Ubuntu vs Mint: Which one is better?

They may be two of the most popular Linux distributions, but what are the differences?

Graphic showcasing a showdown between Ubuntu and Mint

Linux-based platforms are known to be more flexible and functionally capable when stacked up against Windows operating systems. To make the most of what Linux has to offer, however, you’ll need to be well versed in the art of programming.

Experienced users can customise and configure their Linux installations in ways that many Windows device owners simply can’t. Seasoned users can, for example, style their user interface (UI) based on the classic Apple Mac look, while also taking advantage of useful features normally seen in Windows, such as snapping windows together. The way Linux is set up lends itself to granting users this additional functionality, letting you code directly into the user experience and make tweaks to your device to suit your precise requirements.

There’s a wide variety of Linux distributions, or distros, out there too, which may appeal to different kinds of users depending on what they're looking for. You may, for example, prioritise security in your Linux deployment, or even be seeking out a distro that’s optimised to be run on a server. Two of the most widely used for general purposes are Ubuntu and Mint, and both are designed to be approachable for beginners since they’re far more aesthetically pleasing than a handful of the more niche distros.

Due to its clean and Apple-inspired aesthetic, the consensus is that Ubuntu is more popular than Mint. This is in addition to continuous backing and maintenance from the software firm Canonical, which created the variant. Its user-friendly UI, combined with a steady stream of updates, means it’s also compatible with the latest hardware and software additions, regardless of whether you’re using them in a professional or personal capacity.

On the other hand, Mint is considered to be more of a ‘classic’ installation than Ubuntu, even though it’s based on this platform. Mint, however, looks a bit more like a fusion between Windows 7 and Windows XP, or other older Windows operating systems. Rather than being managed by a large company, it’s supported by the Mint community, meaning you’ll be presented with more experimental features while you’re also more likely to encounter flaws.

History

Linux Mint, is, in fact, based upon Ubuntu and Ubuntu has Debian at its core. Therefore, if you're using either Mint or Ubuntu, you are actually using Debian to an extent.

Ubuntu first burst into the Linux scene in October 2004 and is updated every six months. As we've already explained, Ubuntu is based upon Debian and the package format is .deb.

Debian is perhaps one of the oldest iterations of Linux, launching in 1993, at a time when Microsoft was rolling out Windows 3.1.

Screenshot of the Linux Mint operating system user interface

Screenshot of the Linux Mint operating system user interface

Linux Mint is comparably younger than Ubuntu - not surprising as it's based upon the platform. Linux Mint made its debut in 2006, based upon Ubuntu KDE iteration (also known as Kunbuntu). As is the case with Ubuntu, Linux Mint is updated twice a year, usually in the month following its parent's update.

While Ubuntu has software company Canonical behind it to run its development, Linux Mint relies on individual users and companies using the OS to act as sponsors, donors and partners. Feedback from these parties helps shape decisions about its development.

What's in a name?

Linux Mint gives every new release a female name ending in "a"; current version 17.2 is known as "Rafaela". Ubuntu releases versions of the software with a version number that encompasses the year and month of release (at the time of writing the latest version is 15.04 release in April 2015).

Ubuntu also codenames these releases; these codenames consist of an adjective and the name of an animal also beginning with the same letter. In the case of version 15.04, this is Vivid Vervet. For the last few years, this has been alphabetical, but not always as the first two releases started with "W" and "H".

Desktops interfaces and usability

Mint and Ubuntu vary significantly in terms of looks. Although they're built, at their core exactly the same, the UI is probably the most significant variation between the two. Mint looks more like Windows (albeit going back to Vista rather than the more refined Windows 10), while Ubuntu will be more familiar to Mac OS X users.

Ubuntu uses what's called the Unity UI, with a dock situated on the left side comprising the basic app icons, including Firefox for browsing and Libre Office for productivity. To the right of this, along the top of the screen are other icons, focused on more settings-based functions including networking, language, sound, time and date and other essentials.

Screenshot of the Linux Ubuntu user interface

Screenshot of the Linux Ubuntu user interface

For anything else, you'll need to head to Ubuntu's Dash menu, accessed by choosing the Dash icon that you'll find on the dock. Just type in the program you're looking for and Dash will scour your hard drive looking for it to open. The one problem with this is if you can't quite remember the program's full name and searching means you need to use its exact name - no guessing here. Browsing isn't really an option, with lots of expandable submenus you'll need to trawl through.

