Distro Hopping, Linux Mint 19 Edition

After installing Ubuntu 18.10 a few days ago and breaking a bunch of things, I realized I needed a more stable OS, and quick! I couldn’t just go back to boring old Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, so I took a quick look at the DistroWatch Page Hit Ranking and noticed Linux Mint up there in the top 3.

If memory serves, the last time I used Mint was back in 2012. I tried out MATE and Cinnamon, but found them both too antiquated for my tastes. They seemed to be mimicking a popular desktop paradigm from the 90’s (desktop icons, taskbar, start menu) with very little innovation.

Fast forward six years to Linux Mint 19, and the traditional desktop paradigm is very much still there. Start menu, quick launch icons, system tray — it’s all there, albeit flatter and more modern looking.

Linux Mint 19 “Tara”, Cinnamon Edition

Even the browser home page looks identical to six years ago, with its Google Custom Search and narrow fixed-width layout:

Classic.

Perhaps the Mint team is focused on reliability and polish rather than adding flashy new features? I hope so! I think we could do with more stability in the Linux world. More time spent on solidifying the platform, squashing bugs, improving performance. Less time spent on pointless changes, copycat features, greenfield projects, and eye candy.

So does Mint succeed in delivering a more stable experience? Let’s find out — but first, a little interlude:

The Five Stages of Distro Evaluation

  1. Huh, this is pretty neat. I should install it!
  2. Ooh, that’s cool, I like it! Maybe this distro will be the one? 😍
  3. Hmm, why isn’t this working? I’m sure I’ll find a solution…
  4. WHY IS THIS BUG STILL A THING????? ARE YOU SERIOUS??? THERE’S NO WAY I AM GOING TO USE SUCH CRAP SOFTWARE!!!
  5. OK, maybe I can live with a few bugs 😢 But why can’t anyone get this right?!

And now, let’s talk about my experience with Mint 19. The stages above have absolutely nothing to do with it, I assure you 😉

Mint Makes Computers Happy (or does it?)

Booting the ISO was quick and without issue. The startup sequence was clean, with no ugly flashes of kernel messages or errors. After boot, all of my hardware was working and I could connect to the internet, so I went ahead with installation.

Installation went smoothly and quickly with no problems. It was close to the Ubuntu installer, so familiar and easy to use. It was soon finished and ready to boot into my new Mint installation!

Look and Feel

After reboot, I like to spend a little time customizing the look of my desktop. I was pleased to find a nice selection of high-quality wallpapers pre-installed:

I was also happy to see a decent set of themes, including dark and light variants, plus an easy way to install more themes if desired.

Once my desktop was looking the way I wanted it to, I proceeded with installing applications.

Using Mint Software Manager

The Mint Software Manager worked great during my testing. I found almost every application that I needed there, including Slack, Visual Studio Code, MySQL Workbench, Spotify, and Postman. The inclusion of Flatpaks plus some third-party PPAs meant for an excellent selection of packages.

Installation of Flatpaks and debian packages alike was smooth. I never encountered an error message or problem during my testing. Even .deb files I downloaded on the internet opened with the appropriate helper utility and installed seamlessly.

Contrasting this with GNOME Software in Ubuntu, the experience was much better. I feel like this is a rare case of a distro choosing to implement their own functionality for something that already exists and actually doing a good job at it!

Problems with Flatpak

I did encounter one interesting problem when I installed Visual Studio Code via Flatpak. When I opened the terminal inside VS Code, I was presented with sh rather than bash as my shell. I dug around in the settings and found a way to set the shell. Problem solved? Not quite.

Even after switching to bash, I found that tools I expected to be in the path weren’t there. I had several binaries in /usr/local/bin, but none of them could be found. In fact, I couldn’t even ls /usr/local/bin… odd. After some googling, I found that Flatpak mounts the /usr folder under /run/host/usr , and any PATH references would need to be updated accordingly.

