Linux Mint 18 review: Playing it safe

Linux Mint has taken a great leap with this release and finally introduced Plasma 5.x desktop.

Clement Lefebvre, the founder and project lead of Linux Mint has announced the release of Linux Mint KDE (LMK) 18. As a hardcore Plasma user I had to test this release. What I found was a mixed bag.

What makes Linux Mint unique

Linux Mint is a very conservative and ‘play it safe’ distribution. It, seemingly, focuses more on empowering users to use their computers the way they already know, instead of running after ‘innovation’. Due to this approach Linux Mint has become popular even among seasoned Linux users.

Linux Mint has improved a lot ever since they switched base to Ubuntu LTS. Earlier they had to keep up with bi-annual Ubuntu releases. Their resources were consumed by chasing a moving target (Ubuntu) instead of improving the core features of Linux Mint. As a result Linux Mint used to be buggy and unstable. However, since they switched base, Linux Mint has become extremely stable and relatively bug free.

What’s new in this release?

One of the greatest features of this release is the arrival of Plasma 5.6 on Linux Mint. The previous release (version 17.3 of Linux Mint KDE) was still running Plasma 4.x, so this is clearly a big leap for the distribution.

I think LMK team made the right decision to use Plasma 4.x branch for the previous release. Despite being a Plasma user I have not been very happy with it so far due to lack of features and missing functionalities. But with 5.6, it has reached a point where you can start enjoying the KDE desktop again.

LMK 18 includes the Kubuntu Backports PPA, which ensures users will be running the latest version of the Plasma desktop.

Linux Mint has been working on improving user interaction with system updates. They have been refining the update manager, offering users more transparency about what is being updated. With this release they are taking another step in that direction.

According to LMK 18 release notes, “The update manager was already configurable but it wasn’t clear how to configure it, and why. In particular, the concepts of regressions, stability and security weren’t clearly explained. To raise awareness around these concepts and to show more information, a new screen is there to welcome you to the update manager and to ask you to select an update policy.”

Apt improve command line

When I say that Linux Mint is conservative, I don't mean that they don’t create and develop new technologies and tools; in fact they have created the brand new desktop environment called Cinnamon.

In 2007, LM came up with an apt solution to simplify things for users; they introduced ‘apt’ command that offered a shortcut to package management commands like apt-get, aptitude, apt-cache, etc.

Later on Debian and Ubuntu also implemented the ‘apt’ idea, but in a different way. With LMK 18, Linux Mint is not only offering all the ‘apt’ features they developed, but are also supporting syntax of the Debian 'apt'. Now you can run new commands like ‘apt full-upgrade’ instead of ‘apt dist-upgrade’.  Best of both worlds, I would say. 

If you are someone like me who uses a lot of external SD cards, then there is good news: LMK now supports exFAT file system out of the box. This release also comes with Btrfs support and it's enabled by default.So if you are looking for storage redundancy, go for Btrfs.

LMK 18 comes with a huge set of applications pre-installed, with this release they have added many 3rd party apps such as Steam, Spotify, Dropbox, and Minecraft to their software manager.

Tested on Dell XPS 13

I tested LMK 18 on my Dell XPS 13 (2016) to see how it performs on this new hardware with HiDPI display. The good news is that everything worked out of the box - from wireless to bluetooth.

Thanks to the PCIe solid storage device used in this laptop, LMK booted really fast. 16GB RAM ensured that there would not be any compromise when comes to performance. Plasma 5.x is quite resource efficient so all that RAM is at the disposal of the applications and services I will be using.

The battery life is good. I got over 6-7 hours on full charge.

Plasma and HiDPI are not good friends

KDE Plasma still doesn’t offer decent HiDPI support out of the box. I had to do some work to get scaling right, and still there were some components that didn’t look good.

As much as I love Plasma, I wish it behaved better on the HiDPI screen as that’s where everyone is moving. I must confess I have been secretly using Gnome as my primary desktop for a while; it looks pretty awesome on this laptop. I am hoping that Plasma will take some lessons from Gnome and offer automatic scaling on HiDPI screens.

Beyond HiDPI support, everything else shines in LMK 18. If you are a Plasma user looking for a distribution that you can trust, a distribution that remains conservative so that ‘features’ don’t come between you and your work, then Linux Mint KDE is the one for you.

And it also supports 3.5mm headphone jack! (That was a cheap joke on iPhone 7).


Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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