This is not a thorough and detailed explanation. Maybe I’ll write that book in the near future, but I wanted to offer a quick outline of things you should expect should you decide to sample Mint. Download your choice of ISO image here. It’s too big for a CD, so it requires a DVD blank to burn it. You can also buy them pre-made for you.
The reason I still recommend the XFCE desktop interface is because it offers the fewest frustrations for the average user. All the more so since Mint tweaks their version of XFCE to resemble the common desktop paradigm most Windows refugees have come to expect. More on that in a moment. The point is that there is really very little advantage in choosing any other desktop environment, and quite a few extra hassles XFCE lacks.
Once you insert the DVD and persuade your system to boot from it, try to be patient with the long delays with no apparent activity, no visual indicator that things are working. Give it time to get rolling. If you do nothing, it will eventually create a running environment and log you in as the default user. Unlike Ubuntu, you won’t be offered an obvious choice between testing and installing right away. It will boot into the testing environment, running everything from the DVD, loading it into your RAM as required. Unless you use this testing phase to write something to a drive, nothing you do during this time will stick. Any settings and adjustments will be erased. However, what you see handed to you as the defaults is what you’ll get if you install it. That’s the time to make changes.
You’ll need one good password. It will be used for everything, so whenever something demands a password, in most cases it’s the one you use for logging onto the system.
One of the first things I would change is the Login Manager. The default is a slideshow background with breathtaking scenery, but it drags down most systems to the point that there is a long lag between the keystrokes you tap and what shows up on the screen. Beautiful, but not good on anything but the newest and fastest hardware. Once you get logged into the system, look in the main menu under System for “Login Window.” Change it to almost anything but the default and you will probably save some heartache.
You’ll notice a rather stark appearance on the desktop with lots of white and green. It’s easy to change that. However, as noted above, the easiest thing to accept is the basic toolbar (XFCE calls it a “panel”) across the bottom of the screen, containing features you would typically expect. The menu looks a lot like any Windows menu since Vista. I find the icons beautiful in design, and other color schemes are available.
Of course, I adjusted a lot of things after installing. Unlike Windows, the basic appearance is divided in the Settings menu between “Appearance” and the “Window Manager.” That second item betrays a very big difference in how the GUI is constructed versus the unified Windows system. Linux is a GUI on top of the system, and the GUI is modular in itself. The Appearance settings will control the basic color scheme and widgets (control elements in the interface, the stuff you click and drag with your mouse), and allows you to adjust the icons and basic font selection. If you add a bunch of Windows-based fonts like I do (I keep a collection already bundled in the Linux storage pattern) you’ll want to adjust the “hinting” of the fonts to “full.” It makes them sharper and more consistent. In fact, they’ll be cleaner and easier to see than under Windows. If you adjust the Window Manager you can change the frame of the application windows separately.
You’ll have to spend some time getting familiar with the Panel and how features and widgets can be added, removed and adjusted. Play around with the context menu (“right-click”) on everything and you’ll get used to the how it all works. There are some surprises and one major disappointment. It so happens that there are two different items that work something like the Windows SysTray. XFCE is still being developed and what we see is the effects of overlapping during the transition between two different ways of doing things. You’ll notice that for now, the primary purpose of one of them is to house the update widget. After installing, it will tell you there are quite a few updates. Once you’ve been through that process, right-click on this icon and you’ll see a detailed menu of options. One of them offers to hide the thing until you have an update.
One of the very nicest things compared to Windows is that Mint updates work very well and very quickly. Linux updates are far simpler and seldom does anything have to build itself directly on your machine. Those few times it does, there will be a bit of delay for you if you are watching. The other nifty trick is that almost everything you could possibly want to add is all from the same basic supplier system for software. Hunt for the “Package Manager” in the System menu and you can make queries based on what you want something to do. Of course, you’ll probably want some advice, because it tends to assume you already know something about the various collections and how they are organized. There might be three of four different applications that do the same basic collection of tasks, but each does it differently. Further, one may be native to your desktop environment, while another would require installing a whole bunch of other stuff because it’s native to some other environment. Sometimes it’s worth it. This is where you’ll need a friend who understands that stuff (like me) or be adept and patient using your favorite search engine on the Net.
