Linux Mint Essentials

4.7 (10 reviews total)
By Jay LaCroix
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  1. Meet Linux Mint

About this book

Linux Mint is one of the most popular and proven distributions for beginners and advanced users alike. Out of the box hardware and multimedia support makes Mint your go-to choice for general computing. Its ease of use has transformed it into a celebrated Linux distribution.

This is an all-inclusive guide to Linux Mint, and will teach you everything you need to know in order to use a Linux Mint system. The book starts with the installation process and covers task-oriented topics such as browsing the Internet and installing software as well as shell commands. This guide walks the reader through installing and maintaining Linux Mint on a personal computer.

Using task-oriented examples, readers will journey through understanding what sets Mint apart from the competition, how to maintain it, and how to use it. Topics covered in the book include getting acquainted with Cinnamon, navigating the filesystem, software management, an introduction to the terminal, and more!

Publication date:
May 2014
Publisher
Packt
Pages
324
ISBN
9781782168157

 

Chapter 1. Meet Linux Mint

Welcome to Linux Mint Essentials; your exciting journey into the world of Linux Mint starts here. There's no better place to start your adventure than Mint. Its user friendly nature along with its scalability caters to both beginners and power users alike; the out-of-the-box Mint includes everything you need to work and play. In this book, you'll discover how to master this amazing distribution from the initial installation all the way to maintaining and troubleshooting it. We'll start with an in-depth look at how to complete the installation, and then we'll proceed through each of Mint's core technologies to help boost your knowledge. Along the way, we'll work on some fun activities to put your new knowledge to use.

Before we get started though, it's very important that you understand the core concepts behind Mint and what makes it so great. In this chapter, we'll explore key concepts such as the Linux kernel, what a distribution is, and some reasons why Linux Mint is so awesome. If you are already aware of these concepts (or you're itching to get your feet wet), skip ahead to Chapter 2, Creating Boot Media and Installing Linux Mint, where we'll set up our very own Linux Mint installation.

In this chapter, we will cover the following topics:

  • What is Linux?

  • The difference between Linux and a distribution of Linux

  • What makes Mint such a great distribution?

  • Sign up for forum and community accounts

While getting accustomed to Linux, there's most likely a great deal of things that you'll want to learn. Mint comes equipped to help you handle most tasks, such as checking e-mail, working with files, editing documents, and sharing files. We'll tackle most of the common use cases in this book to help you become productive with Mint.

Linux isn't only about getting work done. Whether you enjoy listening to music, watching videos, or just having fun with your leisure time, we'll cover those concepts as well. In fact, Chapter 7, Enjoying Multimedia on Mint is dedicated to consuming multimedia, and I may throw in a Linux game or two for good measure.

As we reach the end of our journey, we'll go over concepts of how to maintain our installation as well as how to troubleshoot it. Most of the troubleshooting and maintenance tasks in Mint aren't distribution specific, so you'll learn some real-world skills that you can take with you to other platforms.

 

Why choose Linux?


It may surprise some to discover that they use Linux every day, even if they don't realize it. If you checked your e-mail today or posted a social networking status update, you've used Linux. Since Linux servers make up a large portion of servers on the Internet, chances are you interacted with a site or service hosted on a Linux server and you probably do so every day. If you own a smart TV, chances are it's powered by a stripped-down version of the Linux kernel. In fact, if you are reading this book on an e-reader, the device was most likely built on top of Linux. And even if you purchased a print copy, the point of sale software used to facilitate your purchase of the book quite possibly ran on Linux. Linux is everywhere! And on the desktop, it's a powerful alternative to proprietary operating systems.

To be fair, most computer users don't care which operating system is installed on their computer or what underlying software the websites they visit runs on. When someone purchases a computer and powers it on for the first time, they are typically presented with a license agreement; they type in their desired user name, and then they're ready to connect to the Internet so they can check their Facebook account and watch cat videos. Even though there are several different operating systems that one can install on a computer, most of the users aren't aware that there is a choice. When a typical user thinks of an operating system, they immediately think of Windows since it's what the majority of PCs ship with. When an Apple user thinks about a Mac, the OSX operating system is largely assumed. This is why when two people have an argument regarding Mac versus PC, they are actually arguing over which operating system is superior since Windows isn't the only operating system available for the PC, much like the fact that OSX isn't the only operating system you can install on a Mac. They aren't aware that there is a choice other than what comes preinstalled from the factory.

