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HTG Explains: What’s the Difference Between Ubuntu & Linux Mint?

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Ubuntu and Linux Mint are two of the most popular desktop Linux distributions at the moment. If you’re looking to take the dive into Linux – or you’ve already used Ubuntu or Mint – you wonder how they’re different.

Linux Mint and Ubuntu are closely related — Mint is based on Ubuntu. Although they were very similar at first, Ubuntu and Linux Mint have become increasingly different Linux distributions with different philosophies over time.

History

Ubuntu and other Linux distributions contain open-source software, so anyone can modify it, remix, and roll their own versions. Linux Mint’s first stable version, “Barbara,” was released in 2006. Barbara was a lightly customized Ubuntu system with a different theme and slightly different default software. Its major differentiating feature was its inclusion of proprietary software like Flash and Java, in addition to patent-encumbered codecs for playing MP3s and other types of multimedia. This software is included in Ubuntu’s repositories, but isn’t included on the Ubuntu disc. Many users liked Mint for the convenience installing the stuff by default, in contrast to Ubuntu’s more idealistic approach.

Over time, Mint differentiated itself from Ubuntu further, customizing the desktop and including a custom main menu and their own configuration tools. Mint is still based on Ubuntu – with the exception of Mint’s Debian Edition, which is based on Debian (Ubuntu itself is actually based on Debian).

With Ubuntu’s launch of the Unity desktop, Mint picked up additional steam. Instead of rolling the Unity desktop into Mint, Mint’s developers listened to their users and saw an opportunity to provide a different desktop experience from Ubuntu.

The Desktop

Ubuntu includes the Unity desktop by default, although you can install a wide variety of additional desktop environments from Ubuntu’s repositories and third-party personal package archives (PPAs).

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Mint’s latest release comes in two versions, each with a different desktop: Cinnamon and MATE. Cinnamon is a more forward-looking desktop that builds on new technologies without throwing out standard desktop elements – for example, Cinnamon actually has a taskbar and an applications menu that doesn’t take over your entire screen. For a more in-depth tour, check out our guide to installing Cinnamon on Ubuntu.

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MATE is a fork of the old GNOME 2 desktop that Ubuntu and Linux Mint previously used, and it works similarly. It uses MATE’s custom menu. For a more in-depth look, check out our guide to installing MATE on Ubuntu.

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You’ll also notice that Mint has a more toned down and lighter color scheme Its window buttons are also on the right side of the window title bar instead of the left.

Which desktop environment you prefer ultimately comes down to personal choice. Ubuntu’s Unity is more jarring for users of the older Linux desktop environments, while Mint’s desktop environments are less of a drastic change. However, some people do prefer Unity, and Unity has improved somewhat in recent versions.

Proprietary Software & Codecs

Mint still includes proprietary software (like Flash) and codecs out-of-the-box, but this has become less of a differentiating feature. The latest versions of Ubuntu allow you to enable a single check box during installation and Ubuntu will automatically grab the proprietary software and codecs you need, without any additional work required.

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Configurability

These days, Mint seems to offer more configurability than Ubuntu out-of-the-box. Whereas Ubuntu’s Unity only includes a few options in the latest version of Ubuntu, there’s an entire settings application for configuring the Cinnamon desktop.

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The latest version of Mint, “Maya,” also includes the MDM display manager, which is based on the old GNOME Display Manager. Whereas Ubuntu doesn’t ship with any graphical configuration tools for tweaking its login screen, Mint ships with an administration panel that can customize the Login Screen.

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While Ubuntu is still based on Linux and is configurable under-the-hood, many pieces of Ubuntu software aren’t very configurable. For example, Ubuntu’s Unity desktop has very few options.


Ubuntu’s latest versions are more of a break from the past, dispensing with the more traditional desktop environment and large amount of configuration options. Mint retains these, and feels more familiar.

