Linux newbies have probably heard a lot about Ubuntu, but it isn’t the only Linux distribution. In fact, Ubuntu’s standard Unity desktop is still controversial among long-time Linux users today.

Many Linux users prefer a more traditional desktop interface, and Linux Mint offers that. As Ubuntu focuses more on Ubuntu for phones, Linux Mint may be an even clearer choice in the future.

No, Ubuntu isn’t terrible. Some people prefer Ubuntu’s Unity desktop and love it. But you’ll probably have an easier time getting to grips with Linux Mint instead of Ubuntu.

The Issues With Ubuntu

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Let’s take a quick look at Ubuntu’s Unity desktop first. New users (and even experienced Linux users) will have many issues with it:

  • The standard File/Edit/View menu is completely separated from each window and appears on the top bar, like a Mac. This is unusual for Windows users. Worse yet, the File/Edit/View menu is actually hidden until you move your mouse up to the bar, and then it appears. This is just unnecessarily confusing.
  • The window management buttons (close, minimize, and maximize) appear at the top-left side of each window instead of the top-right side. This is more like Mac OS X than Windows. There used to be a hidden option to move these buttons back to the right side, but it no longer works.

  • The Unity desktop features a sort of dock, known as a launcher, that displays shortcuts to your applications and to running applications. You can’t get a more traditional taskbar, if you prefer that, as you can on Windows. The launcher also always appears at the left side of the screen. You can’t move it to another edge of the screen, as you can on Windows and Mac.
  • The application launcher is rather confusing. Rather than being an easy pop-up menu with a list of useful shortcuts, it’s a full-screen search interface by default. To actually view a list of installed applications, you have to click the Ubuntu shortcut and select the little Applications view icon at the bottom of the screen. You then need to click “See more results” next to your installed applications and you’ll get a full, alphabetized list of applications without any categories or other useful information. The so-called “dash” interface works best if you use it for search, and you’ll see Amazon search results if you do that. Other options you might expect to find in a “Start menu”-style menu appear in the indicator menus at the top-right corner of the screen.

Let’s be honest, it can be easy for a new user to become confused by this interface. Even seasoned Linux users — rather, especially seasoned Linux users who cut their teeth on earlier desktops — may not find this interface to be the most comfortable.

Why Linux Mint is More Comfortable (and Awesome)

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Linux Mint offers two primary flavors. One has the Cinnamon desktop, a more modern desktop environment, while another offers the MATE desktop, which is a “fork” of the older GNOME 2 desktop previously used by Ubuntu and other Linux distributions.

We tend to prefer Cinnamon, as it includes more of the latest technologies. But that doesn’t mean it’s as quirky as Ubuntu’s Unity. The Cinnamon desktop includes a pop-up menu for launching applications and managing settings that works like you’d expect it to. It has a familiar taskbar, which can be moved to other edges of your screen. Its window management buttons are in the place Windows users will expect them. Its File/Edit/View menus work normally and are part of each window. If you’ve used Windows — or if you last used Linux a while ago and prefer more traditional desktop environments — Cinnamon is a great option.

MATE isn’t that bad either. It’s a more traditional desktop environment — right down to the underlying code — and Mint configures it to look and work a lot like Cinnamon does. Yes, there’s a simple applications menu, a taskbar, and everything!

This is just the desktop interface stuff, though. Mint has some other advantages, having “questionable stuff” like multimedia codec support and the Flash browser plug-in installed by default. This was Linux Mint’s original reason for existence. If you’re a hardcore open-source geek, this is no good. However, if you’re the average Linux user, you’ll probably want to install this stuff anyway.

But Ubuntu has made this easier, too, and all it takes is a single click in the Ubuntu installer to install this extra stuff.

Linux Mint is Basically Ubuntu, Too

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There’s a lot of software in Ubuntu’s software repositories, and many applications (like Valve’s Steam for Linux) officially target Ubuntu as their supported Linux distribution. That’s one reason to prefer Ubuntu.

But Linux Mint is actually extremely close to Ubuntu. It uses Ubuntu’s software repositories, so you have access to all the software provided by Ubuntu. It even uses the updates Ubuntu provides, although Ubuntu’s developers and Mint’s developers have clashed over Linux Mint’s more conservative approach to potentially dangerous updates.

You can also try other official Ubuntu derivatives with different desktops, of course. The Xubuntu desktop with Xfce is probably the most traditional one. But, for many users, the Cinnamon desktop walks a nice line between being modern-but-traditional. Despite being older, the MATE desktop based on GNOME 2 may be more comfortable and capable than the Xfce desktop to many people.

Linux Mint is also focused on just providing a polished desktop interface, while Canonical is chasing the unification of desktop and smartphone with the latest releases. That may pay off in the long term, but it hasn’t yet.

This isn’t the last word, of course. Feel free to try Ubuntu, especially if you’re not the biggest fan of Mint. Or try other Linux distributions! But don’t just download Ubuntu and bounce off of the Linux desktop because Ubuntu’s Unity desktop doesn’t work for you. It doesn’t work for a lot of Linux users.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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