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Linux Mint 12 Review: The Best Gnome 3 Shell Implementation

LinuxMint team has dropped the bomb with the release of version 12, which offers a unique Gnome experience. Linux Mint is also enjoying its new limelight with esteemed #1 spot on Distrowatch. However, the journey was not that smooth for the team.

Earlier this year when Ubuntu switched to Gnome 3 and came with Unity as the default shell, Clement Lefebvre told me that they won’t switch to Gnome 3 or Unity. The statement was applauded by the LinuxMint users. However, we did understand that it was a huge technological challenge for the LinuxMint to not adopt Gnome 3.

Gnome 3 is not just the shell, it’s more than that. Shell is just a part of it, the UI to allow a user to interact with the system. So, it does come between a user and the system and a user must feel comfortable with it. That’s what LinuxMint is trying to do.

LinuxMint also comes with MATE, the fork of Gnome 2, for those who are not comfortable with Gnome 3. In this review I will focus on Gnome 3. Let’s see how LinuxMint turned the lemon into lemonade.

LinuxMint 12 Review

Editor’s Note: This review is only about the Gnome 3 experience and not about Fedora vs openSUSE vs Ubuntu. This is not a death match between distros. Each distro has its own target audience. Fedora and openSUSE, for example, are the hub of innovation and are aimed at advanced users. Even Ubuntu and LinuxMint have their own user-bases. Yes, they do overlap but as long as its GNU/Linux who cares. So don’t look at this review as a comparison between distros. We have bigger challenges ahead. There is no place for Ubuntu vs LinuxMint battle; it’s about Ubuntu and LinuxMint – use what suits you.

LinuxMint: The Best Gnome 3 Experience
I am usually an Ubuntu user who switches between Fedora and openSUSE. I have been running LinuxMint on my second device, Dell XPS, since the release of the version 12.

Having used Gnome 3 Shell on Fedora, openSUSE, Ubuntu and now LinuxMint I think I can point at the best Gnome 3 Shell experience, the one that is suited for home users.

When I look at the Gnome 3 Shell experience offered by all these distros I think OpenSUSE did a good job by per-installing gnome-extensions, aka Advanced Settings, so its easier for a user to start customization. It also comes with some extensions activated such as the power-off button in the system menu, thus enhancing the over-all experience.

Fedora on the other hand comes with ‘pure’ Gnome 3 shell with no such pre-installed packages.   You have to do a lot manually but tools like Fedora Utils make everything much more easier.

LinuxMint goes few steps ahead and pre-installs and activates all the extensions which replicate the user-experience of Gnome 2 and make a user feel at home.

LinuxMint 12

I do understand that some LinuxMint users are complaining about these changes as they were complete overhaul of the UI. It’s nothing surprising. No one wants to relearn how to use computers. Unfortunately, Gnome 3 Shell demands a little bit of learning.

If we look at the evolution of computing and emergence of touch-based devices I do feel this change was inevitable. If you look at Microsoft Windows road-map, you will find they are trying to do the same thing with Windows 8. Luckily Linux users have choices which Windows users won’t have. Their only choice will be to migrate to Mac or Linux. Under Linux, you can also go the XFCE, LXDE or KDE route, even under Gnome 3 you can have Unity or heavily customizable Gnome Shell experience.

LinuxMint 12

So, I think Gnome 3 is moving in the right direction. Just that it does need to provide the same functionalities that enhance user-experience. And LinuxMint is doing exactly that.

If you are a LinuxMint user don’t get upset with Gnome 3 or LinuxMint team, just understand that we do have to accept newer and better technologies, which may mean giving up a few things that we are used to Once you get this out of your mind, you will start appreciating what LinuxMint team has done.

LinuxMint 12 Menu

LinuxMint Menu
LinuxMint offers a Windows like menu to make users comfortable with Linux. Since LinuxMint is based on Ubuntu which doesn’t offer any such menu the team developed MintMenu. But Gnome 3 changed a lot and the team reworked on the MintMenu to replicate the functionality of the previous menu. Considering the fact that the code-base of Gnome 3 is new, the small LinuxMint team has done a great job with the menu.

The new MintMenu may not look as polished as the previous menu was, it does make life easier for a user. The MintMenu, as usual, offers a search bar (not online or Wikipedia search though) which you can use to find the needed apps.

