I decided to give Linux Mint 13 'Maya' with the MATE Desktop Environment a quick spin, before Nadia arrived...then I could look for another more mature DE, perhaps Xfce, perhaps the Linux Mint variant. So I took out the magazine cover mounted DVD I had and launched the Maya MATE live session and began carving up my drive to make some space. I love that the Mint live session includes GParted, if you're installing a new distro this is the tool, unless you have the good fortune to have access to the KDE Partition Tool. Once your distro is deployed it's value shrinks to almost nothing so saving some precious drive storage is sound idea as most users simply won't need it again, those that do probably won't have any issue installing it.
All my plans to merrily go about thrashing and over-revving several others from the current crop of popular distros promptly fell at the wayside. I really shouldn't have been surprised, MATE is Gnome 2 after all, however it's difficult to convey my feelings about Maya. I loved the simplicity of Ubuntu, it seemed to make everything possible. Some people dislike the on-a-plate delivery of Ubuntu and prefer the power and flexibility of an Arch, Gentoo or Sabayon. Fine, no issue with that, but when you want a distro that's simple to install, simple to set up and gets out of your face so you can work Ubuntu 10:04 was perfection and I hit none of the snags that some experienced from 10:10. When I felt I needed to move and tried Linux Mint 11 Katya for the first time it was simply like coming home, it was all Ubuntu had been and more.
It felt exactly like I'd wanted Ubuntu 12:04 to be, Ubuntu 10:04 only better and more polished. Using Maya for the first time I seriously questioned the rationale of not wanting to backslide into Gnome 2 and a 'legacy' Desktop. MATE is, naturally, as good as Gnome 2.32 but with plans afoot to make use of the Gtk3 tool-set MATE is looking forward as well as back.
2012 has been disappointing and pleasant for the same reasons. The Linux Mint team have delivered a distro experience that has simply been exactly what I was looking for. Cinnamon has pushed the boundaries and made the Gnome 3 tech usable by replacing the Gnome Shell and throwing away the Gnome team's design brief. The Gnome team had announced that they were removing Fallback mode from Gnome Shell, a Gnome 2 panel-like interface for 2D desktop users, then in a belated turnaround they've recently announced a Classic mode return with project maintained extensions delivered in tarball for those who wish to opt for the Classic (read old-fashioned, Gnome 2) experience.
Perhaps we'll now see a gentle repositioning by the community. Old fashioned and traditional might surreptitiously be replaced with standard or user friendly. Modern, fresh and cutting edge may be edged out in favour of bleeding edge. I was (unsurprisingly) insulted by the suggestion (made on the Ubuntu Forum) that 'I simply didn't like change' and found it difficult to 'transition to a modern interface design'. My scorn of Unity (and Gnome Shell) would've been tempered if it was a developmental alternative, the first steps to a new Desktop model and associated way of working. Having someone accuse me of being unable to cope with a bleeding edge interface design would have me responding more moderately that 'for everyday, productive computing that was probably so'. My approach and review of Gnome Shell and Unity would've dwelt on the positives and innovation and not those parts that made everyday use onerous (Global Menus, Overviews or Dashes, appalling task switching, no window controls).
It may well be (two years) too late for the Gnome team to respond to it's user base and survive, but frankly who cares, we have MATE and I frankly can't wait for the next iteration of Cinnamon. As for Ubuntu if the upstream distro continues to ship with as many regressions I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Clement Leferbvre announce the use of Debian across the entire Mint stable and not just for the rolling LMDE.
So for my needs, the undisputed champion and distro of 2012 is the MATE 1.4 sporting Linux Mint 14 'Nadia'.