While Linux isn't technically an operating system (we'll discuss more on this later), it represents another choice for installation on your computer. Linux comes in many flavors (also known as "distributions"), each catering toward a specific purpose, and some of which aim to be a full-featured replacement for proprietary operating systems such as Windows or OSX on your PC or Mac. And many of them do a very good job, with distributions such as Mint and Ubuntu leading the pack.

Why use Linux in place of what came with your computer? The answer to that question varies depending on who is asking it. Some may be frustrated over the multitude of Windows viruses in the wild. While no operating system or kernel is completely immune to viruses, there is no question that Linux is the more secure choice when compared to Windows as it suffers far fewer intrusions and viruses. The reason why Linux is more secure is open to debate. Some believe this is due to its lack of popularity on the desktop, while others believe that its security is inherent.

Regardless of the reason, using Linux on your desktop or laptop is a very fulfilling (and liberating) experience. While there is no one "best" operating system (as each has its own purpose for existence), Linux distributions such as Mint give you more control over your computer than you may have thought possible. The modular nature of Linux distributions allow you to easily swap out components you don't like and swap in those that you do, for example, if you're not fond of the file manager that ships with Mint, remove it and install a different one instead. In fact, if you decide that you don't enjoy the user interface (desktop environment), install another one as there are many to choose from. The possibilities in customizing your own environment are limitless. Also, the proven stability and security of Linux are welcoming aspects as well. Installing Linux can open your eyes to a whole new world. Linux Mint is a great gateway into this world as it is a wonderful example of a user friendly Linux distribution done right.

 

What is a distribution?


So, with all that talk about Linux, what exactly is a distribution? First, it's important to understand that Linux is not an operating system, though you'll often hear of it being referred to as such, solely out of convenience. Linux actually just refers to the kernel, which is the core of the operating system. A distribution of Linux is equivalent to an operating system as you may understand it from a Windows or OSX perspective. To put it simply, a distribution (also known as distro) is a suite of applications bundled along with the Linux kernel that make up an operating system, which suits a particular purpose or targets a specific type of user. There are distributions in all shapes and sizes. Some target absolute beginners, others target power users, and some even target specific individual tasks such as performing network security testing, cloning hard drives, and even removing viruses or recovering data from Windows machines.

Perhaps the most daunting task for a newcomer is to determine which Linux distribution to start with. In fact, there are literally over 100 distributions to choose from, such as Ubuntu, Debian, Arch, Fedora, and OpenSUSE; so which one of these should you pick? Each distribution targets a specific audience; so, it is important to choose a distribution that will match your experience level or the task that you wish to accomplish. Not only is Mint one of the most user-friendly distributions available, it also scales to advanced users as well. This means that you can use Mint to hone your initial Linux skills, and also continue using it as you graduate to become an advanced or expert user. As your skills grow, you'll find yourself discovering more and more neat ways to tweak it, since Mint is also one of the most customizable distributions available.

Mint's primary focus is to be a full-featured replacement for the Windows or Mac OSX operating systems. Mint comes bundled with various software and utilities to allow you to be productive right away; for example, Firefox is bundled with the distribution, which will allow you to instantly browse the web; LibreOffice is installed to facilitate the opening and creation of office documents and spreadsheets; Pidgin is included to send instant messages on networks such as Yahoo Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, and others, and you even have your choice of one of four different graphical user interfaces (GUIs) for the overall desktop. In a nutshell, Mint is a complete operating environment right out of the box. Best of all, it's free—there are no licensing fees. In fact, it's perfectly legal to make copies of the Mint installation media and pass it along to friends; unlike proprietary operating systems, this is actually encouraged.

Free means Freedom. When compared to closed source operating systems such as Windows and OSX, there is quite a bit more flexibility with how a free Linux distribution such as Mint can be used and distributed. With Mint, you'll never need a product key or a proprietary license agreement. You can download and install Mint without paying a dime, though donations certainly help keep the project going. In the case of Windows, you often have to pay a licensing fee of over $100 for each major release. And even if you do pay for it, you're only allowed to install it on a single computer. After installation, you'll have to activate the product via the Internet or a toll-free phone number to verify that the product is only installed on one machine. In the case of OSX, it is actually against the licensing agreement to install it on anything other than a Mac.

When it comes to most Linux distributions, you do not have to activate the software, nor are there any restrictions in the form of agreements that dictate which type of machine you install it on. If you can find a way to install Linux on a game console, a tablet, or even a toaster, you'll get more power. In fact, when a new version of the distribution is released, which in the case of Mint, happens every 6-8 months, you can download the new version immediately also for free.

