Linux Mint (4.0, “Daryna”) – Reflections after a week of regular use

As far as the distro itself, Mint is quite excellent as I’ve pointed out in my previous post. After having the unprecedented success on my Dell laptop, I decided to install it on my Windows XP SP2 desktop PC as well. It’s too bad that there’s only a 32-bit version of Mint right now, but I’m sure it’ll expand to 64-bit once it gets popular enough.

Mint on my desktop looks verrry pretty. Compiz fusion runs brilliantly with the official nvidia drivers (easily google-able/searchable on synaptic). Indeed, running the Desktop Cube plugin alone saves me a ton of desktop real estate–it’s so beautiful and easy to use! (Firefox 2.0.0.12, when it restarts from a crash, will actually remember which sides of the cube its multiple windows were last open on–amazing.) And you can have more than just 4 sides–I have a hexagon setup on my laptop (4 sides is plenty enough for me on my desktop, as I use dual 22″ LCDs).

Speaking of dual monitors, it was probably the single most difficult thing for me to set up to get it to work. I ended up using TwinView after some preliminary research. Basically though, don’t get let down if after installing Mint you find that only 1 of the 2 monitors plugged into your video card is displaying any images. You just need to get TwinView (or Xinerama, or… there’s another program for ATI cards) to get your linux system to start spitting images out to that second monitor.

Some things I really dig about Linux (not just Mint, since this should apply to all linux distros/open source apps):

  1. NO NEED FOR ANTIVIRUS SOFTWARE! Google about it. It’s a liberating feeling not having to wait 3 minutes every day for AVG Free Edition to update virus definitions.
  2. NO NEED TO DEFRAG! Well, you wouldn’t need to defrag as long as you are using about 80% of your disk space (provided that the majority of your files are small, not like 2 gigs or something in size–I think; google it to see what I mean)
  3. NO SPYWARE/ADWARE! Since I only use FOSS, and since these are all developed by, basically, regular people like you and me (smart consumers who can code), and only grow in popularity based on things like ease of use, how good the program is, etc., they NEVER have any sort of system monitoring BS you get with (many) Windows programs. (To my mind, even the Apple Update software that comes with iTunes is bloat/crap, for people without iPods like me). As you can see by now, these three advantages alone rid probably100% of people’s problems with Microsoft Windows/what people spend their money on for Windows software. It’s incredible to see now, after all these years, that, Windows is essentially equivalent to a gasoline-guzzling truck (and the whole profit-minded, scam-like industry that the auto manufacturers have created in terms of exorbitant prices for simple, often obsolete-technology-but-still-being-produced parts). Linux is different. It’s smarter. (And I don’t understand why in the world Gates designed Windows the way it is, since UNIX came before him, not just Torvalds).
  4. COMPLETE CONTROL /ABILITY TO FIGURE OUT EXACTLY WHAT IS INSTALLED IN YOUR SYSTEM. You won’t be hunting down registry keys and things like that on linux (for 99% of your needs). This is because the wonderful application installer called synaptic (which comes with Mint–I’m not sure how other distros work) lists EVERY little component to ANYTHING you’ve installed (provided that you installed it from synaptic–which is like 98% of the time–unless you install things by building from source files and compiling them, which is what I did for some programs that were cutting-edge and not available from synaptic (e.g., NetBeans 6.0)). The beauty about installing things from synaptic is that, it lists programs from an online server (you can connect to as many servers as you want, I think, although Mint, being an Ubuntu-based distro, leaches off of Ubuntu’s repositories, heh). This means that thousands and thousands (maybe millions?) of people are looking at the same list of programs (for those using the default servers listed with synaptic). This means that, we have, at any given time, a tangible and finite amount of programs that are being considered for installation by people like you and me. Only quality programs/programs that are actually good and useful make it to this list; you won’t find any bogus/bloated junk here. Isn’t that just beautiful? And also, most programs you install will also tell you exactly what other programs/components it will need to become fully functional. I don’t write these down, but hey, it’s nice to know.
  5. FAST bootup times. I’m running off of an old IDE hard drive (I installed Windows on the SATA, poor me), and I still boot faster than Windows. This is still taking into account the 5-second delay for GRUB’s OS-choosing menu (which is deletable, I think, if you don’t want to dual-boot and just access Windows files from Linux, which is quite easy and automatic in Mint), and the 10-second minimum timed automatic login for your username/password. My PC feels lighter with less useless garbage running in the background.
  6. Related to #3 and #4: MOST PROGRAMS HAVE A VERY INTUITIVE/EASY TO UNDERSTAND USER INTERFACE! You won’t be digging up help files much at all. It’s not like the old Word 2003, where you had to do odd things like View -> Header and Footer to actually add things in there. This is because, since FOSS is developed actively (and incrementally, one step/patch at a time), things are changed quickly if people voice their dislike of a certain feature (or if enough requests come in). I didn’t have to do much to figure out how to customize things on the standard text editor/etc, even though I’d never used them for the first time. The only exception to this is OpenOffice, which retains much of the quirky location of options from the old MS Office programs, to steal Microsoft’s userbase.
  7. Oh, and how can I forget: NO NEED TO RESTART/REBOOT AFTER INSTALLING A PROGRAM!!! You heard that right. Well, it’s been this way so far for about… 15-ish programs that I’ve installed. Amazing. It just feels so odd to install a program and then use it right away. It’s a good feeling.
  8. Multi-platform programs are faster on here than in Windows. E.g., the ruby interpreter, irb, begins instantly when I type in “irb” in the terminal. On Windows’ command line, it would always wait 1 second before starting. Mongrel is faster on Linux here for my Ruby on Rails app (probably due to how there’s less crap/no antivirus running on my system when my app is handling a large MySQL/computationally intensive query). If you click on any program, it seems, it will start pretty quick compared to Windows.

