Is it melodramatic to say that Linux Mint 12 has been the most anticipated distribution of the year? Maybe, maybe not. Probably. But I was certainly looking forward to it: even more so when I learned about Mint’s proposed reworking of the GNOME Shell. So I installed the release candidate on three computers, and I have the final on two of them.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. That’s not a complaint; I really didn’t have any idea what it would be like. I was greeted with a screen that looks suspiciously, reassuringly Minty. There is the famous Mint Menu click-me in the lower left corner: smaller than usual, but right where I expected it. There is a taskbar atop the screen, too. To the right is the notifications and a truncated date. And my name, even; wow, all the people who install Linux Mint will see me up there; what great publicity!
The clock said Thu 22:27 when I looked. I clicked on it and found that I could switch it from 24-hour time to AM/PM time, but that was all I could do. As it turned out, the rest of the settings are to be found in “Advanced Settings” in the Mint Menu. (I really don’t want to call it the Mint Menu, because it is palpably different from what has come before, but this is the future, folks, unless it isn’t, which it might not be, as I’ll eventually get to.) I now have it displaying as Thu Nov 17, 10:35 PM; I would prefer Thursday, 17 Nov, 10:35 pm (some time in the 1980s I had a gig that required me to work with Eurostyle dates, and I got used to its logic). Xfce lets me do that, but I’m not going to let myself get bugged out over it. I need to save my energy so I can spazz about some other things.
At the left edge of that top menu bar is an infinity sign. This switches you between the main screen—the Mint GNOME Shell Extensions (MGSE) come to life—and a more recognizable GNOME Shell. (Not that I’m an expert. I installed a Fedora 15 beta when it came out and played around with it for a couple of evenings. I didn’t hate the GNOME Shell at first blush, but for various reasons I never got back to that installation.) The behavior is odd. I can switch into the GNOME Shell (oh, since the whole thing is GNOME Shell, I guess I could call it the Real GNOME Shell) and see the huge icons on the left (Firefox, Banshee, Software Manager, Advanced Settings, Terminal Emulator, and Nautilus), and to the right of Firefox the choice between Windows and Applications. Clicking on the latter covers the desktop with icons for just about everything on the computer; it pretty much fills the 23-inch monitor on the “Fun computer” and flat-out overwhelms the little laptop, and I’ve only installed about 4 things that aren’t part of the core Linux Mint installation. People who do a lot of tuning might get overwhelmed. Over near the upper right corner is a box called “search”. I typed an “e” and a bunch of icons appeared, along with two black tabs at the bottom of the screen saying “Wikipedia” and “Google”. I typed an “m” and about half the icons disappeared. I typed an “a” and only Emacs was left. I clicked on “Wikipedia” and the EMA page came up. I learned that an Ema is a wooden plaque with prayers or wishes at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and also an alternate name for the Kemak people in Timor. EMA is also a popular acronym, e.g. the Ethiopian Mapping Authority, European Mahjong Association, and so on. The Mint logo from the Mint GNOME Shell Extensions shows through faintly, for a camera obscura vibe.
Anyway, I have described the GNOME Shell for you, but I had to keep flipping back and forth to do it; the very second I started to type, the desktop went back to the Mint GNOME Shell Extensions. It’s sort of like the Mint designers let you sample the GNOME Shell and even let you select an application now and then, but they don’t let you stay there, because they know that madness awaits. I don’t know. This is a release candidate, and it may or may not be the last release candidate. It is presumptuous of me to analyze the Linux Mint development team, but I have a feeling that all this is working as designed, and now they want to find out whether the design works at all. (Later: It was the last release candidate, and this is the design.)
Then I fired up the GNOME Shell on the laptop. I had to. I wanted to experience the GNOME 3.2 desktop with the Mint GNOME Shell Extensions anyway, but because of a bug that precludes loading the MATE desktop in the 32-bit installation, I had no choice. Like many distros, Mint greets you with a dopey little tune. I wish it wouldn’t: not just Mint, but any of them. Ubuntu’s drum roll bugs me out. So does that other operating system, for that matter; I wish I had a dollar for every time I had to listen to that mess. I had to look around to find out where to turn it off. In GNOME 2, or at least in any of the GNOME 2 distros I remember having on the laptop, you could go into Startup Programs and disable Login Sound. Here, Sound has its own category in System Settings, and Sound Effects is in the first tab, and you click on “No Sound Effects” and hope that’s what it is. I also noticed that there wasn’t a Startup Programs. And that made me cranky. I usually like exploring new interfaces; I’m not writing this blog because I hate Linux or because I like getting comment spam (I finally installed Bad Behavior, which keeps some of it from even getting here, while Akismet does quite well with the rest). I write this blog because I like writing and I like Linux, and I like both of them a lot. Linux is such a blast I’m not even scared of my computer any more! But I have to say that, despite Linux Mint’s sincere efforts to make GNOME 3 usable, it has been a strain. I ran out of patience with the compose key and the login sound. Finding stuff in Xfce is a can of corn compared to this. Finding my way around Xfce 4.8 in Foresight Linux was fun—and in Xubuntu, too, though by then I knew where most of the goodies were kept in Xfce. Finding my way around GNOME 3 is not fun.
