What’s the Difference Between Ubuntu and 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+.