Like a great many things in computer technology, once you become familiar with the terrain, you won’t feel so lost.
Finally, the one best feature is that hardware is generally detected automatically and there is very little magic involved in making everything work, provided it is going to work at all with Linux. Keep in mind that some hardware manufacturers are frankly hostile to helping Linux folks use their stuff, and a great many just don’t care, requiring the developers to figure it out as best they can. Mint currently detects and installs with support for using more different kinds of hardware better than most other Linux versions I’ve seen. There is a system utility (“Driver Manager”) for detecting special cases and I suggest you run that early in the game. If it finds anything unusual, it will offer some options, but usually it’s a matter of adding “firmware” that simply cannot be packaged in the installer DVD for some reason. A common example would be the various wifi chips made by Broadcom. The company has been quite helpful, but sometimes the firmware has to be installed on a system already running because it simply must be built to match a wide range of peculiarities. Mint makes this very easy, doing all the work for you, once you choose to accept what they offer.
If you decide that this is the way to go, feel free to bug me and I’ll do my best to help you with the details.
Addenda: In response to an offline question: Mint is better than Windows, not for all the silly reasons you hear/read from Linux fanboys, but purely the basis that matters most — it is a lot less hassle.
Over the past two decades I’ve installed Windows and Linux (among other OSes) on a lot of different hardware. Linux never had the drivers (or decent ones) for some of the most important user features on machines until the past few years. It was all the things the fanboys said it was, but it was seldom very usable the way the average computer user works until recently. With Windows it was always a matter of finding the drivers you knew were out there somewhere. I got pretty good at that, eventually. In fact, the biggest deal with installing Windows has always been licensing and ways to get around the hassles, even when it was legitimate by Microsoft’s rules. Hacking and cracking the process always became common knowledge shortly after any new Windows release, but drivers were always the biggest headache.
Then along comes Win7, finding its own drivers. Mostly. In recent years I’ve run across machines with important features that Windows can’t enable without some serious technological wrangling. Even the hardware manufacturers are having trouble keeping stuff working, not because it’s necessarily cheap junk, but because of a little known issue that the whole thing is so freaking complicated that what should be a minor security fix tends to break critical system functions, including drivers. Or maybe the drivers prevent some fix working. And then you have to update Windows the way it wants to update, in waves that must come in sequence.
I can tell you that most of the system breakage comes from features in the system that are not in the users’ best interest, but that’s another matter.
My point is that for the first time ever, I have installed a Linux brand that was better in those terms. All the drivers were there during installation or easily available afterward. They all work, and work well.
Okay, so I don’t have access to the convenience of logging in with a fingerprint scan. Under Windows, that software conflicted with critical system functions in the first place because the only company making it is out of business. Meanwhile, Linux developers are working on it, and Linux drivers don’t go out of business. Once it works, it virtually always works into the foreseeable future. I can run Linux on hardware old enough that WinXP didn’t support it properly. Have you tried Win7 on a Radeon 7200 chipset? You’ll get low-grade VGA (VESA mode) if you are lucky, but Linux offers 3D acceleration on it out of the box.
For the first time since I can recall, on common consumer hardware, there is a Linux brand (we call them “distros”) that is simply more convenient and technologically superior to Windows. It installs easily and updates quickly and cleanly, and security fixes come quickly without breaking stuff. The guy who leads the Mint project claims he wants it to be an elegant user experience, and makes a point of hearing comments from users, not just doing what appeals to his inner sense of what’s cool or technologically proper.
In other words, Linux Mint is “better than Windows” in the same sense that most ordinary computer users mean it. It’s less work to install than Windows, works better when it’s installed, and offers few of the hassles. It’s different, but it’s better.