Now, nothing gold can stay; so, here are some perks that I find distracting/unnatural:

  1. The need to constantly type in “sudo” before executing any important and/or system administration/driver related command. I think “sudo” stands for “super user do.” Essentially, typing in “sudo” is a security layer against someone changing really important settings on your system, like editing the configuration file for your screen/monitor (the widely-known “xorg.conf” file that you might have heard of by now). I think this behavior is changeable (heck, anything in Linux is), but I’m too lazy to google it just now. And in a way I sort of like being trained in the old UNIX tradition of yore of using the terminal. And that brings me to…
  2. TERMINALS! I should have mentioned this first. The “terminal” basically stands for the Windows equivalent of a “DOS” prompt or “command line” prompt. It’s the black background with monospaced characters with a little blinking line waiting for you to type in some (rather archaic looking) command the computer can understand, like “cd” for change directory, “rm” for removing a file, and so on. Terminals, and Linux’s obsession with giving the user absolute control over everything, has lead to their continued widespread use for some rather basic commands (you’ve probably seen advice like “type ‘sudo apt-get install program_name_here’ ” on some forum online–the speaker was referring to the terminal). This is confusing, and really, there shouldn’t be a need for you to type in perfectly-spelled commands. Right now, I don’t know how to change file/folder permissions in the File Browser (aka “nautilus”), so I have to type in things like “sudo chmod 777 file_name” which looks a bit stupid, honestly, for something so simple. Yes, the terminal is powerful and you can do all the magic in the world in them, but it’s basically over-used/over-recommended for some things.
  3. Lack of official support for some hardware, like my Brother HL-2040 printer. (I was so suprised that Mint got it working without a hiccup after I installed the Linux drivers from the Brother website–and even automatically found and printed to a networked printer (also a Brother, but a different model) in a different room in my house). Wait, but how can I say lack of support when everything worked smoothly? It’s the lack of printing options I get from inside Windows. I can’t do 2-up printing (or even manual duplex, it seems) inside Mint. Ah, I miss duplex so much.
  4. Since there are few commercial companies that have Linux products, this means that any Linux problem you google about to get help is likely to link to some Linux community’s forum or the official forum of the FOSS developer in question (and sometimes the monstrous, 60+ page topics that have hundreds of people chipping in their own little quirk/experience/variation to the problem originally proposed). The real downside is that, often, if you don’t want to spend 20 minutes to research/find an answer that works, you’ll have to register and submit a question on a forum. For Windows problems, I’ve found that, the internet is overflowing with answers to just about anything you can think of about your Windows system, that it’s more like spending 2 minutes to find an answer on google. I miss the large community of me-alikes (and yes, Ubuntu’s community is very large, but nothing compared to the Windows family).
  5. Somewhat shoddy international language INPUT support. Notice how I stress input, not viewing Unicode or anything like that. Right now, there are two alternatives for Chinese/Japanese/Korean input on Mint–SCIM (what I use) and UIM. But SCIM is weird because I’m quite sure I installed it the same way on my desktop as I did in my laptop, and yet, they behaved differently for some time, in things like display of the tray icon and whatnot. Well, they both work now–but to get them to work, I had to edit some files and things. Not fun. (If you’re curious, the tray icon wouldn’t show on my desktop, so I had to configure my Sessions setting to restart SCIM with “scim -d” manually each time Mint starts–which seems redundant since SCIM is already supposed to start automatically anew with each boot/login).
  6. And of course, not many games! It’s not really a complaint, I guess, but yes, the gaming community is really lagging behind in the Linux world. For things like word processing and email and any other basic PC use, Linux is quite excellent. But not for games. So, it’s not yet a really as “fun” a machine as Windows in this field.
  7. Somewhat redundant-looking folders in the system. E.g., for fonts, there’s a ~/.fonts hidden folder, another fonts folder under /etc/X11, etc etc etc (like 20 folders all called “fonts” in various directories–type in “fc-cache -fv” in the terminal to update your system’s font recognition of new fonts you’ve installed, and you’ll see these redundant-looking font folder structures/locations). It’s confusing. It’s probably because there are thousands of programmers and many large projects that do not work together toward a common goal (that goal here being the use of just 1 font folder for everything, like how Windows does C:/Windows/FONTS). E.g., OpenOffice has its own font directory, and the same for X11 mentioned above (X is a GUI kind of thing for the Mint OS, it seems, and I think the term “X Window System” comes from this technology). It’s a liiiiittle bit confusing if you’re anal about where everything is located, like me. (On the other hand, you can type in “fonts:///” in File Browser and see a universal list of fonts that are currently recognized by the system–but “fonts:///” is not actually a physical folder, but a collection of symbolic links I think that is displayed into one magic folder).