It must be kept in mind that LinuxMint is adopting Gnome 3 with this version so, it is in the same state as Ubuntu was with Unity some seven moths ago. I think the team will polish the MintMenu and it will offer much more functionalities than the previous menu.

Ubuntu on the other hand uses Dash, which in a way offers much more than a menu can offer. I think by the next release both Unity and LinuxMint will be ‘ready’ to take on Windows 8. So, I am extremely happy and surprised to see that the LinuxMint team was able to pull the menu together.  They have done a great job.

Gnome 3 Shell Done Right
LinuxMint has extensively used the gnome-shell-extensions to create an experience similar to the previous version of LinuxMint so that a user feels comfortable with Gnome 3. They have added a panel at the bottom so that users can see and switch between running apps without any trouble. This, I felt, was one of the most missed feature of Gnome 3 Shell. These extensions also allowed LinuxMint to move the clock from center to the right and to add options such as “shutdown” to the system menu. The credit goes to Ron Yorston, who created these extensions for Fedora/openSUSE and Ubuntu.

Polish
LinuxMint has done a lot of work to further polish the Gnome shell experience. They are using their own theme called Mint-Z which is based on Zukitwo. This new theme has succeeded in making the new LinuxMint look like the older one with all the jazz.

What’s missing?
If you are using LinuxMint you wont be able to pin items to the bottom panel. You can, however, pin favorite apps to the side launcher. These pinned apps will appear MintMenu. [To add an app to the launcher hit the super key, search for the app and just drag and drop it to the launcher]. Unfortunately, you can’t drag and drop or add apps to the Launcher/Favorite from the MintMenu though. The only way to do it is the one that I just told. There is a tiny cosmetic dent here: if you add too many apps, the MintMenu starts to look ugly. After a certain point all other apps will go out of the screen, and lack of scrolling makes it impossible to open those apps from the favorite list within the MintMenu. I think the team needs to fix it. One should be able to scroll through the apps. They should also add a text above (or below) the list of favorite apps in the MintMenu saying “Favorite Apps”, so that users know what they are.

LinuxMint 12 Menu

Another major change is the location of notifications which used to be at the bottom panel. The notifications have now moved to the top panel. The icons for volume, network, etc. have also moved to the top panel. The top panel also houses some items from the MintMenu, such as power-off buttons. If you think a button or option is mission check the top bar, you may find it there. So, from a user’s point of view, you can think of it as a ‘reshuffling’ of some items.

The good news with LinuxMint is that unlike the vanilla Gnome 3 Shell (or Unity), you don’t have to hit the top left bar to see the running apps. You can see all your running apps on the bottom panel and easily access them without wasting much time.

In my opinion, apart from this you won’t miss much – as soon as you leave your prejudices against Gnome 3.

Conclusion:
I have been reading what some of my friends were saying about LinuxMint on Google+. They were worried about the Gnome 3 experience. I think the only Gnome 3 Shell experience they got was either through Ubuntu (where the Ubuntu team did not do anything to improve it, and why should they – the conflict was the reason they dropped Gnome Shell and developed Unity) or through Fedora and openSUSE. As I stated above Fedora and openSUSE are aimed at a different audience and an average user may not feel very comfortable with these distros. So, the Gnome 3 Shell experience they got from these two distros may have a lot to do with they way those distros work and not necessarily Gnome 3 Shell. So, LinuxMint was the only distro which actually ‘baked’ the Gnome 3 Shell cake for its users.

LinuxMint, being a true consumer OS just like Ubuntu, took Gnome 3 Shell experience to a newer and better level. I think the best Gnome 3 Shell experience is the one provided by LinuxMint 12. I think the biggest USP of LinuxMint 12 should be the awesome Gnome 3 Shell experience.

I heavily recommend LinuxMint to all those users who want to try Gnome 3 Shell with all the available extensions working out of the box. I heavily recommend all current LinuxMint users to upgrade to the latest version. Just clear all the doubts you have about Gnome 3 Shell. Accept the fact that we have to move forward, make way for newer and better technologies. Accept that it is no more Model T, its Ferrari and you will enjoy the LinuxMint drive.

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My verdict: LinuxMint is the best Gnome 3 Shell implementation.

Swapnil Bhartiya

A free software fund-a-mental-ist and Charles Bukowski fan, Swapnil also writes fiction and tries to find cracks in the paper armours of proprietary companies. Swapnil has been covering Linux and Free Software/Open Source since 2005.

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