There's nothing like digging into your first Linux distribution, whether you're a tech-savvy user looking to branch out or whether you're installing it on a friend's computer. But which distribution is actually better for beginners? Here, we'll delve into the differences between Ubuntu and Mint, the two most popular beginner distros, and perform a little experiment to see what new users prefer.
Mint was originally built off the Ubuntu code base, but the two have grown apart quite a bit. However, they're both designed to be an easy, usable experience for beginners — they just take different approaches to it. In this article, we'll talk about who these "beginners" are, discuss where each distribution's strengths and weaknesses lie, and then put them in front of some beginners to see what they think.
Who Are Linux Beginners?
When people are looking for the "best beginner distro", they usually fall into one of two camps: The first is a group of tech savvy tweakers that want to explore Linux for the first time, because they like the idea of a free operating system that gives them lots of power. The second camp consists of people that know nothing about Linux. Perhaps you're trying to install Linux on a relative's old computer to speed it up, or to solve their constant virus problems. They don't know what Linux is and probably don't really care; they just want a better computing experience.
Mint and Ubuntu are often heralded as the best distro for both types of beginner. So, we'll talk about both sets of users when applicable. What's better for one isn't always better for the other, which means you may want to choose a different distro depending on the type of beginner you're trying to help.
How Ubuntu And Mint Differ
Again, Mint is based off Ubuntu, but they've become quite different over the years. Each exists in multiple releases, but today we'll be comparing the main versions of each: Ubuntu's Unity interface for desktops, and Linux Mint's Cinnamon interface for desktops. Here's how the two differ.
The Basic Interface
While Ubuntu and Mint both share certain interface elements, they have each developed their own desktop shell that makes them very different. The best way to think of it is like this: Ubuntu seems to take its cues from Mac OS X, while Mint shares more in common with Windows.
Ubuntu's Unity interface puts a dock on the right-hand side of the screen, with big icons for all your favourite programs. Along the top, it has a menu bar that shows the current app's File, Edit and other menus, as well as your Wi-Fi, bluetooth, and other quick settings. You can access other applications, settings and features from Ubuntu's "Dash" menu by clicking on the Dash icon at the top of the dock. From there, you can type in the name of an app or other item and the Dash will find it for you. You can navigate the Dash with your mouse, but it's incredibly complicated for beginners, hiding a lot of your apps under expandable menus and small icons. That means browsing for apps is a pretty bad experience.
Mint's Cinnamon interface sticks a taskbar at the bottom of the window. The taskbar has a small popup menu that lists most of the applications and settings on your computer. It's very similar to Windows' Start menu, letting you browse your installed applications by hovering over different categories. When you open up an app, you'll see a button appear on the taskbar, just like in Windows Vista and its predecessors. You can even add a few shortcuts to the side of your taskbar like Windows' old quick launch.
When it comes to ease of use, they both have their advantages and quirks. Ubuntu's dock is pretty easy to use right away, but when you open the Dash, things get a little more complicated. Mint's menu, on the other hand, is much easier to browse, since it lists all your apps by category in a familiar way. It may have a smaller taskbar with harder-to-see shortcuts, but beginners should be able to find anything they're looking for just by opening Mint's main menu. Both menus are searchable, however, which can make things easier if you know what you're looking for.
Linux Mint definitely has an edge when it comes to speed. Ubuntu' has become faster over the past few versions, but Mint always feels pretty snappy, even on older or lower-powered hardware (at least compared to Ubuntu). If you're installing Linux to speed up an old computer, Mint may offer you a better experience.
Using And Installing Apps
Both Ubuntu and Mint come with a set of preinstalled apps that cover most of your needs: an office suite, a web browser, a music player, a video player, and so on. We think Mint's selection is better than Ubuntu's, since it includes Pidgin instead of the less mature Empathy, the easy-to use VLC, and the feature-filled Banshee, for example. However, this isn't crucial since you can always install new apps.
