LINUX PICKS AND PANS

Linux Mint Upgrade Sparkles

TheLinux Mint upgrade to version 17.3 Rosa is one upgrade regular users do not want to skip.

This latest release in downloadable ISO format, available in the MATE and Cinnamon desktop editions, hit servers earlier this month. Several days later, the upgrade was available from within the package management repository for existing Linux Mint users. That eliminates the need for a clean installation and having to set up all the apps and configurations to use the new release.

Linux Mint 17.3 is based on Ubuntu 14.04 LTS and is supported until 2019. It is a major upgrade from version 17.2 Rebecca.

Compared to the many recurring bland Ubuntu releases cycles, Linux Mint does not disappoint. Each decimal advance has been marked with should-not-miss improvements to the constantly evolving Linux Mint distro.

Some of the key changes in this release involve the handling of software updates and managing hardware drivers. Rosa has updated software applications and brings refinements under the hood with Linux Kernel 3.19 and many new desktop features from Cinnamon 2.8.

One big improvement is the ability to select localized mirror servers for much faster file downloads from the package management system. Another huge improvement is the Cinnamon desktop, which is more refined.Seeding SuccessI hold a fondness for the Linux Mint distro. My home office is stuffed with numerous desktops and laptops. Each one is configured with several Linux distros.

Most of these distros come and go as I shuffle through a never-ending inventory of products to review. A few distros stand the test of time. Linux Mint continues to hold the spotlight as my primary choice.

Why? The Cinnamon desktop is just too good to set aside. I dabble with other distros that have a Cinnamon edition, and I have yet to find another distro’s integration of Cinnamon that exceeds the performance I get from Linux Mint.

Linux Mint 17.3Rosa's Cinnamon

Linux Mint 17.3 Rosa’s Cinnamon edition offers one of the most configurable panels and desktop designs available in any distro.

Still, choice of desktop environment largely boils down to the hardware compatibility and user preference. Part of what makes up that preference is the performance, convenience and configurability of the desktop environment.Best in Both BatchesFor both Mint Rosa editions, the software repositories are duplicated on many servers all over the world. Linux Mint’s developers make a big push in the Rosa release to get users to localize the servers providing the software.

If you do not select closer server locations, the Software Sources configuration tool reminds you of the opportunity. The list of mirrored servers includes the delivery speed of the downloads. I found a big improvement in the download times when I changed the default settings.

Improvements under the hood for both Cinnamon and MATE include a more robust Driver Manager. It refreshes the cache before looking for drivers and reports update and installation errors if appropriate. The drivers list is sorted by status. The Driver Manager indicates whether drivers are open source.

Another big deal involves support for the Broadcom chipset. If it’s detected with the recommended Broadcom STA drivers, the Driver Manager also lists B43 installers. You do not need an Ethernet connection, either.

The login screen features an on-screen keyboard and improved HiDPI support. To improve the support for touchscreens and mobile devices on the log-in screen, an on-screen keyboard pops up. This is a nice touch. This keyboard is available for the default theme (Mint-X), and it provides both common and special characters.Rosa MATE EditionMATE puts a more modern spin on traditional Gnome 2 desktop performance. It is a very comfortable alternative to the Cinnamon desktop option.

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The MATE menu in Linux Mint 17.3 is lean, clean and very usable.

The Application menu has a better look resulting from the addition of a frame, borders and shadows. Some padding fluffs up the appearance throughout the menu’s different sections.

Screen-tearing and window managers have better desktop settings support for more window and compositing managers. Besides the traditional Marco, Metacity and Xfwm4 window managers, three major additions are built in: Openbox, Compiz and Compton.

Wobbly windows are activated by default and justify adding Compiz for its wow factor. This eye candy tastes as good in MATE as it does in Cinnamon.

To make it easier to use these additional visual features, this latest MATE version has two new commands: wm-detect shows information about which window/compositing managers are running, and wm-recovery recovers or returns to the default window manager.

The attention the developers paid to upgrading the MATE edition is obvious. This desktop option is now on a par with Gnome and Cinnamon. It supports a very wide range of applications and is fully compatible with Totem, VLC and many other video players.