So that’s my wrap-up of Linux first impressions, of sorts. Hopefully this will give you an idea of what the Linux world is like at the moment. Do keep an eye out for Mint version 5.0, due out sometime in April (that’s next month!). (Daryna came out last October–oh, if I had known, I would have installed it during winter break!)

EDIT: To simulate Manual Duplex printing on a HL-2040 (or possibly any basic printer), follow these steps:

  1. First, set up the printing properties from within the app you’re printing from, so that you print only the even pages first.
  2. Put those pages back into the printer tray, keeping in mind the proper orientation. For me, I just stole the image from the manual duplex dialog box from Windows.
  3. Now, print the odd pages.

The only significant difference from the Windows experience is that, you have to manually click your way through to set up the printer that it prints only the even pages, and then only the odd pages. Other than that, it’s basically the same. Caveat: be sure to set the printer option BACK to printing “all pages,” and not just the odd ones, because it will likely remember your setting, so that, if you ask the printer to print page 4 next time, it will give you an error (this is what happened to me using the Evince pdf viewer).

My first foray into the wonderful world of FOSS – enter Linux Mint

Free open-source software is the new thing, folks. It’s the way to go for the future.

I whined a few posts ago about the woeful state of Ubuntu 7.04. Well, even though that experience was discouraging, I still had the desire to get into Linux nevertheless, since Linux is free, and known for its reliability. So I tried a bunch of different distros (the latest stable versions available as of today, through their various Live CD’s), including Fedora, Damn Small Linux, openSUSE, and Linux Mint–and settled on the lattermost.

My criteria for evaluating each distro (on my Dell D505 Laptop) was simple: automatic recognition of the widescreen LCD’s display resolution on the D505, and wireless networking.

Mint (version 4 — “Daryna”) was able to correctly identify the screen resolution (all the other ones I mentioned failed–actually, I think I only tested Fedora on my desktop PC, so I’m not so sure). I was thoroughly impressed with this simple automatic resolution support.

As for wireless networking, it was almost TOO simple to implement. I had tried to implement it unsuccessfully in Ubuntu 7.04 before, with the Ndiswrapper driver installation tool (which is, to my knowledge, a little program that converts a windows-only driver file (via the familiar .inf file) and translates it into something that Linux can understand). Mint had AUTOMATIC integration of this little utility into its start button (via Administration -> Windows Wireless Drivers)!! This is the equivalent to probably 72 hours of an Ubuntu newbie’s quest to do the same. Incredible. (To those who are curious, all I did was download the Win XP wireless card driver from the Dell website (through my Windows desktop machine), extract the self-extracting .exe archive, dump those contents onto a USB drive and then plug int the USB drive into my D505. Then, I just opened up Mint’s Ndiswrapper implementation as explained above, and pointed to the .inf file on one of the extracted subfolders on the USB drive.) Afterwards, Mint automatically detected the need to do a firmware update on the wireless card, and asked me where to get the firmware. Lo and behold, it had an automatically-suggested web location for this file (which seemed to be a generic file for such wireless cards on laptops–although I can’t be sure). At this point, I just hooked up an ethernet cable to the D505 to download this firmware update. After some more informative, automatic popup dialogs from Mint, I rebooted (because the wireless card didn’t work right away). Then, I just filled in the 3 or 4 boxes for manually setting up a new wireless network (i.e., pointing to my home network that already has 3 other Windows machines on it). THAT WAS IT. IT TOOK ME ABOUT TEN MINUTES TO SET UP, INCLUDING THE TIME IT TOOK FOR ME TO SLOWLY READ THROUGH EVERYTHING THAT MINT TOLD ME.

Hats off to the Mint developers. And did you know that any program/update for Ubuntu is compatible with Mint? (Mint is based off of Ubuntu). It’s almost too good. It is good.

And Mint comes with some cool, snazzy window/desktop effects (you can set the level of effects, from off to highest). I no longer envy Apple MacBooks as far as pretty GUIs are concerned.

So yes, I’m really enjoying the Mint experience so far. Very user friendly. The only thing I need to figure out is how to disable system sounds on boot up. But that’s a really minor issue.

UPDATE: March 25, 2008: Simply going into the system sound settings and disabling the login/logout sounds, and rebooting, did the trick. 😉