’ mean making it prettier), and being able to easily run Windows applications would certainly help this cause (Wine or its equivalent must be easier to configure at a minimum).
Trivia : Try playing Stick cricket (an online cricket game in flash) on Linux Mint and then on a Windows PC. The speed on Linux Mint is simply blazing in comparison!
Disclaimer : My adventures with Linux Mint is purely a personal endeavor. Any problem outlined here might be a personal limitation and not necessarily that of Linux Mint.