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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Sun, 18 Mar 2012

Debian Stable -- set it and forget it -- spoils me for fresh Linux Mint 12 on some very nice ZaReason hardware

Spending a couple of days intensely running Linux Mint 12 on a very nice desktop PC sent to me for review by ZaReason (much more about that later), I probably shouldn't have been surprised by the annoying bugs in Mint that made me a lot less productive than I am in the Debian Squeeze system I've been running on my laptop since late 2010.

Not that Debian is trouble-free. It's just that I've figured everything out. And I don't have to reinvent this particular wheel every six months. If I hadn't done so in the intervening year and few months since I began running Squeeze, I'd have moved on.

But you can almost always figure out Debian. It's set up the way I want it. GNOME 2.30 is solid in a way that GNOME 3-point-whatever-Mint-is-using is not.

Like I've written countless times, while most of Squeeze is looked upon as ancient in the eyes of those running Linux distributions on the six-month-release cycle, I do have the latest stable Firefox/Iceweasel and Google Chrome web browsers. I've got LibreOffice. My OpenShot is newer than what Mint 12 shipped with (I pull the .deb package from Launchpad whenever there's a new build; I absolutely need the latest OpenShot, something I say about no other application). However, I recently reverted from the Icedove/Thunderbird 5.0 I got from the Debian Mozilla APT archive to the version 3-also-point-whatever that shipped with Squeeze due to incompatibilities of the 5.0 build with just about every Thunderbird add-on out there.

Everything I've heard about Linux Mint goes on about how easy it is. All the naughty bits for decoding multimedia are on board. It's ready to go. It doesn't use Ubuntu's Unity desktop.

I've had a taste of GNOME 3 in recent Fedora live media. I'm OK with it.

Having the traditional GNOME 2-style menus available in "GNOME Classic" mode in Mint 12 is nice. Whatever the GNOME or Unity/Ubuntu/HUD proponents say about the obsolescence of the traditional application/file menu, the ability to have an honest-to-goodness menu -- if one wants it (and one usually does) -- is not something to be scoffed at.

But the little things about GNOME 3 as it's implemented in Mint 12 annoy me. Using Nautilus for FTP transfers didn't always work, and the progress dialog often failed and then didn't appear at all.

The return of a traditional desktop switcher in the lower right panel of Mint 12 was welcome, but not being able to "see" what's on a desktop like I can in the GNOME 2.30 switcher panel app is inconvenient. The "send window to workspace X" feature in Mint 12 also seemed to be broken.

I guess I just want a GNOME that works.

Adding Xfce to Mint 12 didn't instill confidence. The fonts were horrible, and I couldn't easily see how to fix them up. It was vanilla Xfce and needed a lot of tweaking. And I didn't have time for all that. Perhaps an Xfce-focused edition of Mint would do better.

Other problems with the system -- not ZaReason problems but more likely Mint-centric -- included an OpenShot 1.4.0 that would render a .mpeg video fine but leave those in the .mov format with no sound. That was deal-breakingly annoying, since cutting and rendering .mov videos is the most intensive and often important thing I do on a computer these days.

Then the FileZilla FTP client crashed whenever I tried to transfer files. Mint proved to be less than easy in this regard.

While I found the Mint software manager to be attractive, when I went through the process of installing a new application, the screen's status would not change from "uninstalled" to "installed," and I was left wondering whether the operation was indeed successful (it always was, as I found out).

But Mint was very successful in many ways. The Firefox/Thunderbird experience was superb. (Though I credit the smoothness and speed of Firefox in this case to the ZaReason Limbo 6000A desktop -- a quad-core 3 GHz AMD Phemon CPU with a very, very comfortable 8 GB of RAM.)

LibreOffice ran great, as did Inkscape, the GIMP and my favorite image-editor/archiver Gthumb (major kudos to Mint for including Gthumb, possibly the most-critical app to my workflow, in its default installation).

I used this system as much as I could for my regular, Linux-intensive workload. But I really wanted to be back in Debian. Where everything works.

I'll say more about the ZaReason hardware in my full review, but I just wanted to get to get my Minty experience out on the table.

It's easy enough to install any Linux distribution you want, especially on hardware like that supplied by ZaReason and assembled with Linux compatibility in mind. I can't help but feel that everything would have gone better with Fedora, Ubuntu or Debian -- all options that ZaReason offers preinstalled, by the way (though I'd request fully encrypted LVM for my system). Of course Fedora and Debian would have needed many hours of tweaking to get the required non-free multimedia bits installed and configured, and Mint did come with all of that preinstalled. Had I been able to figure out the OpenShot problem, I'd have been a lot happier.

Maybe I need to "make" myself leap forward into GNOME 3 (via Fedora) or Unity in Ubuntu. I find myself clinging to what's left of GNOME 2.x. Sooner or later I'll have to move on. And just as I hoped that Linux Mint would be blissfully trouble-free (that's a very high bar to reach, and I can't fault the Mint team for not being perfect), I hope that GNOME 3.4 is a very-sweet spot in the troubled post-2.3 world of the GNOME desktop.

That said, Debian remains a rock.

Coming up: Full reviews of the ZaReason Limbo 6000a desktop ... and DragonFlyBSD on a 10-year-old IBM Thinkpad R32 laptop. I like to mix it up, you know.