Ubuntu Versus Mint: Which Linux Distro Is Better For Beginners?

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.

Performance

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.

Customisation

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.


Comments

    I have played arond with a few difrent linx distros. I found ubuntu a little difficult to get my head around. mint with the cinamon desktop on the other hand was easy and everything seamed alot more logical. i realy like mint

    Last edited 03/04/13 8:16 am

    I've always used Ubuntu as I've been led to believe it was the best distro for beginners (tech-savvy beginners in my case) and the fact that you can install it as another program in Windows (and therefore remove it by simply uninstalling in Windows), made it worth a go. I liked it but didn't keep it on for very long though, maybe Mint is worth a try.

    My problem with Linux has always been the gaming side.

    Because I'm a fairly heavy gamer, I obviously prefer to run Windows. Yes, some games work natively on Linux and a lot of Windows games run through WINE too, but it's not foolproof. I have had dual-boot systems set up in the past but I found it an unnecessary hassle to shut down Linux and reboot into Windows to play games, when Windows was just fine to use for my other tasks like web browsing or writing documents or whatever. In the end I found I had no real use for Linux and ended up removing it, as there was nothing that Linux did inherently better than Windows. It made no sense to me to use Linux for web browsing, then reboot my entire machine into Windows to play games, when I could have just booted to Windows in the first place and do web browsing from there.

    As Linux's gaming capabilities continue to grow, and it becomes harder and harder to find a legit copy of Windows 7, I may revisit the Linux thing. Despite how annoying I find Windows 8 to use though I'll probably end up upgrading to it eventually simply because of the gaming aspect. Linux is great and all but gaming is important to me.

    Last edited 03/04/13 10:23 am

      If your machine is good enough to run games, it should be good enough to set up a virtual machine [or two]. I have XP for old programs, and Ubuntu for coding development boards. After this article, might throw a Mint machine into the mix as well...

        For more modern games a virtual machine is going to be totally unplayable. There's nothing like native support.

        Unless you meant using Linux as a virtual machine in Windows, in which case... well, why would you bother in his case?

          I think he means running Linux as a virtual machine. It raises the question as to why you would do this. Ubuntu is a fine alternative to windows. It a replacement though, not a complimentary tool. And if I have to have windows for gaming anyway...

    Er... Mint *is* ubuntu with a different front end.. :|

    It's like comparing two types of oranges and asking which is the best.. They both have benefits.

      It's more like comparing Android phones. They are all Android, but it's the "front-end" that makes all the difference.

      I tried a few live CDs not long ago. I'd class myself as a tech-savy Linux beginner and I found Mint far more useful "out-of-the-box" compared to Ubuntu. My vote goes for Mint as well. In fact, I'm currently running it on a very old IBM Thinkpad T40.

      Mint also includes LMDE though, which has a debian-testing backend. It's my current distro of choice for desktop work.

    "Ubuntu’s Unity interface puts a dock on the right-hand side of the screen". As the picture clearly shows, the unity launcher is on the left had side of the screen.

    Surely the main advantages of MInt is that it includes functionality straight out-of-the-box ("full multi-media support" according to linuxmint.com), which many of the main Linux distros, including Ubuntu (due to licencing issues) don't?

    In other words, you may need to *configure* Ubuntu to do something as simple as play an mp3 or DVD. For your very basic beginner, this is undoubtedly a p1 usability #fail

    So, it would seem to be a real no-brainer to suggest Linux Mint for a complete beginner over Ubuntu. I'd certainly recommend it whole-heartedly.

    I used Ubuntu for years and loved it, but like many folks, jumped ship when they went for the really unusable Unity UI. I switched to Linux Mint and have been very happy with it; it does everything I want it to do and I don't have to search for the applications I need - difficult if you can't remember what they're called...

    I installed ubuntu on my laptop yesterday for the first time since 2010, and liked it but got constant errors from apport - i had to stop the service in the end.

    Because of my own stupidity (trying to fix the brightness keys on a acer laptop not working) I changed my grub configuration and graphics in ubuntu no longer work so i have to reinstall it.

    Tonight i'm going to give Mint 14 a try instead - it should be a lot faster than having to install "ubuntu-restricted-extras" as well when i'm done. I've just found it also comes with the OpenJDK runtime as well, which i also need to make connecting to my favourite VPN provider super easy (they have client software for linux, but it runs on java).

    Mint should be a lot easier for me.

    Linux Mint hands down for the beginner. Always found Ubuntu required a few tweaks and extra app's installed to bring it up to daily use friendly.
    Simply put Linux Mint works, and works well 1st go (most times). Not to mention ease of use for a newbie switching from Windows won't scare you away.
    Already running mint as a primary OS on my media machine & dual on an old EeePC.

    I'd run Mint on my main gaming rig if it could handle installs out of the box (newbies aren't going to go down the Wine then run a bunch of command/configure options, when they can just install and play right off Windows). But being a regular Steam user this isn't far away with a number of ports in the works.

      I think either would be good for an absolute beginner. For more tech savvy users, you have to remember that both of these are GNU/Linux systems at their heart so much of what you can learn in other distros can be reapplied. I dove headlong into an Arch Linux install when I first switched my main PC (was already experienced running Linux on spare PCs, home server and in VMs) and it was a rewarding experience in learning Linux. I ended up with a good base system using LVM, handcrafted xorg.conf, fstab, bashrc and other configs and tweaks to get the most out of my system. I am now using Linux Mint KDE but took what I learned on Arch and applied it to my current install.

      For tech savvy users that want to learn more about whats going on underneath, I recommend they complete an Arch install at some point.

    It's been several years since I last dipped my toe into the Linux pool. I'll have to get my hands on the newer live CDs of both and give them a try.

    Twice now (years ago) I've been very glad to have a Ubuntu live CD on hand when having problems booting into my Windows machine. I was able to boot into Ubuntu and backup files that way before formatting and re-installing Windows.

    Even if you're not interested in using Linux regularly (I don't really have a need) having a live CD can be a real life-saver.

    if you ask begginer to watch dvd or play mp3 musik i bet thet say it is esier on mint. Also if they want to shange size and fonts on text (things can bee to small on sertain screens even if have good sight). in ubuntu you need install compis tweak and then have the settings splitt up on 2 places. I found it esier 2 change drivers for graphic card in mint 15 too. something a bigginer prob want if they want use heavier graphic tasks as high resolution film veiwing

Join the discussion!