Linux Mint's ability to be free is due to various open source licenses that govern its software; for example, Firefox, which comes bundled with the distribution, is released under the Mozilla Public License, while the Linux kernel is released under the GPL (GNU Public License) Version 2. Proprietary elements, such as proprietary drivers, that are required to make some hardware work and closed source multimedia technologies are not free software, but are included with Mint wherever required to make some functionality work. More information regarding the GPL license can be found at https://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html.

You may hear some negative feedback regarding the free nature of Linux, such as the claim that it being free means that it has less support, or that the fact that it being open source makes it more vulnerable to attack since crackers are able to look through the source code to attempt to discover how to break it. In actuality, neither could be further from the truth. First, there is certainly no shortage of support for Linux Mint and many other distributions. There is a large community in the form of chat rooms and message boards where volunteers are ready and eager to help if you run into an issue. Unlike Windows and OSX, their vendors (Microsoft and Apple respectively) charge for support, so their users end up using chat rooms and forums in much the same way.

Also, with regards to support, there are paid support firms that will provide technical support, as is the case with other operating systems. As for the security aspect, the fact that Linux is open source puts it under more scrutiny, which in turn makes it more secure. Many developers and enthusiasts will look through the source code quite often to attempt to locate vulnerabilities. Since the source code is open, anyone can check through it and look for anything of concern. In addition, the source code being available helps ensure that there are no proprietary back doors that malicious users, governments, or large corporations may place in order to carry out surveillance on users.

 

Is Linux hard to learn?


Quite often, I am asked whether or not Linux is hard to learn. The reputation Linux has of being hard to use and learn most likely stems from the early days when typical distributions actually were quite difficult to use. I remember a time when simply installing a video card driver required manually recompiling the kernel (which took many hours) and enabling support for media such as MP3s required multiple manual commands.

Nowadays, however, how difficult Linux is to learn and use is determined by which distribution you pick. If, for example, you're a beginner and you choose a distribution tailored for advanced users, you are likely to find yourself frustrated very quickly. In fact, there are distros available that make you do everything manually, such as choosing which version of the kernel to run and installing and configuring the desktop environment. This level of customizability is wonderful for advanced users who wish to build their own Linux system from the ground up, though it is more likely that beginners would be put off by it. General purpose distributions such as Mint are actually very easy to learn, and in some cases, some tasks in Mint are even easier to perform than in other operating systems.

The ease of use we enjoy with a number of Linux distributions is due in part to the advancements that Ubuntu has made in usability. Around the time when Windows Vista was released, a renaissance of sorts occurred in the Linux community. At that time, quite a few people were so outraged by Windows Vista that a lot more effort was put into making Ubuntu easier to use. It can be argued that the time period of Vista was the fastest growth in usability that Linux ever saw. Tasks that were once rites of passage (such as installing drivers and media codecs) became trivial. The exciting changes in Ubuntu during that time inspired other distributions to make similar changes. Nowadays, usage of Ubuntu is beginning to decline due to the fact that not everyone is pleased about its new user interface (Unity); however, there is no denying the positive impact it had on Linux usability. Being based on Ubuntu, Mint inherits many of those benefits, but also aims to improve on its proposed weaknesses. Due to its great reception, it eventually went on to surpass Ubuntu itself. Mint currently sits at the very top of the charts on Distrowatch.com, and with a good reason—it's an amazing distribution.

Distributions such as Mint are incredibly user friendly. Even the installation procedure is a cinch, and most can get through it by simply accepting the defaults. Installing new software is also straightforward as everything is included in software repositories and managed through a graphical application (we will explore software installation in Chapter 6, Installing and Removing Software). In fact, I recently acquired an HP printer that comes with a CD full of required software for Windows, but when connected to my Mint computer, it just worked. No installation of any software was required. Linux has never been easier!

 

What Mint does differently


There are many distributions available, each vying for your attention. So, why use Linux Mint and not some other distro such as Ubuntu or Fedora? The user-friendly nature of Linux Mint is certainly a good reason to use it. However, there is more to its value than just that. As the famous saying goes:

 

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

 
 -- Sir Isaac Newton

Linux Mint, being based on Ubuntu, is certainly built on a giant. It takes the already solid foundation of Ubuntu, and improves on it by using a different user interface, adds custom tools, and includes various tweaks to make its media formats recognized right from the start.