Which do you prefer, Ubuntu or Linux Mint? Leave a comment and let us know.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 05/28/12

Comments (38)

  1. Dalf

    I installed Mint because I heard it was more light and faster than Ubuntu (time to start up for example).
    Isn’t true ?

  2. snowhawkyrf

    If you install the MATE desktop, yes it’s fast. But cinnamon needs more hardware resources.
    Start up time is not that important for Linux in my opinion, is it ?

  3. Veovis Muad'dib

    These days, Mint seems to offer more configurability than Ubuntu out-of-the-box. Whereas Ubuntu’s Unity only includes a few options in the latest version of Ubuntu, there’s an entire settings application for configuring the Unity desktop.

    I expect you don’t mean Unity the second time. :P

  4. gyffes

    Since I never (hyper-rarely) shut down, preferring to suspend instead, startup times are in no way an issue for me.

    But usability and customization is, and this is why I prefer the XFCE desktop to either Mint’s “Windows-alike” or the Gnome3/Unity “Big Buttons/Fisher-Price My First Computer” interface. I don’t understand this move: When the eee first came out, everyone mocked the large icons and those of us who bought the eee were quick to ‘break’ it back to conventional desktop; jump forward a few years and ALL the bloody makers (Win8, Lion, Unity, Gnome) are headed this way. Sure, on my 4″ phone screen, icons and only icons make sense, but to try and translate that UI to my 27″ screen? And hope that that also will be fine on my 11″ netbook defies logic.

    GAH!

    I’ve become increasingly OS-agnostic over the years, but more and more of an interface snob. Gimme launchers, NO desktop icons and hide the panels, please. Ah, thank you, now I can work!

  5. SteveM

    I prefer Ubuntu, as first I disliked Unity and swapped back to kde. However I have learned to like Unity and get on with it. Now thinking of it as my preferred working environment. I can see the point of Debian Mint but not Ubuntu Mint. The whole point of Ubuntu is to make a more approachable Debian desktop for regular users. It would appear that Mint use a lot of the work done by Canonical and the Ubuntu community and spin their distro from it. It’s not different enough to make it worthwhile for me to use it. That said there are some Debian users that say the same thing about Ubuntu. Just so long as both teams upstream their work everyone benefits.

  6. Willie

    Ubuntu kind of dumbs things down in a “stupid” way. Mint dumbs the technical aspects dumb smartly, and actually leaves some things to be discovered by the user. Cinnamon is also a really beautiful desktop. Nevertheless, they’re both awesome, but neither stand up to Arch XD

  7. Susan Harley

    Soon desktops will look as big phones.
    Stupid comments from stupid geeks.

  8. cam2644

    Desktops will be around for a long time yet and I use Mint and Ubuntu on different machines. Unity is growing on me but I still find Mint with Cinnamon more flexible and user friendly.Unity will evolve better on touch screens.

  9. Steve B.

    I get stuck having to use Ubuntu’s Unity at work a lot and stick can’t get used to it. I’ve tried Mint and it better more to my liking, but can’t use it at work. So for my own computers I install the Xfce desktop on Ubuntu and that is simple fast interface I like. More and more I find myself skipping Ubuntu completely and installing Debian. Ubuntu in theory is Debian, but there are a lot of differences under the hood when configuring services and software. Plus Debian is so much faster than Ubuntu because it doesn’t have all the overhead of Unity and other hand-holding aspects Ubuntu adds.

  10. RichardS

    Mint – easier on the eye and I find it more intuitive and less dumbed down. However, in my view user’s shouldn’t need to get involved with Op Systems, these should be invisible. Users need apps.
    Concerned that Ubuntu is also backed by a big company. I feel that if serious money gets involved the customer loses out.

  11. 4ensicPenguin2

    I prefer Ubuntu w. Cinnamon. Everything just works the way I prefer.

