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Mint XFCE: worst Linux ever

Posted by Graeme in Software at 8:19 pm on Monday, 4 October 2010

The XFCE version of Linux Mint is pretty, fast, uses the huge Debian/Ubuntu software repositories, and comes with a good selection of software installed by default, as well as Linux Mint’s nice utilities. Its also the worst Linux distribution I have tried.

The problem is that it is buggy and unreliable.

I tried Mint last year and, although there was much to like, I has some issues with reliability and CPU load (which matters on a laptop). I went back to Mandriva, but decided to give Mint another try. When I discovered that the XFCE version was now an official Mint project, not a “community” version, I thought it would be better this time. I was wrong.

The Live CD was great, so I installed it — fortunately on the wife and kids shared PC, not my work laptop.

It started out well, but over the next two weeks I ran into an unbelievable array of problems:

  1. When a session locked by the screensaver, the switch user button shows but does not work.
  2. It has no guest login. Mandriva has an optional guest login which allows a guest to login but not to save anything to the hard drive.
  3. It was not possible to set Compiz (which provides an amazing 3D rotating cube desktop, among other things) to start reliably on login. The Mint tool seems to conflict with XFCE’s way of doing things.
  4. Synaptic software installer produces lots of (spurious?) “package not signed” warnings
  5. The alternative Mint Software Manager failed to work at all
  6. Occasional log outs immediately on login
  7. A crash, last night, when all it was doing was downloading Sita Sings the Blues

The first problem is the most forgiveable. It is really the fault of the xscreensaver developer for failing to make it configurable enough to cope with changes in how the login manager works. I found a satisfactory workaround by installing Gnome Screensaver, and a separate program to start it after a period of inactivity (Gnome Screensaver’s auto start only works with Gnome, not XFCE). This I can accept as the sort of rough edge one expects when running XFCE rather than one of the big two Linux desktop environments (KDE and Gnome).

Note for Windows users: the desktop environment and the window manager do things like providing a taskbar equivalent, allowing you do move windows around, providing shutdown and sleep buttons, etc. Windows offers you a choice of one, Linux has two major ones, and lots of minor ones each offering different advantages (full featured, or easy to use, or fast, or pretty, etc.).

The rest of Linux Mint’s flaws simply should not have made it past initial testing. Not everyone is affected by all of them, but they all do commonly affect other users, as a search of the Mint forums will prove — its not just some weird problem that affects only me. I have personally now had reliability issues with two different versions of Mint, on two different computers, neither using any hardware that has known problems with Linux.

Many of the problems derive from Ubuntu, which Mint is based on. The new Mint version based on (very, very reliable, in a “run mission critical server on this” type of way) Debian could have solved this, but Mint have, decided to base this on the ever-changing “testing” version of Debian, not the stable version.

I keeping Mandriva on my work laptop. I am currently trying Unity Linux in a virtual machine. It looks like it might suit me, but the base version might be a bit geeky for most people, and the customised child versions (which they call “branches”) are mature enough for general use. For non-geeks, Mandriva, PCLinuxOS (that is such a bad name) and Mepis remain the best. Unfortunately I really like XFCE, and none of them support it well.

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