The Peppermint OS experience
This is the first cloud-centric Linux distro I’ve tried, so it’s hard to make any comparisons, so I’m just going to approach this from a purely objective point of view. What I dislike, what I like, and what my overall feelings are about this project now that I’ve had a chance to use it a bit.
What I don’t like
Those of you who bother to read anything here on any kind of regular basis know that I’m a picky guy when it comes to my Linux and my applications. So with that firmly in mind, you have to understand that my criticisms here are largely subjective — what I don’t like about some of the applications Kendall and the Peppermint team decided to include might be fine for you, and the ones I prefer to have on-hand on my machines might be abhorrent to you.
But that’s what a review is all about, right? Opinions!
With that little disclaimer out of the way, let’s get crackin’!
The new version of PCManFM is brain damaged
By far my biggest beef with default applications has to be with the version of PCManFM that is installed by default with this version of LXDE. Peppermint uses PCManFM 0.9.5 as its file manager, and, compared to previous versions (notably PCManFM 0.5.2), the one that ships with this distro is hobbled and broken in a number of ways.
I’m not certain if this is missing some part of it, or if there’s a bug in this version, but PCManFM 0.9.5 that ships with Peppermint OS seems to be lacking the tree view in the side pane entirely, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to turn it on.
This is what it looks like in Peppermint (click to embiggen):
You can see that there’s the “places” listed in the side pane on the left, but I prefer utilizing the “tree view” for quick navigation — when you limit the side pane to just “places”, it’s largely just wasted space, I’m afraid.
Here’s a shot of what PCManFM 0.5.2 looks like under the “view” menu (the way it SHOULD look), where you can turn on the directory tree in the side pane (a screenshot I took on a different machine):
By contrast, here’s what the view menu looks like in Peppermint, COMPLETELY LACKING this functionality!
Not only that, but this newer version of PCManFM has eliminated the option to “Always show the tab bar” from the interface preferences (which I find annoying to be lacking)… as a matter of fact, this newer version of PCManFM has eliminated the entire “interface” tab from the preferences altogether!
I know Kendall implemented Peppermint with the latest-and-greatest version of LXDE with the latest-and-greatest version of PCManFM for some of its other features, but these things drive me nuts… to the point where I don’t even use PCManFM as a file manager on Peppermint. I discovered that by downgrading PCManFM to an earlier version that actually HAS all these interface features I severely broke the entire desktop, so instead I’m reduced to installing my less-favored Thunar file manager, which at least supports directory tree navigation (even though it isn’t tabbed).
What is with new versions of otherwise great applications having FEWER features these days? Do developers sit around and think “okay, for the new version, what useful functions should we remove from this?”. Because with PCManFM, that certainly seems to be the case, at least, that seems to be the case with the implementation of it here in Peppermint. To be fair, I haven’t tried this version of PCManFM anywhere else.
Anyway, that’s my rant on the default file manager. There isn’t any way to downgrade it to a more flexible, more functional version without breaking the default desktop as a whole (as I sadly discovered), so I solved this problem by installing an alternative — but still less than perfect — file manager.
Songbird: a dying application and way too resource intensive for an otherwise “lightweight” distro
I mentioned above that Peppermint had, rather strangely, included the discontinued-for-Linux music player Songbird. While it seems odd that the Peppermint team would bundle an application that’s effectively on its deathbed in the Linux world, it’s even more out of place among the otherwise slick selection of light, fast, basic applications and webapps that otherwise make up the app selection in this distro.
Songbird, on this old laptop, is a DOG. Slow and sluggish to start up, it eats up lots of CPU cycles, tons of memory, and is painful to use because of how unresponsive it is to interaction.
While I’m not particularly a huge fan of any of them, Rhythmbox, Banshee, and especially the fast and basic Decibel Audio Player would all have been better choices than Songbird, if nothing else because they are all a bit easier on resources than Songbird has been on limited hardware in my experience, and unlike Songbird, all three of them have a future in the Linux world.
Aviary image editor fail
When I review a distro, I like to (as I am right now) write my review with that distro, utilizing the tools available on it to do what I need to do. True to form, I’m writing this review on Peppermint OS, and it’s working fine, but for one thing: I was unable to manage my screenshots for the review effectively with the default options available.
The only image editing app in Peppermint is Aviary “Phoenix” image editor, and try as I may, I simply cannot get it to work. I took all the screenshots with the default screenshotting tool included, but when I tried opening them in Aviary so that I could resize them and make some thumbnails, et cetera, it simply sat there forever in the “upload” dialog. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get it to do anything other than that.
Not having any more time to waste on this, I gave up and installed GIMP and did what I needed to do.
What “dislike” section of one of my reviews would be complete without my usual rant about the lack of touchpad disabling functionality? While under the “Preferences” submenu there is a “Keyboard and Mouse” applet to handle a couple of extremely basic settings for input devices, as per the norm, there is no means of disabling a touchpad on the mouse section of that applet.
Indeed, if it were not for the shell script I keep handy for this purpose, I would not be writing this much stuff on this laptop, because without being able to disable the touchpad, any extended writing is impossible because I’m always bumping it as I type, which causes the cursor to jump around.
One checkbox. That’s all I need. One checkbox that says “disable touchpad” in the Keyboard and Mouse applet that I can check, and keep it that way. Seems simple enough, and I know that the Peppermint team didn’t write this applet, but damn it, somebody needs to implement this!
What I like
Rants over! Now onto the good stuff.
Before I even bother going into that, take a look at this. This is a screenshot of an LXTerminal window running htop (which I installed myself). At the time this screenshot was taken, nothing else was running, it was just Peppermint’s default desktop right after a login, and the LXTerminal window you see. That’s it.
