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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

Windows is by far the most popular operating system used by consumers and businesses across the globe, but Linux is often dubbed the best of them all by those equipped with the technical know-how to use it.

Besides being totally free to use and install, Linux-based operating systems offer users a level of control and customisation that far exceeds that of the more traditional Windows or macOS environments. A little programming knowledge is key to getting the most out of each distro, enabling users to customise it for their needs. Want a more Mac-like appearance but can’t live without key Windows features like window snapping? It’s all possible with a little tinkering.

There is an abundance of Linux distributions ready to play with straight out of the box, but there are a select few that come recommended by the passionate community of users and developers that rely on their favourite distro every day. 

Interested? There’s a distro out there for everyone. Some are best suited for security, others for server management, while beginners tend to opt for the more general-purpose varieties. Ubuntu and Mint are two distros beginners most often flock to for their first Linux experience. They’re both great in their own way and unlike some distros out there, pretty easy on the eyes too.

Generally speaking, Ubuntu is the more popular choice over Mint. It features a familiar, macOS-like user interface (UI) and is maintained by both its keen community of users and professionally by Canonical - sponsor of the Ubuntu project. Per the Ubuntu project’s manifesto, Ubuntu will always be free to use, accessible in as many languages as possible, shipped with a refreshed version every six months, and uphold open source development principles.

Mint is generally considered to be a more traditional Linux distro compared to Ubuntu, with its somewhat antiquated aesthetic which resembles an amalgam of Windows 7, XP and a few other earlier Windows installations. Unlike Ubuntu, it isn’t managed professionally. It solely relies on its own keen community of users and developers to maintain the project which often leads to more experimental updates that are sometimes buggier and timed less rigidly than Ubuntu’s bi-annnual schedule.

Ubuntu vs Mint: History

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

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, 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, 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.

Ubuntu vs Mint: What's in a name?

Mint gives every new release a female name ending in "a"; current version 20.2 is known as "Uma". Ubuntu releases versions of the software with a version number that encompasses the year and month of release.

Ubuntu used to codename its releases; these code names formerly consisted of an adjective and the name of an animal also beginning with the same letter. For example, 15.04 was called Vivid Vervet. More recently it adopted a traditional numeric format such as Ubuntu 20.04.3 LTS. LTS stands for 'long-term support' - a guarantee that the version will receive security and other updates, free of charge, for a specified time frame, usally years in advance - much like Windows or macOS.

Ubuntu vs Mint: 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 macOS 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.

Ubuntu vs Mint: What's your flavour?

There are other variants of flavours of both Ubuntu and 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.

The Software Manager in the Cinnamon variety of Mint

Linux Mint

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.

Ubuntu vs Mint: Performance

If you have a comparatively new machine, the difference between Ubuntu and 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. Mint gets faster still when running MATE, as does Ubuntu.

Ubuntu vs Mint: Cost

Neither Ubuntu nor Mint cost anything to buy.

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.

Ubuntu vs Mint: Upgradability

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

Ubuntu vs Mint: 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.

The KMail app in Ubuntu

Ubuntu Kubuntu

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 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).

Ubuntu vs Mint: 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.

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 programmes. This is where Ubuntu scores one against Mint; it is easier to find apps within its store than with Mint. Also as the Ubuntu Software Centre app store is on the dock starting this up is quick. Ubuntu also features paid apps, whereas Mint doesn't.

Ubuntu vs Mint: 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, Mint is very much aimed at enthusiasts. There is no apparent push by the project to market this distribution to corporates. That said, 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.

Ubuntu vs Mint: Verdict

Both Ubuntu and 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 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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