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Minty 4.0 fresh
Dec. 03, 2007

While there are some Linux users who still insist on running free software exclusively, a growing number are more than happy to mix and match open-source and proprietary software. For these latter users, Ubuntu 7.10-based Mint 4.0 is a distribution made in heaven.

To see if Mint was as angelic as it promised to be, I ran it on one of my older systems: an HP Pavilion a250n. This PC has a 2.6GHz Pentium 4 processor with 800MHz frontside bus, and 512MB of PC2700 DDR (double data rate) RAM. For graphics, it uses a low-end Nvidia GeForce4 MX.

If that doesn't sound like much of a system, you're right, it's not. Vista would be nothing except annoying on it and even Windows XP would be cranky. Desktop Linux, though, even the newest of the new, does quite well on older systems.

Installing Mint, from a freshly burned CD, took about 20 minutes. Once in place, everything just worked. No fuss, no muss.

Mint 4.0, aka Daryna, uses Ubuntu 7.10 as its foundation. So, Mint is built on top of the 2.6.22 Linux kernel. Ubuntu users will also recognize the interface, Gnome 2.20, and the applications, OpenOffice 2.3, Thunderbird and Firefox

This is a consumer desktop, not an office desktop. For example, Thunderbird is a fine e-mail client, but if you're in a business, Evolution is what you really want. With Evolution, you can work with Microsoft Exchange servers and sync your Evolution calendar with calendar applications that support iCal and popular programs such as Google Calendar. For a lone user, that's not a big deal, for someone trying to keep office schedules synced up, it's a necessity.

OK, so Mint's not SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) or Red Hat Desktop, but where it shines is as a home user desktop. In particular, like Linspire 6.0 and Freespire 2.0, it includes proprietary multimedia support.

Mint 4.0 uses Amarok, Totem, and Mplayer to display multimedia content. Behind the scenes, Mint provides MP3, Flash, Windows Media and encrypted DVD playback support. That's neat, but lately many Linux distributions either include this kind of support or make it mindlessly simple to install it.

What sets Mint apart, though, is that instead of simply being Ubuntu plus multimedia playback, its community and developers have worked to make solid improvements to the already well-regarded Ubuntu distribution.

For example, while MintInstall and the Software Portal have been present in earlier versions of Mint, no one seems to have noticed them. In the Mint 4.0 release notes, the developers say they suspect that's because "their presence had not been made obvious enough." While they are much easier to find, I put the blame on users, myself included, who just immediately headed to the old familiar software package management programs such as Apt-get and Synaptic.

The more fool me. MintInstall and Software Portal make it easier than ever to install new or updated programs on your Linux desktop. I especially appreciated that MintUpdate, which also doubles as the automatic system update tool, also brings you more information about the updates and the risks involved in applying them.

Far too often all update systems assume you always want the newest updates. All updates are not created equal, and some are more hazardous to your system or applications' stability than others. For example, I once traced down a problem with a blogging application to an overeager system administrator who had updated a server's PHP implementation to PHP 5.x. unfortunately, at the time, many PHP applications were PHP 4-specific. They blew up, badly, when you tried to run them with PHP 5. Sometimes, it's better not to update a system at all. Mint can't give you expert advice on this, but MintInstall does give you enough information that you can at least make an informed decision.

Like Linspire and Freespire's CNR (Click'N'Run), Software Portal gives you a virtual shopping mall of software application to choose from. Once you find the application, you click on it and it's installed. Unlike CNR, which is still at the beta stage, Software Portal is already running at full power.

If you'd rather just install a program without having to search for it, you can also just enter its name -- Skype, Google Earth, Banshee, whatever -- and Mint will find it, confirm that's the program that you're looking for and install it for you. It doesn't get much easier than this.

Mint has also made its desktop a trifle easier to manage and make attractive with its MintDesktop desktop configuration tool. The developers have also taken a big step forward in making the desktop more usable by including the Red Hat Liberation Fonts. These are open-source equivalents of some of the more common Microsoft fonts such as Arial, Times New Roman and Courier New. Now that may not seem like a big deal, but trust me, it is. Many users find themselves mildly bothered, for no reason they can put a finger on, when they start reading fonts that they're not used to. With these fonts, the gap between Windows and Linux desktop users inches a small, but significant, bit closer.

All in all, Mint 4.0 is a very attractive and easy-to-use desktop Linux for home users. In fact, I think Mint 4.0 is downright heavenly.

-- Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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