Of Red Hats and Mints

Part 1: A Brief History of Desmond, as it Relates to Linux

I've been using Linux since about 1998, when I started my first "real" job at PCI Geomatics. At the time, most of PCI's workstations ran a version of Red Hat Linux. The standard setup revolved around FVWM and Emacs.

I did not find Linux easy. But it was fun.

I installed Linux for the first time in 2000, on a computer I built from scratch (my first one). It was Red Hat 6.2. That installation was not what you'd call "smooth", but I did eventually get it working.

Over the past 12 years, I've used 3 distributions. So that means, on average, I tend to stick with a distribution for about 4 years.

The first one, as I said, was Red Hat, since it's what I had used at work. About 4 years after that, I decided that I wanted to build a PVR, using MythTV. The drivers for the capture card I wanted to use were not part of the standard Linux kernel, so I had to compile them myself into a custom kernel. This was possible with Red Hat, but was easier with a distribution called Gentoo, whose gimmick at the time was that it was primarily a source based distribution; packages were installed from source, and compiled with every update. This included the kernel - hence, making a custom kernel with my capture card drivers was easier.

Gentoo had another advantage: the package management system was excellent, particularly in the way it handled dependencies. At the time, I was not aware of yum for Red Hat - installing a package on a Red Hat system was an often frustrating excursion to dependency hell. Gentoo more or less eliminated that particular hell, as its package system automatically resolved any dependencies required for any package you wanted to install. It was awesome.

Eventually though, the constant compiling started grating on me. Nominally, Gentoo did all this compiling to give the user an oppourtunity to customize the compiler flags, on the theory that it would boost system performance. That being said, I never noticed my system going any faster as a result of a compiler flag tweak. Mostly, I felt that I was doing all this compiling for no particular reason. The large packages often took all night to install/compile - I used to dread the XFree86 updates.

So, I started searching again. My search led me to Debian. Debian's package management system, called APT, is like Gentoo's in that it will manage all the dependencies for you. It's unlike Gentoo's in that it's a binary distribution. Updates no longer took all night. It was great.

Debian also makes it relatively easy to create a system that works decently on older hardware; it doesn't install much by default unless you ask it to. You have to realize that my current computer is the same one that I was using in 2003/2004. That makes it about 9 years old, and it shows. To be productive on this kind of machine, you need to cultivate an attitude of (relative) minimalism. This means that for the last several years, I've been doggedly avoiding software that even smelled like it had anything to do with GNOME or KDE. With Debian, I opted to install the Xfce desktop environment, and that was that.

I've been more or less happily using Debian Stable for the past 4 years - since about 2008. But even with the system stripped down to just what I need, it's still pretty slow. Switching from Firefox to Chrome rejuvenated my setup to some extent but, even so, applications like Facebook and Gmail are noticeably sluggish - especially compared to how they run on my work computer, which is significantly better. I like to joke that Chrome makes my 9 year old computer feel like a 6 year old computer.

So, I decided that it was time to get a new computer. This is a big deal. I haven't bought a new desktop computer in 9 years. I eventually settled on an i7 3.4Ghz quad-core CPU, with 8GB of RAM.

Part 2: The Minty Road, Or Why Desmond Chose Linux Mint

But now, I'm faced with some choices: stick with Debian or go with another distribution?

One mark against Debian revolves around issue of software updates. Debian Stable, as the name implies, is very stable. It achieves this stability by restricting the packages and the versions that get included in the distribution. Consequently, the software available to a Debian user via the package management system is often somewhat out of date compared to other distributions.

In addition, one of my main reasons for using Debian - minimalism - doesn't really apply to my new computer. My new system can run KDE or GNOME without any trouble. Hell, it could probably run both, if that were actually a thing.

Another one of my main reasons for sticking with Debian, APT, is a good one, but it turns out that APT is not unique to Debian. Various another distributions, like Ubuntu and Linux Mint, by virtue of being based off of Debian, also use APT as their package management system.

Ubuntu - based off of Debian Unstable, the version of Debian that acts as a kind of testing ground before the software gets deposited in the Stable repository - prides itself on being the "easy" Linux. It installs with very little fuss, and very little in the way of configuration, to the point where it will actually pick a desktop environment for you. Since it's based off of Debian Unstable, the software tends to be pretty up to date as well.

But Ubuntu seems to have shot itself in the foot with the new, much reviled Unity interface. I'm a bit loathe to try it.

So that leaves Linux Mint. Linux Mint peddles itself as a kind of refuge for Ubuntu users who don't want to use Unity. Their repositories are based off of Ubuntu's (and hence are twice removed from Debian's) and they offer their own GNOME based desktops, MATE and Cinnamon. They also offer Xfce, which makes me feels right at home.

Also making me feel right at home is Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE), which is a version of Linux Mint based off of Debian Testing, a kind of middle ground between Debian Stable and Debian Unstable. Unlike standard Mint, Ubuntu and plain vanilla Debian, LMDE is a rolling distribution. You install once and simply keep your system up to date with updates as they come - a bit like Gentoo! And since the repository is from Debian Testing, the software is more up to date than a standard Debian install. It seems perfect.

Part 3: In Which Desmond Installs Linux Mint Debian Edition and Feels Slightly Disconcerted

I installed Linux Mint Debian Edition and felt slightly disconcerted.

You need to understand, I've been avoiding GNOME and KDE for the better part of 8 years. Though I wouldn't characterize Debian or Gentoo as minimal, I would characterize them as obedient - they tend not to install anything unless you ask for it. If you don't install a GNOME application, then GNOME won't be on your system, simple as that.

Linux Mint, on the other hand, barely asks you any questions during the install. Your installation choices revolve around your choice of desktop - I didn't actually see an option that didn't install some kind of desktop environment for you. If you choose Cinnamon, then you get Cinnamon. If you choose MATE, then you get MATE. And - here's the kicker - if you choose Xfce, like I did, you get Xfce - plus a whole bunch of GNOME applications that you didn't ask for.

Like I said, I was disconcerted. I found no less then 4 media players available on my menu, and at least one of them (Banshee)) required a whole Mono subsystem to run. I also found a GNOME based DVD burning application on the same menu - even though I didn't have a DVD writer installed at the time. This isn't what I'm used to.

Of course, I'd be lying if I said that all this anti-minimalism wasn't somewhat refreshing at the same time. What finally pushed my opinion over the edge in Mint's favour was a fully functioning Firefox/Flash combination. As soon as the install was finished and I logged in, I could launch Firefox, go to YouTube, and watch a video with no further effort. Non-Linux users won't appreciated just how nice that is.

I can just uninstall the stuff I don't want, after all. I think I could get used to this. Is this what having a modern computer is like?

Part 4: The Conclusion, Predictably Positioned at the End

At the moment, I like what I'm seeing of Xfce on Linux Mint - well, okay, Xfce plus GNOME since the installer insisted on dumping half of GNOME on my system as well.

I don't know if I'm going to stay with it, though. My computer is such that I could run a full GNOME or KDE environment - or even Enlightenment), if I had a mind to do so. Or Cinnamon. Or MATE. My point is that I'm actually in a position to choose a real desktop environment this time around.

Though, I have to admit, it'd be kinda funny if I finally ended up using Xfce in the end.

I think that would be funny :-)