  12. Prasad Kumar

    I always prefer Mint and when I introduce Linux to newbies, I show them Linux Mint. But in my main system I stick to Ubuntu as it gets new updates faster compared to Linux Mint and I always run into problem while performing general system update in Mint. Mint update always seems to crash. This has been until Linux Mint 10. But LM11 sticked to Gnome 2 when Ubuntu 11.04 made use of Unity. In LM12 it embrassed GNOME Shell, but still uses Lightdm. Now with LM 13 every thing is new including the MDM.

  13. Josh

    I love Mint’s interface, and Cinnamon doesn’t work on Ubuntu thanks to my crappy graphics card, so yeah.
    Unity isn’t that great to me, I hate it when I’m programing and I have like six tabs open in firefox, gedit, gimp, etc. My computer has trouble switching windows, (It takes forever) so yeah.

    In other words, Ubuntu would be great if I had a better computer.
    I haven’t tried mint on my computer, maybe I should… Hm…

  14. Greg

    I’m not experienced with Linux like most of you probably are. Linux Mint was my first distro to try out back in January because it looked so simple and easy to use. So I much prefer Mint. Ubuntu is fine, just not my cup of tea :P

  15. frylock

    I installed Linux Mint 13 LTS release today on my desktop and let me tell you what a disaster it is from Linux Mint 12. I would expected it would be like 12 but better but it was worse they totally for rid of gnome shell and went with something that they came up with called cinnamon. With all the customations that they made to gnome shell that made it usable its all gone, you have to add it manually yourself through the synaptic package manager, which is timeeeeeee consuming. So sticking with Mint 12 for my LTS not 13 and after all 13 is a bad luck number and maybe 14 will be worth installing.

  16. Roger Davis

    While I am usually a calm, polite person, I have very negative thoughts on the latest (12.04) Ubuntu. They are:
    1) DisUnity(tm) SUCKS!
    2) DisUnity moves away from a normal desktop or laptop with a larger display.
    3) It is difficult to use, almost impossible to personalize, awkward for to use
    4) It seems the Ubuntu developers are trying to turn the larger displays into mobile phone screens
    5) An excellent, fully functional desktop should not be trashed to make way for an awkward interface
    6) Software is not working well. For example I can’t even display a .pdf at this time!
    7) I’ve loaded the available Gnome desktop, but it is also acting up, though the display is better.
    8) I’ll show a bit of patience, and wait for the final to come out. If it doesn’t make giant advances, I’ll probably go to another version or distro.

  17. Luke

    I’ve had an interesting experience with Ubuntu/Mint.
    I installed Ubuntu Satanic on an old laptop for fun. Then it updated itself to Unity. The first version of Unity wouldn’t run quickly enough on this old laptop. I set it aside for months. When I went back to it, it upgraded so it would run well enough. I still didn’t like Unity though. So I went hunting for alternative desktops. After running a few I settled on Cinnamon. After running it for a while I went looking for some software but the Ubuntu Software Center wouldn’t open. After a bit of tinkering I discovered that my Ubuntu laptop had become a Mint laptop. Now only the Muon Software Center will work.
    So I have a MintBunto

  18. Rick S

    Hahaha, You crack me up Luke.
    Is that what you call a geneticly modified OS?
    Good luck with the crossbreed, It might work perfectly.

  19. snap

    I like the look of ubuntu, and never liked the mint look.. not sure why… unity is growing on me, and I quite like it now.. but I need tint2, otherwise I’d go crazy

  20. nadir

    Linux Mint. i like old interface. NO Unity NO GNOME s”hell”

  21. Joseph

    When I changed from using MS Windows XP to UBUNTU it felt like a different life style and I was extremely pleased. What a relief!
    I fell in love with UBUNTU right away and now I will not change to using another distro unless I really have to. Some upgrades take a bit of getting used to, but after a short while they become second nature.
    Thank you Canonical and the UBUNTU TEAM.

