The first thing that greets the new user when they spin up the Mint LiveDVD is a rather fetching boot splash with the Linux Mint 12 branding. This branding looks both funky and professional which gives you great hope for the distro that you're just about to install.
The installer is very polished, being stock Ubuntu one, with the inevitable green touches where Ubuntu would use orange. The installer offers two partitioning choices: using the entire drive, formatted for Mint's use or Something Else. I think this is perfect: one option for the novice; and another for those who want or need to to take charge and specify more advanced partition layouts. All you need to do then is select your time-zone, location and keyboard layout and then the installer deploys the OS for you. Even Grub is configured for you and a good job it did too, picking up all my other operating systems.
It looks like exactly what it is...a mesh of new Gnome Shell tech and old Gnome 2 panels style. If you click on Menu in the bottom right corner the Gnome Tweak tool will open and you can see what's going on.
The infinity symbol on the Gnome panel, or mousing up into the very top left corner, gives access to Gnome Shell task switching, the favourites panel (that is duplicated down the left hand side of the Mint Menu) and all installed applications.
This goes to the heart of the debate surrounding the new wave of Desktop Environments. They feature new and often more efficient and faster ways of working and accessing common tasks. This demands that the user be flexible and adapt themselves to the new way of working.
Personally, I've always felt that Desktop Environments should be flexible. Each user should find an environment that enables the way they want to interact with the operating system and thus promote productivity. The Linux approach with it's multiple choice of ways to achieve the same end has always been in step with this concept. The current paradigm seems to be a switch to imposing a clever and consistent design that the user must adapt to to get the best and most productive use of their OS.
Let's explore what Linux Mint 'Lisa' offers out of the box. The application suite seem comprehensive but lighter than I'm used to: both positive and welcome. There are no shocks in choices the Mint developers have made. Applications rise to popularity with the community usually through ease of use and stability so why fight it?
Brasero is the CD/DVD burning package, you do get typical gnome applications, all of which I love, including gEdt, gCalctool and the invaluable Gnome Character Map. Tomboy Notes is included everywhere apparent so I can practice removing software. gThumb is present but if you need a graphic editing app you'd install GIMP, so it's included by default. XSane is installed and ready to roll as nearly as many people have scanners as printers let face it.
I think Firefox 10 ships, but my initial, post install, update upped to this to 11.0. It's good to see distros get on top of the new Firefox release schedule and push new versions out punctually. I'm pleased that Firefox is still Mint's default though it would be a simple matter to remove the dull looking and less extensible Chrome and install it if I had to. Pidgin, Xchat IRC, Thunderbird and Transmission complete the Internet category. A small selections that covers the bases I approve. Transmission is an excellent example of the Mint Team's approach here: this app is simple and just works. really well too. It's well know and easy to use and if you want to use your Torrent client of choice it will most like be available in the repositories.
Office productivity is addressed solely by LibreOffice. No Abiword or Gnumeric clutter: most people will ignore them, some will remove them, both will probably deploy LibreOffice. Does anyone love Abiword and would rip out LibreOffice Writer in favour of it? Surely not?
Choices are always good and Mint has everything for everyone.
So why I am still using Linux Mint 11 "Katya"? Well, as you probably guessed, it's for one reason and one reason only: Gnome.
Gnome Shell is alright, you can use it. It's frustrating that some of the simple things are either or complex now. The Mint Gnome Shell Extensions (MGSE) bottom bar with Mint menu and task switching doesn't simply restore the missing functionality it mixes two interface styles. Gnome 2.x panels style with Gnome 3 Shell minimalism and give you a third interface which is best describe as inconsistent. You may not like Gnome Shell's minimalism, losing the minimise/maximise buttons and having to launch applications from the Dash / Favourites bar, as you cannot create custom launchers on the panel, might feel restrictive but it is coherent. Gnome Shell has an internal logic in it design objectives, it may yet develop into a very usable and sophisticated interface. Watering down and subverting the design goals of the Gnome Team and mixing in designs abandoned from Gnome 2.x Panels hasn't created the perfect interface. It's created a dog's breakfast of ideas.
In developing an interface I was comfortable with I've revised the way in which I use Gnome 2 Panels in Katya. After trying to work with the default Lisa interface for a while I installed some of the Gnome Extensions. I didn't want both the Dash and the Mint Menu. I decided to go with the Dash and lost the whole bottom bar.
I now use one panel in Gnome 2 Katya and have task switching on that bar. Of course I don't use virtual workspaces, I found it added very little to my user experience, so I now disable them and remove the switcher interface.
This is hardly a deal breaker. It is, however, another paper cut from a user interface that is badly finished and like a cheap computer case cuts your hands to ribbons every time you poke around inside. (Another example: using two monitors in Twinview caused issues when trying to unlock the screen after the screensaver kicked in. The login box was displayed on the screen that remained shut down until you logged back in!)The analogy is quite a good one. The core of the distro is excellent and the Mint Team have tried really hard to make Gnome Shell into something more flexible and usable for the majority of users. The wrapper, the way in which user must interact with their applications, periphals, hardware and software configuration doesn't hang together in a consistent and coherent way. Although the MGSEs demonstrate potential it's transforms the Gnome 3 Shell into something which is neither one thing nor another and for that reason alone leaves itself less that both. At the moment the MGSEs try to take the best of Gnome 2 and 3 three and cobbles together something ugly and ill fitting.
Fedora's pure Gnome Shell experience beats the jumbled MGSE environment of Linux Mint 12 "Lisa". There is much to like in Lisa, but the user interface ultimately sends me scurrying back to the security of a flexible and configurable Gnome 2.x interface and Katya.