Linux Mint KDE 17.2 review: A great distro that misses Plasma 5

I loved everything in Linux Mint 17.2, but the lack of Plasma 5 is a deal breaker for me.

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Linux Mint KDE 17.2

The Linux Mint team has announced the release of Linux Mint KDE 17.2, and being a Plasma user I tested out the release. Considering the uncertainty around Kubuntu and its demoralized team, I looked seriously at Linux Mint KDE as this is the closest Ubuntu experience you could get with Plasma, after Kubuntu.

I love Kubuntu, no doubts about that, but Linux Mint KDE is no less impressive. While Kubuntu tries to offer the vanilla Plasma experience, Linux Mint does its signature tweaking to add a little more polish to the experience. And I like it.

Since Linux Mint is not an official flavor of Ubuntu, it doesn’t enjoy the same benefits that the distros of the Ubuntu family enjoy. To make up for it, Linux Mint forged a deal with Canonical to gain access to binary packages. That has been one of the core criticisms of Canonical and the Ubuntu Council because the larger open source community and developers like Jonathan Riddell are not comfortable with Ubuntu policies that restricted open source communities from reusing the open source software. Organizations like FSF have warned derivatives to be extra careful when basing their OS on Ubuntu.

But Linux Mint has tried to stay out of any controversies or public debate over licensing and instead has focused on what users need.

Sticking to Ubuntu LTS 14.04

Linux Mint made a sane choice by sticking to Ubuntu 14.04 LTS base instead of switching to the latest version. The clear benefit is that the developers don’t have to waste time keeping up with a constantly moving target, which is often unstable between LTS releases. We already noticed improvements in the Cinnamon edition of Linux Mint 17.2 and the KDE edition should be no different.

No Plasma 5

One disadvantage of sticking to Ubuntu 14.04 LTS base is that you won’t get the latest packages that come with the latest release. For example Kubuntu 15.04 has moved to Plasma 5, but Linux Mint 17.2 is still on Plasma 4.

This could be good or bad news, depending on how you see Plasma 5. I have been using Plasma 5 on all my systems and kind of love it. Though it is still a work in progress as packages are being ported to newer libraries or Frameworks 5, but Plasma 5 works great on a production system. And since developers are investing all their energies in the new desktop, users will see further improvements and new features in Plasma 5.

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Linux Mint KDE 17.2 with what's still called 'KDE 4'.

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Compare the polish and freshness of Plasma 5 with that of KDE 4 on Linux Mint above.

I immediately missed Plasma 5 as I logged into Linux Mint KDE 17.2, most notably the improvements made to the desktop search, which, thanks to new Baloo, is more impressive than what I have seen on other desktop environments and KDE 4.

I am well aware that Linux Mint is a conservative distro and refrains from shoveling the latest software down users' throats, but I think sticking to KDE 4 may do more harm than good. First, keeping users on an older base that is certainly on its way out (unless Linux Mint team would fork KDE 4 to preserve it) will ultimately create more resistance. Second, it will deprive developers of a user base that could have given valuable feedback to further improve Plasma 5. In other words, it disengages Linux Mint users from participating in the development of Plasma 5.

What it does do is offer a stable KDE experience on top of Ubuntu.

Not everything is old

As I stated above, sticking to an older and stable base has given Linux Mint developers time to improve the core features of the distro and many features seen in Linux Mint 17.2 Cinnamon have made it into Linux Mint KDE.

Software Management: Linux Mint KDE enjoys many improvements in the software management field. One of the greatest features, which Ubuntu lacks and needs, is a built-in tool to manage PPAs (personal package archives). Users can now add PPAs using this tool and then manage those PPAs. What Linux Mint still misses is the ability to search for and install PPAs without having to Google them.

Better naming of packages: At times it could be confusing for users to find the packages that they need. The Linux Mint team said in a blog post that “packages can now be aliased and presented under a different name than their package name or source package name. When this is the case the original package names also appear in the interface as secondary information. This is used by Linux Mint to group related packages together or to present them with simpler and more understandable names.”

There are minor UI tweaks to improve the user experience with software management: Update Manager now uses the entire window to show errors when they happen, or to report that the system is up to date. Users can also hide the Update Manager system tray icon when no updates are available. To keep the desktop clean users can hide the Update Manager window automatically after updates are applied.

Login Screen improvements: Linux Mint has developed its own login screen called MDM (Mint display manager), and this release comes with version 2.0 of it. This release brings many new features such as avatar support for encrypted home directories, faster screensavers, Infinality fonts (more polished font rendering) and other such features that can be found here.

Improved hardware support: The new Grub now offers better support of UEFI motherboards. It also received upgraded versions of Nvidia drivers, which bring support to the latest Nvidia graphic cards. Optimus cards have been a pain for Linux users, but with this release Linux Mint users will be able to take advantages of such cards and can switch between Intel and NVIDIA card with a simple log out. A tray icon has been added that shows the GPU in use so the user can switch to the desired one.

Other improvements: Improvements in the bash completion command means better autocompletion when typing commands. There is a new ‘apt’ command that lists missing packages when the user tries to install some software. The USB writer and USB Stick formatter now have improved detection for a wide variety of USB sticks.

What’s in the box?

Linux Mint is known for pre-installing many applications that couldn’t be pre-installed on other distributions due to licensing and patent issues. Linux Mint KDE comes with the must-have VLC video player that can handle virtually any video format (though it is still on version 2.1.x, when VLC 2.2 was released in March). It also comes with LibreOffice 4.x and not the newly-released LibreOffice 5.x.

So you are still on older packages even if you ran a system update. I know Linux Mint is conservative and their approach to upgrades is ‘don’t fix if it’s not broken’. But in many cases updates don’t just fix what’s broken. They also bring new features, efficiencies, and performance improvements. The only way to solve this problem is by using PPAs of those applications to stay updated.

Other pre-installed software includes Firefox as the default browser, and Kmail as the email client. (I wish they moved to Thunderbird, as setting up Kmail can be a herculean task for a typical Linux Mint user.)

It comes with GIMP for image editing and Amarok as the default music player. So you can see they are using a mix of KDE software and GTK-based apps instead of sticking to pure KDE applications. They have chosen what they believe is best suited for their users. With the exception of Kmail, I tend to agree with their choices.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, I like Linux Mint KDE, but not as much as I liked Cinnamon. I like the improvements made to the core of Linux Mint, but KDE 4 doesn’t cut it for me anymore. I am too used to Plasma 5 and its polish. I would have happily swapped my Kubuntu system for Linux Mint 17.2, but KDE 4 would stop me from doing so. The team has not laid out any plans to help users in upgrading to Plasma 5, so while I like almost everything the Linux Mint team has done, I won't be putting it on my main hard drive.

Have you tried Linux Mint 17.2 KDE yet? What’s your opinion of sticking to KDE 4 vs moving to Plasma 5? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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