Details matter here. For example, the screensaver does not start while a video is playing. Touchpad support is better as well. As long as the hardware supports it, you can use tap or click with two or three fingers for the right and middle clicks.

You also can activate natural scrolling to reverse the direction of scrolling and make it feel more natural. If you never use the touchpad, now you can turn it off.

Cinnamon Edition

The Cinnamon-specific upgrade involves lots of window dressing and desktop improvements in background art, system tools and tweaks galore.

For instance, better applets rule this release. The sound applet is a solid example.

It has a fresh new layout. The track information and media controls are part of a new overlay, which sits on top of the cover art.

Multimedia players that support seeking show a flat progress bar underneath that tells how far into the song you are and lets you navigate to other locations in the music. Input controls, applications and output devices are in the right-click context menu.

More redesigning is evident with attached output devices. They show their name and their origin. That makes it easy to distinguish among them when multiple audio devices are connected.

The power applet has lots of fixed bugs and better detection of multiple batteries. It shows brands and model information. Connected devices and batteries display with OEM data. So instead of a generic reference to a wireless mouse, Cinnamon tells you the make and model.

Cinnamon and Spice

The Cinnamon desktop received a spice cabinet full of tweaks and fixes. These bring a horde of performance improvements to the Muffin window management, multiple monitor use and graphics card integration.

Again, it all has to do with attention to details. For instance, Cinnamon now supports microphone mute buttons, better HiDPI detection for TV screens over HDMI, and improved performance of the Cinnamon Settings Daemon. QT5 applications look more native and sport the GTK theme as well.

One of the best improvements in the Cinnamon desktop upgrade affects the Workspace Switcher. It shows a visual representation of the workspaces with little rectangles corresponding to each window inside of them.

Linux Mint 17.3Windows Quick List

The pop-up Windows Quick List and improvements to the Workplace Switcher applets on the panel make the Cinnamon desktop a killer offering.

Improvements to the System tray brings support for indicators. You can turn these on/off in the System settings/General panel.

What is the difference? Cinnamon renders indicators with a Clutter menu, which looks similar to the panel itself. Status icons can have tool tips and a context menu, but indicators cannot.

Bottom Line

Linux is all about comparisons. Linux Mint 17.3 is a clear winner by any standards. From my view, it even outperforms Microsoft’s Windows 10 OS upgrade.

I recently upgraded several Windows 7 installations on legacy computers to Windows 10. I also bought a new touchscreen laptop to put a top-of-the-line performer in my test gear inventory. Dual booting always loads Linux Mint by default unless I override into Windows for a client-specific task.

The Cortana personal assistant feature is already passe and turned off. The redesigned tiles and menu animation are boring. Not much else is different for the virtual desktop feature borrowed from Linux.

Not only is Linux Mint 17.3 — either Cinnamon or MATE — an ideal Linux distro, it’s also a Windows 10-crushing alternative.

Want to Suggest a Review?

Is there a Linux software application or distro you’d like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

Pleaseemail your ideas to me, and I’ll consider them for a future Linux Picks and Pans column.

And use the Talkback feature below to add your comments!

Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear. You can connect with him onGoogle+.

3 Comments

  • Wow, new and improved sparkly warkly super dooper…really? Despite all the hyperbole and undefinable ie subjective praise, I find 17.3 to be darker (depressing dull menu color scheme), more cumbersome and bloated as well as definitely slower.

    Went back to 17.2 because its fast, light, menus system is more logical and leaner. The shutdown menus doesnt take 25s like it does in 17.2 but other than that and some window dressing nothing to get hyped up about. The change reminds me more of a microsoft upgrade and we all know how good they are. Unfortunately Mint is always vague about its alleged imrpovements – saying its better doesnt make it so. Try it if you like it great! but nothing to rush into imo.

    • ‘Sparkly warkly’ or not, Linux Mint gives me complete privacy.

      It doesn’t sneak around a dozen back doors spying on my family and for that reason alone, Linux Mint will always be superior to anything Microsoft spits out.

