Linux Mint 18.1: Mostly smooth, but some sharp edges

The latest version of Ubuntu-based operating system offers long-term support

Linux Mint
Luis Fernando Pienda Mahecha (CC BY-SA 2.0)
At a Glance
  • Linux Mint 18.1 - NEW RELEASE - Cinnamon Live Desktop (64-Bit) on DVD.

We’ve been fond of Linux Mint for its ability to present a friendly interface to the average end user, while having a stable foundation of Debian and Ubuntu underneath. In this review, we looked at LinuxMint 18.1, dubbed Serena. We found a solid operating system that can run into problems in edge case scenarios.

Mint offers a number of user interface options, keeping each variant in sync with a release.

Part of Linux Mint’s appeal is as an alternative to Canonical’s Ubuntu, which features the unpopular Unity interface. Last week, Canonical announced it was killing Unity and returning to Gnome, which Mint offers as well, which should make things interesting going forward.

Mint 18.1 offers Ubuntu Long Term Service and an updated Linux 4.4 kernel, so updates and support come largely from Ubuntu repositories, which are fast to react to issues, all guaranteed to be supported until 2021. Although we had nearly daily updates to our test installations, the problems we found were unrelated to patches and fixes. Rather, our problems were partially user interface, and partially the ongoing problems of XWindows, drivers, and how combinations adapt to differing kinds of hardware.

Generic hardware works great in terms of finding the right choices at installation of various features. When we added interesting USB drivers, we were usually rewarded with instant functionality within each flavor of LinuxMint, right down to the recently released KDE version, always the last one to be adapted to a new version of LinuxMint.

Obscure Prolific USB-to-Serial adapters designed for ham radios worked. Ancient Canon USB printers were found and adopted easily. VirtualBox came alive and got our various favorite virtual machines alive and moving quickly. Our test VM payloads worked easily.

Installation and hardware detection

When we tried edge case, or unusual hardware, we were sometimes met with what are euphemistically described as challenges.

As an example, installation on a standard Lenovo Thinkpad went swimmingly, then we attempted to install Linux Mint on a Lenovo Yoga hybrid tablet-notebook. Here’s where things became more dicey. The Yoga S1 tablet works, but not in the way one would expect. The driver selected didn’t allow selection for auto screen rotation.

Changing the screen resolution geometry shrank the viewable screen size, rather than adapting to the physical screen size. Indeed there are five different drivers that make the touchscreen work, all of them different projects.

On the same machine, the touchpad, which also has a multi-touch function, left-right/fore-aft buttons plus a pencil-tip type cursor control, was difficult to control. There becomes a game called ‘let’s change the screen orientation from portrait to landscape’ (for example rotate right or left) and yes, it works. But cursor control becomes a game of chasing the cursor with either the trackpad of the pencil-tip mouse controller.

The geometry change fouls mouse/cursor-pointing behavior. This manifests itself in the most pronounced way in the xfce version of Linux Mint -- trying to adjust the madness was difficult. There are many ways to get adjustments for things like the drivers mentioned. Using what some call the “Windows” key, the Settings tabs deliver more than 30 apps to adjust settings.

As Mint is made from different sources, many of the settings apps are duplications of each other. If one has sufficient search engine mastery, the settings can be found that allow a simple screen rotation, but not one of them is obvious from any of the control panels available to touch settings for a tablet screen. They are neither intuitive nor rational or have help explanations, despite the purported testing of Lenovo’s notebooks by Ubuntu/Canonical. We found the problem and eventually a solution. It required invoking scripts.

While searching for an answer, we found that a function key could invoke the display settings control panel, which allowed us to enter the previously described adjustment game. But like many other controls, once invoked, it isn’t dismissed by using the escape key, or a Ctrl-Q, and this becomes part of a wide inconsistency among apps bundled with Linux Mint: behavioral inconsistency.

In the Windows world, an Alt-F4 means quit completely. Apple uses Cmd-Q. Some apps use Alt-Q. Unix derivatives use Ctrl-C or Ctrl-D. Linux Mint can use many of these, and there is no rhyme or reason as to which one uses what combo for things like closing a program, although many will salute to Ctrl-F to Find something contextually. Is an escape necessary?

When the panel pops up for an adjustment as invoked for display changing, does one have to click the x-box at the upper-right to close the panel window? Aha! That’s it. Civilians eventually figure this out, but to watch them and not prompt them when they search desperately for a meme or algorithm or something that guides their action is stressful.

We also attempted to use StrongSwan IKE-2 certificate-based VPN connectivity. LinuxMint installs VPN software that battles StrongSwan for reasons we can’t understand, in as much as StrongSwan is demonstrably safer-- although Mint’s native support is backwards-compatible with many older VPN implementations, some of which are hackable with a small hammer. We hope they upgrade to StrongSwan soon.

Better news

We were able to garner Windows connectivity, both to Windows Server 2012 and 2016 Editions easily. CIFS/SMB shares were also easily found, even obscure ones like WD MyCloud drives. When using Windows 10 VMs, the transport layer through the VirtualBox hypervisor was at full SMB3 rates, so a bit speedier than the SMB2 emulations that LinuxMint uses itself.

And the pre-load LibreOffice 5 continues to be a luxury for word processing, presentation graphics, spreadsheets, and for some, simple drawing. We noted that the tablet drawing went especially well, reminding us of our experience with Microsoft’s Surface 4 on the Lenovo Yoga S1 under Linux Mint.

The behavior of Linux Mint was fastest under xfce, and then Cinnamon, with KDE the slowest. In terms of features and usability for Windows users, Cinnamon still fills the bill, but Apple and Windows users can make xfce work well for them.

In all editions, we like the ability to easily move from workspace to workspace, especially when mouse/touchpad controls are working well. Although window behavior can be inconsistent among apps, the bad window behavior is consistent across editions.

And we were heartened to see active sponsors and an evolution of a Linux Mint ecosystem on their website, meaning that there’s more muscularity (or at least community and probable financing) to help sustain the operating system’s evolution. Ubuntu has Canonical’s backing but LinuxMint is sustained by other sources – often anonymous donors, and the sponsors mean probable future sustainability, which is important for long-term support of Linux Mint-specific endeavors.


There are minor things that frustrate us, largely inconsistencies in user interface behavior. The foundation of Ubuntu LTS means long support. We found strong compatibility, except in noted edge cases, with a half dozen desktop (HP, Dell, Asus, and Lenovo) machines. Except where the hardware is weird (hybrids are weird), we had uniform behavior and high compatibility.

Tom Henderson runs ExtremeLabs, in Bloomington, Ind. He can be reached at

This story, "Linux Mint 18.1: Mostly smooth, but some sharp edges" was originally published by Network World.

At a Glance
  • Linux Mint 18.1 - NEW RELEASE - Cinnamon Live Desktop (64-Bit) on DVD.


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