Allow me to draw your attention to the third line down from the very top, the one labeled “Mem”:
That’s right. I couldn’t believe it either. Peppermint by default is only utilizing 82 Mb of system memory. And it said 79 Mb just before I launched the screenshot app.
Sheesh, no WONDER this distro is so fast. I’m not sure what these guys did here to accomplish this — aside from being stingy with daemons and processes that run on startup — but with this kind of minimal overhead, this is easily a viable netbook OS, and for a regular laptop that’s a few years old, it’s faster than anything else I’ve tested on it.
So the first thing I like?
Let me be absolutely clear about one thing: Peppermint Linux OS is fast. Really fast. On this tired old laptop, Peppermint boots up from a cold, powered down state in just under 25 seconds from me hitting the power button to being able to log in graphically.
From the point I log in to the point where I have a usable desktop is less than 5 seconds.
When I tell it to “shut down” it does so in approximately 4 seconds.
When I say Peppermint is fast, that’s what I mean. Startup, login, shutdown, there’s no waiting around for this one, even on old hardware like mine.
While it’s up and running, with the aforementioned lack of overhead, that leaves lots of CPU cycles and RAM available to handle the tasks at hand. The default LXDE menu and interface is responsive and downright snappy, and applications start up and do their thing without any waiting around at all.
I can’t even imagine what this OS would be like on newer hardware. It’d be unbelievable.
I was involved in the private beta test of Peppermint OS, and I used the beta for about a week and a half or so. Since then, I’ve installed the final release, and I’ve been using that for a few days now. I have yet to crash Peppermint (except for when I tried to downgrade PCManFM to an earlier version that I liked better, and that was my own damned fault).
I like to perform a basic, unscientific stability test when I am playing around with a new distro on this laptop. I leave Firefox open to 8 or 10 tabs with the sites I commonly surf loaded. I leave my mail client open (in this case Google Mail loaded via Prism), my Twitter app open (in this case Seesmic, again loaded through Prism), and I set Xscreensaver to one of the more obnoxious, processor intensive options (like Flurry, for example, or Bouncing Cows).
Then I close the lid, walk away from it, and let it sit. For hours. Sometimes overnight.
If there’s any kind of instability inherent in the distro, it rears its ugly head in this test, almost every time.
Peppermint just keeps trucking along, however. It hasn’t crashed on me yet, not when I’ve let it flounder under the weight of the above list of processes, and not while I’ve been actively using it to do stuff (like take screenshots, play with audio software, and write Linux Critic reviews of new distros).
I like stable. Stable is good. :)
A focus on social media and the cloud
Since this old laptop is having a harder and harder time keeping up with the processor and memory requirements of modern applications — even Linux based ones — I’ve practically been using it like a netbook anyway. Even when I was running a regular distro (I like Linux Mint 8 Fluxbox CE on this laptop when I’m not evaluating something else for review purposes) I stopped using a mail client a while back (even Thunderbird was a little heavy, slow, and sluggish), so I do almost everything through a browser anyway.
When I installed Peppermint on this laptop, it was already configured with that in mind. I really like the webapp implementation via Prism; it’s slick, and it still (kind of) feels like I’m running native apps that way.
One thing I want to mention is Seesmic. I played around with Seesmic’s website a month or so ago and found it to be a bit heavy and slow to scroll and do basic things, so I gave up on it and settled back on just using Twitter’s default homepage for my tweets.
But for some reason, running Seesmic through Prism seems to have gotten around this… it’s reasonably responsive, doesn’t peg my CPU every time I do anything on it, and it runs in its own window — if I didn’t know any better, I’d say I was running some local Twitter client, not a redirected website into a stripped down browser window.
Anyway, Peppermint is geared toward exactly how I’ve been utilizing this old laptop, and because of that, there’s very little I need to tweak on it to make it feel like home.
In short, it’s about time a good Linux distro came along that had this focus and did it this smoothly.
Final thoughts on Peppermint
While critical above on some of the application choices, as I had mentioned, that’s a subjective matter of personal choice. One of the great things about using a distro that has Ubuntu in its ancestry is the vast array of choices a guy like me has available. I really didn’t like the version of PCManFM Peppermint came with… so what?
sudo apt-get install thunar fired away and I have a better file manager. No graphical FTP application installed by default? Big deal! I open up LXTerminal and type
sudo apt-get install gftp and a few seconds later I’m ready to go! Songbird runs slow and feels out of place in a distro like this? Not a problem! I
sudo apt-get remove songbird and then
sudo apt-get install decibel-audio-player and I immediately have a replacement!
Choice and flexibility are beautiful things. Ultimately it means that the user — any user — has power to make their computing experience what they want it to be, what they need it to be, and that’s what it should be.
Peppermint OS is among the first to try a lot of what it’s doing, and I think it does a great job of that. The sheer speed, respect for old hardware and minimal resources, and stability alone make it a standout, but the smooth way the Peppermint team (I’m looking at you, Kendall!) implemented the webapps seamlessly with the other native client-side applications makes this distro feel like it’s something that’s taken the next step toward a larger universe. That universe has the personal computer not being simply confined to running its code all by itself, but being embedded and a part of the web and the rest of the world as a whole.
And that’s something I find exciting.
My feelings about using Peppermint are overwhelmingly positive. It’s intuitive and user-friendly and I can honestly say that I’m going to leave it on this laptop for a while and see how things go. So far I’m very impressed, so I want to keep using it!
Great job, Peppermint team! I look forward to what’s coming next!
UPDATE: In response to this very early review, the Peppermint OS team had communicated a few changes they were making to the final release. I address some of that in my follow up, which is here. Thanks for reading!