  22. Luke

    @Rick S: It’s the best it’s ever been :)

  23. M Henri Day

    Haven’t (yet) tried Mint ; I seem to get the best of both worlds by running Ubuntu Precise with the Cinnamon desktop, which can be done by installing the Cinnamon PPA –

    sudo add-apt-repository ppa:gwendal-lebihan-dev/cinnamon-stable
    sudo apt-get update
    sudo apt-get install cinnamon

    – and then choosing Cinnamon from the Ubuntu log-on screen. Works great for me !…

    Henri

  24. Citrus Rain

    I use Ubuntu on my desktop with Gnome 3 installed – somehow causing GRUB to label Ubuntu as Linux Mint (I am so confused now!) There are about 6 updates that say they’re Mint, and I had to turn apport off because it wouldn’t stop showing up, and when I did, the software center stopped working.

    On my new netbook, I considered downloading Mint for it, but instead went with Ubuntu since I am more familar with it. Ended up playing GUI Merry-go-round to decide what I wanted on a 10″ touchscreen. From Unity 2D to Cinnamon to Mate to xdfe(by accident when desiding to have a display manager without a guest login) to Gnome (which came up as Gnome classic even though Gnome classic was listed seprately) then I fixed the problem where the touchscreen didn’t work after suspension. Then I accidently the touchscreen to make it logout when I touch it. Reinstalled ubuntu, installed what I thought was the package that made it not crash when I touch it, and it crashed.

    I’m going to go ahead and try my luck with mint on both. (Such a shame after I just got ubuntu stickers off of redbubble that mimic the “built for windows” ones.)

  25. keltari

    I use Ubuntu, but I got replaced Unity (complete garbage) with gnome 3.

  26. Anonymous

    As for me, I dislike Ubuntu for two very small reasons. 1.) The window buttons (minimize, maximize, close) are on the left and most annoying is 2.) The menu dialog text is now hiding in the tool bar (you have to hover your mouse in there to even see them). This toolbar menu system thing gets a big “WTF?!” from me. I could probably live without a traditional start button (and looks like I’ll have to if Windows 8 goes this way too), but if I have any choice I’m going to continue using more traditional menuing system rather than adopt some preschool looking one. It’s all counter-intuitive and seems like someone is just trying to cram more junk in your face.

    I think I also dislike Ubuntu since it now seems to be designed mostly for a tablet. This has my suspicions up too. I mean, could someone be trying to develop a tablet OS by using the Ubuntu developers unwittingly? Could someone like Bill Gates be trying to use Canonical to develop an OS much the same way old Uncle Bill took DOS away from Digital Research? Could that someone be United Online?! It gives me chills to think the answers are all “yes.”

    FYI: Many years ago when the Internet was still mostly dial up there was a company called Netzero. Netzero promised to always make their ISP available to everyone and make it available for free too (hence, it’s name). But later on, in stepped United Online when they bought out Netzero. Now Netzero is in such a convoluted advertising mess that even telemarketers try and avoid it. And yes, you can still get online for free but you have to endure such a barrage of adds that you wind up using most if not, all of your free online time playing “whack-a-mole” trying to either close the ads or get through them somehow. I see something similar on the horizon for Ubuntu. And that’s plenty reason for me to get off the merry-go-round now.

  27. Ezrab

    Heck! Read all your comments, and have Ubuntu 12.04- yes, I tried 9.04, 10.04 all worked well. BUT, my old Windows XP SP3 works fine, so my OS Ubuntus hangs in my collection just in case my Windows crashes, and I need to do a complete re-install. Which I have done over the years a few times.
    I’m just an old geezer happy with what I’m used to, while my grandchildren have overtaken me, and I smile with what the’re doing from my start. But I do still love downloading programs I find, trying them out, and eventually saying, heck, I don;t really need them. Started learning Python, but to use for ? What? Dunno.
    Love to you all out there.

