August 8, 2012 by Steve Schuler
Linux Mint Maya: A Great “Mate” for Windows users looking for more speed and less cost.
A cautionary tale for capitalists about how a little web browsing and a slow netbook led a life-long Windows user to become a Linux convert.
My wife has a little 3-year-old HP Mini netbook that she treats like a full-fledged computer, but mostly uses it for web browsing and light doc/pdf work. It came with Windows XP Home edition, and although it always seemed a little on the slow side, it was tolerable – that is, until we had a toddler running around, and we moved, and we changed jobs, and… Basically, life got busier, and waiting around for a netbook to boot or load applications no longer was something we could to deal with. Luckily for my wife I’m an IT professional, so I spent hours tweaking the heck out of Windows to get every last ounce of speed I could out of it. I turned off all the visual effects, wallpaper, and other bells & whistles that makes XP slower, but nicer to use. I then went hard-core and tweaked some stuff under the hood, to reduce what starts on boot to an absolute minimum, removed all unnecessary software, defragged, etc. Basically, anything you can think of to optimize a Windows machine I did, but it was still slower than we’d like. Then, while browsing this site of major Linux distributions, I discovered Linux Mint.
I figured it would be worth a try, since it can install into the free space in your Windows machine, giving you the option to dual-boot, rather than having to wipe the drive and start over. If I didn’t like it, it would be easy enough to delete it and go back to using Windows. And most importantly, everything I read about it indicated that there is no longer any need to worry about finding/installing drivers to get your basic hardware working, or to memorize arcane commands to type into the terminal. After a little research, I decided to go with Linux Mint Maya 32-bit, using the MATE desktop. Using the Universal USB Installer, I configured a USB key to be bootable using the ISO I downloaded from linuxmint.com.
Installation was surprisingly easy. Even easier than Windows – and more efficient, since it’s installing in the background as you answer setup questions about your keyboard and time zone, etc., unlike Windows, which waits until you give it all the info it wants before starting to copy files.
Once it was installed, it looked pretty much just like Windows. Sure enough, there was no need to type secret UNIX commands into the dreaded terminal and there were no major issues with hardware/drivers. The only problem I had was getting the right-mouse click working on the Mini’s built-in touchpad (left click worked fine). Thanks to a Google search, I found some lines to add to a text file which made it come back to life. I’m not sure, but I get the impression this is a problem mainly with the touchpad and/or HP Mini laptops, so not a concern for most people.
I also spent a bit of time setting up the WiFi connection, but once I got that working, everything worked great, and no more configuration was necessary. We’ve always been big Google Chrome fans in my house, so the first thing we did was to install that instead of using Mozilla Firefox, which comes with it. We also installed “Wine” which is a program that allows you to install & run software meant to run in Windows. Thanks to Wine, we now once again have access to The Rosetta Stone. But other than that, the OS comes pre-installed with pretty much anything you’d need – even free alternative versions of Office and Photoshop. My wife likes to compare it to going to Canada or the UK – everything works pretty much the same as we’re used to where we grew up, and you can understand what’s being said, etc., but you can still sense that things seem just a little different from what you’re used to. Not in a bad way – just different.
After using Linux Mint exclusively for over a week, it was becoming clear that we no longer had any real desire to boot into Windows now. Especially since the Linux file manager can browse files in the Windows partition. This new operating system seemed faster, so I decided to do a few quick timed tests to see if it was just my imagination. I found the results particularly interesting because we’re comparing a fully tweaked & optimized version of Windows XP Home with an installation of Linux Mint 13 that, while containing a number of installed programs, is basically still at the default settings – even sporting the sexy 3D wallpaper that it comes with and any other visual enhancements. Also, we’re comparing an OS made for a modern age with one made 10 years ago. As anyone who’s ever run Windows 95 on a modern PC knows, running and old OS on modern hardware always makes the old OS seem to fly, and running a new OS on older hardware typically is a bad idea. Since this is a 3-year-old netbook with only 1GB of RAM sporting an Intel Atom CPU running at 1.6GHz, this definitely is not fast new hardware. Maybe it would’ve been a fairer fight if we ran Mint 1.0 from 6 years ago instead (or an older version of Ubuntu from before that, which Mint is based on), or Windows 7. Oh well, the unfair fight just makes the results that much more dramatic:
Boot time was 1:00 for Linux Mint 13, 1:58 for Windows XP Home.
This is from the moment after the boot menu until the moment that our home page loads in Chrome (since the point of the netbook is primarily web browsing.) (Both OSes are configured to automatically logon to the desktop on boot, and then connect to WiFi, then load Chrome’s home page.) Also, disk activity pretty much stopped in Linux within another second or two of that 1:00 time, while the XP machine continued to thrash for a WHILE afterwards (I didn’t time that), which means that even after I stopped the clock, Windows was still pokey for a while as the hard drive attempted to catch up. Linux’s time was definitely helped by the way that it connects to the WiFi immediately upon loading the desktop, while XP takes a few seconds to even start connecting.
