The Linux Mint project has announced version 5 of its Debian edition, code-named Elsie.
Linux Mint is one of the longest-running and most polished distros downstream of Ubuntu, and really took off after Ubuntu switched to the controversial Unity desktop with 11.04. Around that time, Mint 12 retained a Windows-like look and feel that later evolved into the Cinnamon desktop.
This won it a lot of converts who didn’t care for Ubuntu’s more Mac-like look. Even thought Ubuntu killed Unity and switched back to GNOME, it’s GNOME 3 – still very unlike Windows. Mint provides familiarity for the many people who feel more comfy with a taskbar, a start menu, and so on.
We looked at Mint 20 when it came out a couple of years ago, and last January, the latest 20.3 release, too – which includes a natively packaged version of Firefox, direct from Mozilla, instead of Ubuntu’s Snap version. In fact it’s notable that Mint eschews Ubuntu’s Snap apps altogether. Instead, you get Red Hat-style Flatpaks.
Linux Mint Debian Edition – LMDE for short – is the other flavour of Mint. Instead of being based on the stable LTS version of Ubuntu, LMDE is directly based on Debian, which is largely Ubuntu’s upstream. LMDE 5 is based on Debian 11, code-named Bullseye.
The thing is, though, it’s hard to tell. LMDE uses the same Cinnamon desktop as its Ubuntu-based sibling. It has the latest native Firefox from Mozilla, rather than Debian’s outdated ESR version that’s tricky to update. It has Flatpak integrated as well, along with multimedia codecs and so on. It has the same tools as the default Ubuntu-based edition, for software updates, backup, and so on.
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There are advantages to being close to a widely used desktop distro. For instance, sometimes desktop users need third-party drivers, such as for graphics cards or printers. Ubuntu has first-rate driver support. If you encounter issues, it’s often easy to find Ubuntu-based solutions online, and they are very likely to work, at least so long as they don’t depend on a specific desktop.
Debian is rather more polished than it used to be, as well. The old joke is that Ubuntu is an ancient word, meaning: “I can’t configure Debian.” (It doesn’t, but it’s a good gag.)
That jibe’s not true any more. Contemporary Debian is relatively easy: you can readily add Flatpak support – or Snap if you prefer, or both – and install non-FOSS firmware and so on. Bullseye includes Cinnamon, too, albeit a slightly older version.
Even so, LMDE 5 does make it a smoother, easier process, and it looks good, too. If you want to run Debian on a desktop or laptop, you don’t mind (or even actively need) non-FOSS codecs or firmware, and you’re not a Debian guru, then Elsie is a solid choice.
The positions of the Mint project and Ubuntu seem to be diverging. Ubuntu officially favors GNOME 3, while Mint has built its own next-gen desktop. Ubuntu favors its own Snaps, whereas Mint favors Flatpak. Ubuntu is packaging fast-changing apps such as Firefox as Snaps, whereas Mint favors natively packaged browsers. And Mint, as ever, includes non-FOSS freeware such as codecs and apps such as Spotify in its repos.
Other Ubuntu-based distros have switched upstream and moved to Debian in the past, such as the late Crunchbang Linux. Up to version 9, it used Ubuntu; 10 and onward used Debian, as do its continuing derivatives BunsenLabs and Crunchbang++. We wouldn’t be surprised to see a future version of Mint sideline its Ubuntu-derived edition in favor of the Debian edition, or even discontinue it altogether. ®