A distribution being based on other distributions is a common occurrence in the Linux community, the reason being that it's much easier to build a distribution on an already existing foundation, since building your own base is quite time consuming (and expensive). By utilizing the existing foundation of Ubuntu, Mint benefits from the massive software repository that Ubuntu has at its disposal, without having to reinvent the wheel and recreate everything from the ground up. The development time saved by doing this allows the Linux Mint developers to focus on adding exciting features and tweaks to improve its ease of use. Given the fact that Ubuntu is open source, it's perfectly fine to use it as a base for a completely separate distribution. Unlike the proprietary software market, the developers of Mint aren't at risk of being sued for recycling the package base of another distribution. In fact, Ubuntu itself is built on the foundation of another distribution (Debian), and Mint is not the only distribution to use Ubuntu as a base.

As mentioned before, Mint utilizes a different user interface than Ubuntu. Ubuntu ships with the Unity interface, which (so far) has not been highly regarded by the majority of the Linux community. Unity split Ubuntu's user community in half as some people loved the new interface, though others were not so enthused and made their distaste well-known. Rather than adopt Unity during this transition, Mint opted for two primary environments instead, Cinnamon and MATE. Cinnamon is recommended for more modern computers, and MATE is useful for older computers that are lower in processing power and memory. MATE is also useful for those who prefer the older style of Linux environments, as it is a fork of GNOME 2.x.

Many people consider Cinnamon to be the default desktop environment in Linux Mint, but that is open to debate. The Mint developers have yet to declare either of them as the default. Mint actually ships five different versions (also known as spins) of its distribution. Four of them (Cinnamon, MATE, KDE, and Xfce) feature different user interfaces as the main difference, while the fifth is a completely different distribution that is based on Debian instead of Ubuntu, and is not covered in this book. Due to its popularity, Cinnamon is the closest thing to a default in Mint and as such, it is the recommended version to download to be able to follow along with this book. However, many of the topics and examples will work in the other spins as well. We will cover the Cinnamon desktop environment in Chapter 3, Getting Acquainted with Cinnamon.

 

Releases and support


Linux Mint typically releases new versions of the distribution every 7 months or so. Each new release features the newest available versions of all packages software (as available in the Ubuntu software repository) as well as new features. Each release is given a female name, which also ends with the letter "a", for example, Version 7 was codenamed "Gloria" and Version 15 was named "Olivia".

While Ubuntu itself releases new versions every 6 months on a strict schedule, Mint generally releases one month after each Ubuntu release, as long as it is ready and there are no bugs preventing the final release. In the case of Ubuntu, it's not uncommon for a new release to be published even if a few bugs remain. Very rarely is a release of Ubuntu held back for any reason. In the case of Mint, it's not uncommon for a release to be held back if it does not meet testing standards. For Mint, publishing a quality product is more important than releasing it on time.

Each release of Mint follows Ubuntu's support schedule. Support in terms of a distribution release generally refers to the period of time in which software updates will be made available. Like Ubuntu, each Mint release is supported for 9 months. After the 9 months expire, it will no longer receive updates and is then not recommended for general use.

In addition, some releases of Ubuntu are considered Long Term Support (LTS) releases, which are supported for 18 months. As a result, any version of Mint released using an LTS release of Ubuntu as a foundation is also considered an LTS release. LTS releases may feature software that is more out of date than other releases, but offer more stability.

Of course, there is nothing stopping someone from using an expired release. However, if you ask for assistance from the community and you are using an older version, you will probably be encouraged to upgrade to a supported release before troubleshooting will continue. If a bug report is submitted against an expired version of a distribution, chances are it will be immediately closed.

Whenever possible, it is recommended to use either the latest normal release or the latest LTS release. The installation and related best practices will be covered in the next chapter.

 

Mint-specific tools


Although the main difference between Linux Mint and Ubuntu is the user interface, various tools that you can use to customize your environment are included, and these are specific to Mint. Some of the more prominent additions include the following tools:

  • The Update Manager: Most distributions include their own software to handle updates in some form or another, but Mint decided to write their own instead of reusing the update manager that ships with Ubuntu. Mint's version prioritizes updates that are less likely to break your system. Installing updates are discussed in more detail in Chapter 6, Installing and Removing Software.

  • The Backup Tool: This is a simple backup program you can use to create simple backups. You can choose to simply copy files from one location to another, or create a compressed archive. In addition, you can also create a list of installed software for importing into a new Mint install. However, the Backup Tool does not include any synchronization features.

  • The Domain Blocker: This tool allows you to block specific websites on your computer. This is primarily useful if your computer is shared, especially by young people, and you would like to control which websites can be accessed.

  • Firewall Configuration: Most distributions these days ship with the iptables firewall, but it does not contain a GUI. Firewall Configuration is a tool that allows you to configure iptables with a GUI rather than relying on specific shell commands.