Shut down time in Windows was 0:40. In Linux Mint is was 0:05. (This is from clicking “Shut Down” until power off.)
Also, resuming from Standby (including reconnecting to wireless) is like 5 seconds or less in Linux and noticeably longer in Windows (didn’t time it). Again, this Linux speed advantage is made even better by how quickly it connects to the wireless LAN. For a lifetime Windows user, who had gotten used to Windows’ leisurely connection sequence (often including an annoying balloon that won’t go away by itself), this is something we’re still getting used to.
In terms of daily use, the funniest thing to me was how when we go to Hotmail using Chrome in Windows and open a new message, it takes a while to initially load whatever it needs to load in the browser to get the toolbar & autofill addresses working – after that it’s fine. This also happens on all other Windows machines I’ve ever used to access Hotmail, but it’s particularly noticeable on a slow machine like this. But In Chrome in Linux, that same stuff loads immediately when the page is loaded – no wait at all. This cracked me up, since Hotmail is made/owned by Microsoft – the same people who made the Windows operating system! Yet for some reason Hotmail loads/performs faster in someone ELSE’s OS! You would think the people who created it would have the advantage.
So, being duly impressed, I’ve now given the bootable USB stick to my 76-year-old father to install Linux Mint on his old Dell laptop, so we’ll see how that goes. It’s been a few days without any of the panicked calls that I’ve gotten in the past for Windows issues, so that’s promising. We’ll see – if anything interesting happens on that front I’ll post an update to this story. But for now I think Linux and the Open Source Community have a few new converts.
Oh, did I mention this is all FREE? Just in case the usability, resistance to viruses, more than double better overall performance, and tons of pre-installed software didn’t impress you, it is all completely free and legal!
Somewhere a conservative/capitalist’s head just exploded…
UPDATE – September 12, 2012:
As promised, here’s a quick update on how my dad did with Mint….
I gave him my bootable USB stick with the live CD installed on it, so all he’d have to do was plug it in, boot, and click the “Install Linux Mint” icon on the desktop. Well, I guess I shouldn’t have assumed he knew what a “Live CD” is, because he assumed that when he booted up and saw a Mint desktop that it WAS installed, and then proceeded to spent days/weeks trying to configure wireless, download updates, etc. without success. Once he realized that this was just a working copy to play around with and to launch the actual installer program from, things went much better!
He installed it on two old laptops. From what I hear, one went smoothly, and the other had some issue with the touchpad and with finding his wireless drivers. After much tinkering I think he eventually got it sorted out using the drivers from the manufacturer though, so maybe not a major problem.
Overall, he loves it, and loves the fact that it’s all free. He can’t get over how much software you can download for it all for free. It’s especially helpful that it’s all conveniently available from a program within the operating system, so it’s just a matter of browsing categories (games, education, office, etc.), rather than hoping he gets lucky stumbling on a cool program as he travels the internet.
His biggest gripe seems to be with the documentation. It is pretty weak. And for someone who is all about buying books and printing out online PDF manuals, this is a big gripe for him. (He was even complaining about the lack of good books on this version of Mint.) I told him just to use Google for any questions he has and he’ll certainly find a bunch of people already talking about it. He says he did that, but gets confused about which advice to take, since people are often talking about older versions of the OS.
I should also mention that as an advanced/professional user I find the pre-installed GIMP (open source Photoshop) and Libre Office (open source Microsoft Office) adequate, but inferior to their commercial counterparts when you really get into using some of their more advanced features. (e.g., no adjustment layers in GIMP, not a lot of options to make graphs and such look as pretty as in Office 2010, etc.) GIMP actually has a few nice bells & whistles that Photoshop doesn’t have (e.g., filter to show images as color blind/color deficient people would see them), but those extras don’t make up the difference for me. For the average user though, these apps will be more than functional enough, and this certainly seems to be true for my father.
So I guess the moral to the story is Mint works great as a desktop OS for a beginner as long as that beginner gets it pre-installed. It’s still possibly a bit confusing for someone who isn’t totally comfortable with installing OSes and solving problems online. (Then again, the same could probably be said of Windows.) But if I just handed him his laptop with the OS already on there, he’d be happy as a clam. His only gripes were with things related to set up. (Also setting it up on laptops can be a bit trickier than desktops, due to their more proprietary hardware.) If you’re any kind of computer person (i.e. moderate or above skill level) installation & configuration should be easy, and of course, it’s also easy to use.