  28. vigneshacker

    ubuntu 12.04. Awesome

  29. GURURAJAN

    I prefer MINT for its beautiful look and menu structure. When I use Mint, I feel like operating Windows 7.
    But, the latest editions of Mint 12 & 13 does not install the printers properly with the drivers packed with MINT. My problem is, I am unable to install my HP Printer 1005. It is installed, but not printing anything. Still I am trying. Hope, MINT developers will resolve this kind of problems soon.

  30. dave

    “But cinnamon needs more hardware resources.” Ah, that would explain why I couldn’t get it to work on my older P4 system. It would boot but only display the bottom taskbar and menu buttons. Any attempt to launch apps would get me an emply black boundary and no display.

  31. kimberly

    Mint is just so… green. I know, I know – it’s minty. But is that configurable?

  32. Dave

    Mint also has a nicer upgrade option than ubuntu, in that you upgrade from disk even from some other linux distros in the event that its broken.

  33. Chris Hoffman

    @Veovis Muad’dib

    Oops, thanks for catching that! Fixed.

  34. darkcodemonkey

    ever since Ubuntu made unity the official user interface I tired Ubuntu one last time and have completely given up on unbuntu and the unity interface. what used to be a perfectly usable netbook became a very slow and annoying black slab. but then I started ready about mint and booted it up, made some minor tweaks to the interface and breathed a sigh of relief. I felt like I had come home from a very long and annoying vacation. thank you mint, you saved me. : )

  35. SomeGuy

    I prefer Ubuntu much better. The part about Ubuntu not being configurable isn’t completely true. There’s a “whole application” for tweaking Unity and more called CompizConfig. Maybe it has less options than Mint, but it still has a lot.

  36. Richard

    I love Linux Mint, but I (like many people) started off using Ubuntu because I had no idea what this “different distros” business meant. After some time and learning I was ready to try something besides Ubuntu. Not that Ubuntu was not good, but I was only curious about what might fit my taste better when it came to a nice distrobution. In my opinion, Ubuntu is very good, but Mint is excellent. Currently I prefer Mate over the Cinnamon version of Linux Mint, but that may change soon enough. I gladly support Ubuntu and Canonical’s efforts along with the Linux Mint developers because lets face it, we all have one thing in common…. WINDOWS O.S. IS AWFUL.

  37. Desh

    If you take Ubuntu 12.04 and uninstall Unity DE from it and then install Cinnamon and add few apps like Mint Menu, etc you get Mint 13. Unity works on top of the Gnome shell, so what is underneath the Mint 13 Cinnamon is Gnome 3, so what we have is Ubuntu 12.04 without the Unity DE, that’s all.

    If you install Cairo Dock, with or without uninstalling Unity DE from Ubuntu 12.04, you get many DEs to choose, one being Cairo with Gnome with effects. Install Compiz and you get all the eye candy and the bling. Mint is a clone of Ubuntu as far as Mint uses Ubuntu base.

    Take Mint 13 and unistall Cinnamon and install Unity, what do you get? Ubuntu 12.04!
    Even, if you don’t uninstall Cinnamon, still with Unity installled you get Ubuntu 12.04. If you uninstall all the “extra” applications from Mint 13 and install Unity DE, you get Ubuntu 12.04, right? Try and see, what you get!

  38. Timothy

    I’ve tried several versions of Ubuntu so far and Unity seems to me to be just a dumbed down desktop suitable for new computer users and recent converts to Linux from the Microsoft world. But then, Ubuntu in general has always had the appeal of simplicity rather than lots of bells and whistles to play with.

    I currently have Linux Mint 13 (Maya) installed on two machines–one with Mate and one with KDE. I passed over Cinnamon because no one seems to know if Gnome 3 (which Cinnamon is based on) will go in a viable direction thus causing Cinnamon to morph into some kind of weird desktop mutation on its own in the future.

    So far, both Mate and KDE versions of Mint have been great with one sad exception: compiz on Mint 13 needs a lot of work to clear up some big bugs. However, my ideal would be a Debian-based version (LMDE) with KDE. Unfortunately, Clem has no plans to develop LMDE w/KDE at present.

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