I disliked KDE 4 when it first came out, and got frustrated fairly quickly, but this is a different sort of frustration. KDE 4 was busy, busy, busy; it still is, though it has been ergonomicized in many ways. GNOME 3 is almost stark; let’s call it “elegant in an austere way”, because that sounds nicer, and there is something elementally attractive about the Shell. Maybe it’s the difference between being lost in Philadelphia and being lost in southeastern New Mexico. But I know I’m reacting differently because I never loved KDE 3. I had Pardus on the laptop for quite a while, partly because Pardus is very ergonomic and partly because it was one of the first distros to play nice with my Broadcom wireless card, but there was never a time when KDE 3 was my go-to desktop. So I didn’t have a history with it, and I didn’t feel the betrayal that many KDE 3 advocates did four years ago. I’ve followed the history off and on, and the extremely condensed version is that the KDE organization thought they were communicating but it wasn’t getting through. They’ve learned a lot since then. If they ever do such a thorough makeover again (not that I’m suggesting that, mind you!), I’d bet my last dime that it’ll be a much smoother process.
And I did love GNOME 2. And, despite my best intentions, I do feel betrayed.
This does not mean that the GNOME organization is malevolent. Nobody sat down and said, “Wow, KDE alienated ⅔ of their users? Let’s see if we can cheese off ¾ of ours!” People within the GNOME organization have to be hurt by the tough reception. I hoped I would enjoy the GNOME 3 experience more than I am, in part because I like to have fun, and in part because I wanted to say lots of good things about it simply because of all the negativity, some of which is so lacking in elemental civility that it makes me wonder where some people got their socialization training.
A name like “GNOME 3″ creates certain expectations. I wish they had called it something else.
I guess I should talk about performance. I didn’t crash anything, either when I had the release candidate or when I installed the Real Deal. Linux Mint has been criticized for being relatively sluggish, but version 10 was generally as fast as any other GNOME desktop on which I tried to get any work done (so was 11 as far as I could tell, though I really didn’t work with that one a lot), and I haven’t noticed any decline from those standards here. But I didn’t measure anything; I was trying to get the lay of the land, with a spyglass rather than a stopwatch, as it were.
The final release came out. I installed it, and verified that MATE was available in the 32-bit version. Then a very important family matter came up suddenly, I was out of town for several days, and…well, I haven’t really felt much like writing.
This past Saturday, I went to a terrific LinuxRI meeting and learned something about VPN tunneling via a splendid presentation and otherwise had some nice conversations (and a likeable guy from Fedora brought along some Fedora swag, including stickers & ballpoint pens, giving me another incentive to see what Fedora has done with GNOME 3), and while I was there I heard about a Free Geek Providence organizational meeting (I’ve been doing a little work with them, refurbishing old computers for use by people who are stuck on the wrong side of the Digital Devide or, mostly, “demanning” (“de-manufacturing”, or disassembling) old computers that just plain don’t work any more and can’t be fixed, and trying to keep them out of poisonous landfills that are killing people in less favored parts of the world). So I went over there, “there” for the time being being the basement of a Pentecostal church in South Providence. I’m starting to emerge from the cloud I was under.
And MATE is part of that emergence. If you’ve heard of MATE, you’ve probably heard it’s a fork of GNOME 2. To me, it is like GNOME 2 in a dream. Everything seems to be in the same place, and it’s hard to describe what, exactly, is different. One thing I noticed when running the release candidate is that when I went to look for a file, sometimes I launched Nautilus, and sometimes I launched something called Caja, which looked a lot like Nautilus but crashed very suddenly a couple of times. There didn’t seem to be any pattern to which one I got. It seems that the developer, “Perberos”, had to rename many of your favorite old GNOME accessories so that they wouldn’t collide with the versions in GNOME 3. But since I installed the Real Deal release, mostly I get Nautilus. And gEdit is still gEdit. The renaming may affect, for instance, ArchLinux, which has an active MATE community and is considerably more modular than Linux Mint.