      Even Canonical’s Ubuntu is pure spyware and this family studiously avoids anything from Canonical that hasn’t been stripped clean of its spying capabilities and altered enough to be good enough for the privacy conscious.

      Nothing, but nothing, compares to Linux Mint for the most important thing in the world – complete privacy.

  • I tried Debian, Ubuntu 14.04, Ubuntu 15.10 Linux Mint 17.1, I have a disk of Point Linux, but it is like Debian too. So far Linux Mint is my favorite, everything is within reach, I love the pick & choose programs, I can click on, to install. I can put favorites on the bottom bar to make it easily accessible Like Artha, Speed Crunch Calculator, Cheese, so that my computer can become my camera too, & because my camera quit. Since everything is accessible & I don’t have to look for anything, I do my computers functions like a breeze & even have time for a game of solitare or tetravex. I cannot really see Mint being even better, But as long as you do not do like Ubuntu 15.10, & make my computer into a cloud computer, I will be happy.

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REVIEW

Latest POP_OS! Release Brings COSMIC Overtones

Linux Review

When I reviewed POP!_OS 20.04 in May 2020, I saw its potential to be one of the best starting points for any new Linux user.

The latest release, POP!_OS Linux 21.04 issued June 29, clearly shows that the in-house tweaking of the GNOME desktop to the COSMIC GNOME-based desktop is even more inviting.

Given this distro’s rising popularity, it will continue to hold that distinction. COSMIC is an attractive offering for seasoned Linux users as well.

That is a bold statement, but developer System76 has made some bold moves to push this distro to the forefront and spark its popularity among newcomers to Linux — as well as with seasoned users. That was true for the changeover to a modified GNOME desktop last year. It is even truer with this latest release’s added COSMIC polish to GNOME.

COSMIC stands for Computer Operating System Main Interface Components. While it is not an out-of-this-world or strikingly new desktop environment, it does provide enough change to the traditional GNOME user interface to be better than the original.

That has been System 76’s goal from the get-go. The company has refined the desktop experience primarily for its own line of Linux-powered computers. But even running POP_OS! on your own unoptimized hardware, this Linux distribution soars like a heavenly creature.

What’s Up with COSMIC

Ubuntu 21.04 (Hirsute Hippo) is the first release of System76’s distribution with its own revamped GNOME desktop environment. Earlier releases were based on stock GNOME with additional System76 tweaks.

Numerous distro makers using the GNOME desktop modify its user interface. So that is not a remarkable innovation at all.

What is noteworthy, however, is the subtlety of the innovations that produce a much better hands-on experience using GNOME’s underpinnings. I am not a zealous fan of GNOME in almost any modified version. I find that the desktop environment is too inflexible in meeting the demands of my workflow.

Much of that displeasure is a reaction to power-user features easily accessible to fully functional panel bars and keyboard shortcuts that supplement navigating around multiple open virtual workspaces. GNOME just gets in the way of executing my on-screen workflow needs.

The modified COSMIC GNOME integration soothes and solves much of that workflow blockage. The COSMIC desktop comes with a fully customizable dock. It splits the Activities Overview function into Workspaces and Applications views. It provides the ability to open the launcher with the Super key, as well as various trackpad gestures.

The COSMIC desktop also brings streamlined launching and switching between applications. All these features make the interface simpler and more straightforward to use.

POP_OS! Workspaces

Meet the COSMIC layout. Workspace overview is still displayed in a vertical column when you click on the Workspaces button at the top left of the screen. You can also use the Show Workspaces button on the far left of the bottom dock or near the right side of the top panel.


More Under the Hood

In short, COSMIC with POP_OS! just has enough new options to deliver an adjusted GNOME desktop to satisfy my personal computing tastes and meet most of my workflow needs. Is it an all-around perfect computing solution? No! But it is much closer to meeting that goal without having to leave GNOME behind.

One glaring example is the option to have minimize/maximize buttons for windows. Add to that the ability to tile windows with the mouse by clicking and dragging tiled windows to rearrange them.

COSMIC also adds an ability to upgrade the recovery partition, an improved search feature, and a plugin system for the launcher to let you create your own plugins. Plus, the new release comes with updated components and a newer kernel from the upstream Ubuntu 21.04 release.