Rather than trying to find some way to set the PATH for the Visual Studio Code terminal independently of my .bashrc, I gave up on the Flatpak and installed the .deb version of VS Code instead. Maybe this was a cop-out, but at this point I was tired of wasting time on this and needed to get it working.

A Glitch in the Matrix

A while after I started using Mint, I began to notice a weird black border that flickered around windows. It was especially noticeable when dragging windows, but would happen at random whenever I interacted with a window (clicking something, scrolling a website, etc.). This was annoying enough that I immediately went in search of a solution.

I soon found a thread where other users were describing the same behavior. It only seemed to happen when using dual monitors, and also seemed to be connected to either Intel or Nvidia graphics (both of which my laptop has). On a whim, I fired up the Driver Manager to see if a proprietary driver might be available for my graphics card. Sure enough, I had the option to use nvidia-driver instead of nouveau. After a reboot, I was using the new driver and that particular glitch went away.

Proprietary. Yuck.

I’ve noticed a couple other glitches since then, which is odd because I’ve never had a graphics-related glitch in another distro before this. I am guessing that Cinnamon’s compositor could use some bugfixes.

Ooh, pretty colors!

Speaking of Glitches…

Perhaps it’s my QA background, or perhaps it’s fate, but I seem to have a way of finding bugs wherever I go. So it’s no big surprise that I found a major bug in Cinnamon while testing.

The bug occurred when I closed the lid on my laptop for the night, then came back to it the next morning and opened it. My laptop had gone to sleep and resumed without a problem, but on resume, it did not prompt me for a password. That’s right, if my laptop had been stolen between last night and this morning, a thief would have had unrestricted access to my computer!

When I started to dig into the details, I found a bug from 2013 for this issue. This is the moment disbelief started to kick in. How could such a major, obvious security issue still exist after 5 years?! If the Mint team hasn’t addressed this major issue, which other security issues could they be ignoring?

To be fair, Clem (founder of Linux Mint) posted an update on the bug back in 2013 saying it was fixed in Cinnamon 2.0, and that a check had been added to QA to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. That seems like a good response, and yet here I am in 2018, the bug has regressed, no patch has been released, and QA seems to have failed to detect the bug. This doesn’t reflect well on the Mint team.

I don’t want to artificially inflate this issue and make it sound like it’s the end of the world for Mint. I’m sure there are workarounds if one looks hard enough, and perhaps Mint will fix it in a timely manner if enough users re-report it. It is disconcerting, nonetheless, and might be an indicator of a larger problem under the surface.

Sidenote: one workaround is to lock the screen prior to closing the laptop. I will probably do this until a better workaround or a bug fix is identified.

Miscellany

  • For some reason, I couldn’t get shortcuts for the Screenshot utility to work correctly. In particular, I could set the key binding for “Copy a screenshot of an area to clipboard”, but when I try to use the shortcut, nothing happens.
  • The sound effects for various actions came as a surprise to me (yet another throwback to the good ol’ Windows 95 days 😂). I’m on the fence whether I should leave them on or not. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction hearing a little “swish” each time I switch my workspaces… 😏
  • For once, my multiple VPN setup worked perfectly without any tweaks!
  • The power management utility included settings for plugged-in/unplugged states, which I love. It seems like every DE should support this, but GNOME in particular does not.
  • After changing my user’s password and rebooting, I was asked to enter my keychain password since it was different from the login password. If I keep getting prompted for this, I’ll have to look into a way to change the keychain password to match my login password.

Concluding Thoughts

For a while now I’ve had some hesitations about using a traditional-style DE such as Cinnamon. Such DEs usually feel very dated to me, both in style and in paradigm. On the other end of the spectrum, “modern” DEs like GNOME feel bloated, slow, and stagnant in their own fashion.

Linux Mint 19 was a refreshing experience, despite its flaws. It retained many of the old desktop paradigms, but in such a way that they felt fresh and improved. Assuming that I find a few solutions to the issues I’m experiencing, I might just stick with it for a while!