  • The Upload Manager: This is a very simplistic tool, which you can use to upload files to online services, such as FTP. For advanced FTP tasks, an advanced client software such as FileZilla will offer more features.

  • Software Sources: Included with Mint are a set of repositories, which are collections of software available online for download. The repositories included in Mint are by no means the only ones that are available to you. It's often the case that developers may create third-party repositories containing additional software that is able to extend Mint even further; for example, Virtualbox.org features a repository one can use to ensure the latest version of VirtualBox is available. Software Sources is a program that allows you to easily add or remove additional repositories. Software Sources and repositories will be covered in Chapter 6, Installing and Removing Software.

 

Interacting with the Linux Mint community


The size of its community is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a distribution. If it has a small community, it doesn't matter how great the distribution is; finding support from fellow users would be difficult and would result in frustration. Thankfully, Linux Mint has a sizable community with volunteers ready to answer your questions. If you experience any issues, you can post a message in the forum, or even chat in real time over IRC (XChat is included in Mint to facilitate IRC chatting out of the box).

Note

To request assistance via the official forum, navigate to forums.linuxmint.com.

For IRC chat, you can connect to #linuxmint-help (or #linuxmint-chat for chatting about Mint without requesting assistance). For more information on how to access IRC channels such as the ones provided for Mint, see http://community.linuxmint.com/tutorial/view/12 for an overview of how to connect.

Before submitting requests for assistance in any Linux community, it's important to do your research first. Volunteers may feel as though you are taking their time for granted if you do not first try to find the answer on your own. Typically, it's recommended to perform a Google search for your problem to see if someone else had already posted a similar message and found a solution. Quite often, you'll find that your issue has already been addressed.

In addition to an official forum and IRC chat room, Mint also features a neat community page (http://community.linuxmint.com), as shown in the following screenshot, where you can submit ideas on how the developers can improve the distribution. Ideas are voted up or down by other members of the community. In addition, you can find the status of upcoming releases, post/read tutorials, and track which countries have the most Mint users.

The Linux Mint community home page

The forum for Linux Mint and its community page utilize two separate logins. Creating an account on one doesn't create an account on the other.

 

Creating community and forum accounts


In the next chapter, you'll create your very own installation of Linux Mint. However, before we move on, it's highly recommended that you register an account on the official forum so that you can immediately join discussions with other Mint users and request assistance should you need help with anything outside the scope of this book. The steps to do so are as follows:

  1. Access the official Linux Mint forum by navigating your browser to http://forums.linuxmint.com.

  2. In the upper right-hand corner, click on Register.

  3. Read and understand the user agreement that is displayed and after you understand them, click on I agree to these terms.

  4. Fill out the form; ensure you have selected the proper time zone and language for your location. In addition, you will need to confirm your e-mail account in order to finalize your account.

Although it's not required to follow along with the examples in this book, creating an account at the community site is recommended. To do so, perform the following steps:

  1. Navigate your browser to http://community.linuxmint.com

  2. Click on Register.

  3. Fill out the form and again click on Register.

 

Meet the community


Now that you have a forum and community account, take a moment to set up your profile and introduce yourself to other Mint users. In addition, feel free to join the #linuxmint-help IRC chat room and speak to other users there as well. The user community is very welcoming.

 

Summary


Linux is certainly an exciting technology, but it is also a very diverse one. In this chapter, we demystified core concepts and worked through creating forum and community accounts. You've learned that Linux refers to a kernel (while it is not an operating system) and a Linux distribution is a collection of software bundled along with the Linux kernel that provides a complete operating environment. You've also learned some of the many benefits of choosing Linux over proprietary software such as Windows and Mac, which includes its modular nature, stability, security, as well as the fact that open source distributions are devoid of the frustrating restrictions and licensing that proprietary systems such as Windows and Mac contain.

Next, in Chapter 2, Creating Boot Media and Installating Linux Mint, we will dive in to creating installation media and installing Linux Mint onto a computer. We'll cover the various means of doing so, such as creating a bootable DVD (or a bootable USB stick if you don't have a DVD drive) as well as planning your hard disk layout.

About the Author

  • Jay LaCroix

    Jay LaCroix is a technologist and open-source enthusiast, specializing in Linux. Jay currently works as a Senior Solutions Architect and holds a masters degree in Information Systems Technology Management from Capella University. In addition, Jay also has a YouTube channel, available at LearnLinux.tv, where he posts instructional tutorial videos . He has also written Linux Mint Essentials and Mastering Linux Network Administration, also published by Packt Publishing.

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