(Some readers may wonder how a distro can have two separate desktop environments. When you turn on your computer in the morning and boot into the Linux Mint login screen, you’ll see your name, and below your name is a place to type your password. Next to your name is something that looks like a gear on a bicycle, or one of those things that impaled Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. Click on that, and you’ll get four choices: GNOME 3, GNOME Classic, GNOME Classic (no desktop effects), and MATE. If you choose, for instance, GNOME Classic, you’re in that session; the only way to get to MATE is to log out and choose MATE from that bicycle gear and log back in again. Some distros have this; Mageia, for instance, will let you choose WindowMaker and a severely stripped-down, marginally customizable IceWM. Others, like Ubuntu, generally don’t, unless for instance you install “kubuntu-desktop” into Ubuntu, after which you’ll be able to choose either Unity or KDE. If multiple desktops are present in a distribution, they can collide with one another in various ways, such as having duplicate services or cluttered menus. Linux Mint makes sure that the various desktops stay out of one another’s way.)
One thing I noticed right off the bat was that the bottom menu bar looked somehow anemic: it wasn’t GNOMEy, nor was it Minty, for “anemic” can never be applied to the classical Mint appearance. This was easily remedied: I went to Preferences | Appearances, then chose the Fonts tab, and I changed the Application, Document, Desktop, and Window title fonts to Droid Sans 11, which is really quite a lovely screen font (I think the default was Sans 10). I also changed “Rendering” to “Subpixel smoothing”, which seemed to help, at least in my case. There’s a “Details” button that gives you a bunch more things to set, including the resolution, which defaults to 96 but which you can try goosing up to 100 if you’re really having trouble getting your display to look nice.
Also, for the record, when the Real Deal was released, I had the impression from something I read somewhere that I could run MintUpdate on the release candidate and not have to reinstall. I found that to be not quite the case. On the Play Computer, the Mint Menu that we all know and love from previous GNOME 2-based Mints didn’t quite work; there was a menu, but it was more minimal, like the standard Xfce menu or the “Classic” KDE menu. Downloading the Real Deal .iso and installing fresh was generally better, and I recommend it.
The same problem I had with the Broadcom wireless adapter in Kubuntu and Xubuntu reappeared in Linux Mint Lisa. I’ll repeat the steps here:
sudo apt-get install b43-fwcutter
tar xf broadcom-wl-126.96.36.199.tar.bz2
sudo b43-fwcutter -w /lib/firmware wl_apsta_mimo.o
If that doesn’t last past your next shutdown/restart, and it probably won’t:
sudo nano /etc/modules
(You can substitute the text editor of your choice for nano, of course, but you’ll never find anything faster) and add, on its very own line:
Linux is easy! Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise!
There are a couple of other things I’ve come up with that don’t work in MATE. The themes aren’t completely integrated and some have been known to make the menu button disappear. (This has to do with the transition from GTK 2 to GTK 3.) I haven’t been able to assign keyboard shortcuts. Both of those are known bugs. I haven’t been able to get the GNOME Keyring to come up, but that hasn’t been a showstopper for me, and I haven’t had the time to check out the Launchpad and see what has been reported. (I’ll do that later tonight, I hope.)
The Linux Mint development team has grabbed the future by its greasy, pockmarked horns and tried to make it work. But that’s Linux Mint for you; they’re all about making their distribution, and Linux in general, Just Work. GNOME 3 might never work for some people, and it might never work for me. But, with further development and support (moral and otherwise), MATE will work. It is not perfect, but after a week of fairly regular use, I have found its imperfections to be well within the boundaries of livability.
KDE, Xfce, and MATE. It’s like contemplating that eternal question, “Italian, Chinese, or Mexican?” In life, as in cuisine, there are no ultimate answers, and what satisfies today might tomorrow merely confuse. As the Moody Blues once put it, How is it we are here, on this path we walk? I love that “Dee-scending from the apes”! But I digress. Linux Mint 12 has presented us with two possible futures, and has presented them with the utmost in professionalism. If you’re reading this, you will probably like one of those possible futures. And you might like both. Wouldn’t that be great?