Another nice touch is being able to move the workspaces to the left or right edges of the screen. To do that, open Settings and go to Desktop | Workspaces.

But the System76 designers left a glaring old GNOME menu display in place. The application menu remains full screen. That might be a visual impediment to which new users will have to adjust. The popup or dropdown one- or two-column menu most Linux operating systems use is not a part of the COSMIC display.

POP_OS! Applications launcher

One thing that has not changed with COSMIC’s design is the full-screen applications launcher. Press the Applications button and then select the software category. You can see the selected category (in this case System applications) in the top square overlay. The full-screen menu with all software is somewhat visible under the displayed System folder.


A More Likable GNOME

POP_OS! is largely a “take it or leave it” offering. If you really like the GNOME environment, you should love how System76 morphed the UI into something unlike any other GNOME desktop revisions in any other Linux distro. If you are not familiar with GNOME yet, this is a much better version to make that introduction.

One example of this likability is how COSMIC handles workspaces. POP_OS! uses a vertical layout along the edge of the screen for the workspace overview. But the designers made up for that GNOME carryover somewhat by adding a Workspaces button in the top panel. I give designers credit for building in the ability to easily drag and drop applications to a different Workspace.

Another new element is the centered bottom dock. But I find the dock provides less utility than a fully functional bottom panel. Functionality should include more than just a holding spot for quick access apps.

YES, the latest POP_OS! has a top panel that resembles a classic Linux layout. But this panel bar lacks full functionality. However, it does provide access to other system icons on the right end. It also includes a Workspaces button in the top panel.

Unusual Tiling Option

Usually, tiling window managers is a separate kind of desktop environment in Linux distros that offer that option. POP_OS! does include it as an option. Tiling windows is not for everyone. In COSMIC, the tiling window manager is highly tweaked.

The window tiling feature automates the process of arranging window sizes in split-screen configurations. But it is not a typical Linux feature that has universal appeal.

I doubt new users to POP_OS! will find it particularly endearing or useful. However, other components of COSMIC will certainly make trying this new release worthwhile; like trackpad gestures, for instance.

Keeping Track of Gestures

System76 seems quite committed to making gestures a new Linux OS staple for trackpads. Its designers have done a good job to make this a palatable feature.

If you are handy with the Chromebook platform, you no doubt already are proficient in using trackpad gestures. Lately, I use Chrome OS quite a bit. It is a nice change of pace and lets me combine the benefits of tablets and my favorite Linux applications. I think my growing affinity for Chromebooks has made me feel more at home with the latest release of POP_OS!.

The included gestures are:

  • Swipe four fingers right on the trackpad to open the Applications view;
  • Swipe four fingers left to open the Workspaces view;
  • Swipe four fingers up or down to switch to another workspace;
  • Swipe (in any direction) with three fingers to switch between open windows.

Trackpad’s gestures is a game-changer for desktop Linux in general and for POP_OS! in particular. It is efficient and user-friendly.

Bottom Line

The combination of an Ubuntu base and GNOME customization makes POP!_OS with the new COSMIC integration a winning choice. New features and more tweaking make this release extra productive.

The only decision you need to make to download POP_OS! is your hardware configuration. It must be a 64-bit system. This release will not run on older 32-bit computers.

Another factor is the type of graphics your system uses. One download ISO file is strictly for Nvidia graphics cards. Otherwise, click on the other ISO choice.

The only other hardware requirement to meet is two GB RAM with at least 16 GB storage.

If you like the performance that this latest POP_OS! release gives you on your current computer, sit back and enjoy. Then think about how super-fast it will run on a spiffy new System76 computer that enhances the optimized operating system software.

Want to Suggest a Review?

Is there a Linux software application or distro you’d like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

Please email your ideas to me and I’ll consider them for a future column.

And use the Reader Comments feature below to provide your input!

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

1 Comment

  • Pop needs at least one traditional desktop if System 76 wants wide spread adoption and to sell more laptops. Cinnamon, KDE, Mate or XFCE would all be acceptable over Gnome 3.

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