Mint, on the other hand, has an interface called Cinnamon. It is similar to Windows in that it puts the taskbar at the bottom and has a Start menu similar to the Microsoft OS. Open apps have a button appear on the sidebar (again much like Windows 7 or older). Shortcuts can also be added to the taskbar. The taskbar can be a little small in default mode.

Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages. Mint is much easier to browse through to find apps while Ubuntu's Dock feature can be easy to pick up. Mint is easier for beginners to search through to find something.

What's your flavour?

There are other variants of flavours of both Ubuntu and Linux Mint. For Ubuntu, there are a variety of desktop versions with different desktop environments. Other than the main Ubuntu which comes with Unity (see above), there are also Ubuntu GNOME, Kubuntu (KDE), Lubuntu (LXDE), Xubuntu (Xfce) and Ubuntu MATE.

Linux Mint comes in Cinnamon and MATE flavours, there are also KDE and Xfce versions. Flavours such as GNOME, LXDE and Fluxbox are no longer being developed.

Performance

If you have a comparatively new machine, the difference between Ubuntu and Linux Mint may not be that discernable. Mint may seem a little quicker in use day to day, but on older hardware, it will definitely feel faster, whereas Ubuntu appears to run slower the older the machine gets. Linux Mint gets faster still when running MATE, as does Ubuntu.

Cost

Neither Ubuntu nor Linux Mint cost anything to buy.

Linux Mint pitches itself as a community-driven project, as such relies on donations from users, sponsors (such as hosting companies) and partners (who give the project backing, support and services).

Ubuntu is a commercial company. While you are free to download, install and use Ubuntu, should you need professional support, this comes at a price.

Upgradability

Both Linux Mint and Ubuntu have easy-to-use updaters. For Ubuntu, it's just a case of clicking on the Dash icon in the dock, and searching for the Software Updater. This then checks for any updates (either to the operating system or applications), downloads them and then installs them.

For Linux Mint, the process is broadly similar. Here you use the Update Manager app to update the OS and applications.

Productivity

When installed, both Ubuntu and Linux Mint feature Libre Office productivity suite and Firefox browser. While there is no material difference between how Libre Office works on both operating systems, the way the user interface is structured on both is slightly different.

As mentioned earlier, Ubuntu has a more Mac-like feel, so when using an app (not just Libre Office) the menu bar is along the top of the display. In Linux Mint, the menu bar is attached to the window of the app itself. We would say which one is better is down to personal tastes and preferences (and whether you are coming to Linux from Mac or Windows).

Compatible apps

Both operating systems come with a number of applications pre-installed (in addition to Libre Office and Firefox see above), such as web browsers, instant messengers, music players, video players, image editors and so on.

Ubuntu appears to have more applications, but finding them can be a chore when having to plough through the Dash to find them. The upshot is that you may never know that Ubuntu had the application you needed but didn't quite know the name of.

Linux Mint covers all the bases and thanks to its Windows-like Start menu, finding these applications is very easy.

That said, if you want an app that is not installed, both operating systems have "App Stores" where you can find and easily download programs. This is where Ubuntu scores one against Linux Mint; it is easier to find apps within its store than with Mint. Also as the Ubuntu's Software Centre app store is on the dock starting this up is quick. Ubuntu also features paid apps, whereas Linux Mint doesn't.

Business use

Canonical has made great efforts in getting its Ubuntu onto the desktops of corporate users (indeed it cites one of its successes in Munich here). It has also managed to get most of the major PC manufacturers to pre-load Ubuntu onto desktops and laptops.

Whereas, Linux Mint is very much aimed at enthusiasts. There is no apparent push by the project to market this distribution to corporates. That side, it is very polished and a capable replacement for anyone that has been running Windows 7 (or indeed XP) and has no wish to move to Windows 8 and beyond.

Verdict

Both Ubuntu and Linux Mint have much to commend. Both have Debian as their base, but it is how it is implemented as far as user interfaces and support that counts.

If you have newer hardware and want to pay for support services, then Ubuntu is the one to go for. However, if you are looking for a non-windows alternative that is reminiscent of XP, then Linux Mint is the choice.

It is hard to pick which one to use. Unity is not to everyone's taste, but Cinnamon can seem a bit old-fashioned. In the end, the choice can be down to a matter of preference.

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