Both Ubuntu and Mint also have their own app stores that make it easy for beginners to find, research, and download new apps. Ubuntu's Software Center is a bit easier to find, since it's in the dock by default, has a descriptive "shopping bag" icon, and a name that suggests "this is where you get new software". When you open it up, it's laid out a bit more like a professional app store, with featured apps, screenshots, star ratings and categories. It's not perfect, but at least it's trying.
Mint's "Software Manager," on the other hand, has a slightly more generic name and brown package icon, which makes it a bit harder to find. It almost looks like a system tool rather than an app store, which is more intimidating to beginners. Its layout is also very basic, showing you just a few general categories on the main screen. Both stores are easier than trying to teach new users about repositories and packages, so they're both beginner-friendly compared to the alternatives.
Linux is great for tweakers: it allows you to customise every inch of your computer, from shortcuts to the size of your menus to the way windows work. Ubuntu, however, has done away with a lot of those options. It does still offer some preferences, but it's much more "what you see is what you get" than Mint, which has settings for tweaking everything down to the minute details of your interface. Many beginners may not care about this, but if you're a tech savvy user looking to learn about Linux, you'll probably find more things to "play with" in Mint.
The Experiment: Which Do Beginners Like Better?
We can sit here and compare the two distros all day long, but with beginners — particularly ones that are less tech-savvy — the best way to find out what they like is to have them try it!
So, I took a few friends and family members, sat them in front of two laptops with Mint and Ubuntu installed, and had them perform some simple tasks on each. The tasks were simple, but gauged how "intuitive" the OS was for a new user: I had them do things such as open up a web browser, find their Documents folder, navigate to an app they've never heard of, and change some settings. It isn't an enormous sample size or a perfectly scientific study, but each person had a different level of savviness, and we had a good mix of Windows and Mac users to even things out. All in all, the experiment gave some good insight on what new users find easy (and not so easy).
At first, the majority of my "test subjects" found Mint much easier to use. Finding their home folder was easy because it was right there on the desktop, while Ubuntu's dock made it a bit more difficult to figure out where their file manager was. Mint's menus were easy to use, so they could browse by category and find apps they had never heard of before (and guess their purpose). They found Ubuntu's Dash very confusing, since using the search bar wasn't their first instinct (and since they didn't always know what they were looking for). Ubuntu won when it came to installing new apps, though: everyone found the Software Center very easy to find and use, while most couldn't even figure out where to go in Mint.
However, while they found everything in Mint much quicker, about half of them said that they liked Ubuntu better when the experiment was over. Some of it was less intuitive, but once they realised how easy it was to search the Dash or add new items to their dock, they said they'd be more likely to install Ubuntu than Mint. This didn't apply to everyone, but it did surprise me that many liked Ubuntu's Dash once they learned how it was supposed to work.
Of those polled, the savvier users liked Mint better, while the less tech savvy users were more split, leaning toward Ubuntu once they learned the tricks of the trade.
Tech-Savvy Beginners: Go With Mint
If you're a tech head looking to try out Linux for the first time, I highly recommend Mint. It has a lot more room for customisation than Ubuntu, so even if there are things you don't love about the interface, you can change them. Mint has also become very popular, so it has a forum full of users to help you take your first steps in learning all about Linux.
True Beginners: It's A Draw
After giving both distributions to a few beginners, it's hard to pick one as the "best". I'll admit that I'm not a big fan of Unity, and I originally thought Mint was going to beat Ubuntu hands down, but the Ubuntu team has put together something pretty good. We Linux users may not like it, but beginners are a different story.
So, if you're looking to help a friend out and install Linux on their system, give them an opportunity to try both! My whole experiment took less than 10 minutes per person, and all you need is a few free live CDs to give them a quick glance at each OS. Even though my experiment was pretty basic, every person had a good idea of which one they'd rather have installed on their computer, so you can solve this debate by letting them decide.
Ubuntu and Mint aren't the only Linux distributions out there, and perhaps there's something even better for beginners out there. However, both Ubuntu and Mint are very popular, have thriving communities, and are designed specifically for non-Linux veterans, so they're a great place to start.