The beginner's guide to Linux Mint

12th Feb 2012 | 08:00

The beginner's guide to Linux Mint

Dive into Linux Mint's brand new desktop interface

The beginner's guide to Linux Mint

Linux Mint has just released its latversion, Mint 12, and has now become the last of the big three distributions to switch to a radically new desktop interface.

We found that it's an impressive compromise between Gnome Shell's new fangled way of doing things and the more traditional desktops of the past.

If you're intrigued by this and want to investigate for yourself, get a copy of Linux Mint 12, this guide, and see what you can do with the new Mint.

We'll begin by taking a quick tour of the default interface, and then move on to cover how you can customise it. We'll also take a look at Mint's package manager so that you know how to add and remove applications.

Choosing your desktop

Mint login

Before we even begin to examine the new desktop, however, let's start by taking a look at Mint's new login screen. This screen is quite different to past Mint releases, since, along with Ubuntu, they've switched away from Gnome's default login manager to the more customisable LightDM.

At the top-right of the screen, you can find some basic controls, including some (limited) accessibility options, volume control and the option to power-off the computer. The centre-left of the screen is where you log in.

By default, one user or another will be highlighted by a grey box, with a password entry field at the ready. Other users and guest sessions can be selected by clicking on their name above or below this.

The most important thing to know about this new login screen is that you can use it to select which desktop you want to use. So, if you decide that you don't like Mint's new desktop, you can use it to switch to Mate, its port of Gnome 2, which faithfully recreates past Mint desktops.

If you want to install something entirely different, such as KDE or Xfce, you'll also be able to select those from the login screen. To do this, select your username from the list and then, before typing your password and pressing enter, click the small cog in the top right of the box.

From this menu, you can select between all available desktops. Whichever desktop you choose will remain the default until you change it again.

Meet the Shell

Now that you're familiar with the login screen, let's take a look at Mint 12's default interface. Make sure you've selected Gnome as the desktop to use and then enter your password and log in.

The first thing to note is that, unlike past Mint releases, there are two panels on the desktop – one at the top and another at the bottom. Looking at the top panel from left to right, there's:

The infinity icon, which launches the Overview mode – more on this later.

The system tray, where applications can store alerts or quick access controls.

The indicator area, where you can control the volume and select which network you want to connect to.

The clock applet, which expands to a calender when clicked.

The status menu, which lets you log out, shutdown, control your availability in chat and access system settings.

All of this, with the exception of the infinity icon, should be fairly self-explanatory.

Clicking on any of the icons to the right-hand side brings up further information and options for you to change. Clicking on the speaker icon, for instance, will allow you to adjust the volume of your computer's speakers and access the sound settings.

Of these icons, the Status menu provides the most comprehensive set of options. The only one of these that requires explanation is Notifications.

When you insert a DVD, or someone contacts you via instant messenger, Gnome Shell will usually alert you by raising a black rectangle at the bottom of the screen. These notifications are useful since they allow you to take further actions in response to the alert, but if you want to focus without any distractions they can also be annoying.

The designers of Gnome Shell recognised this, so put the Notifications option in the Status menu. This way, you can turn off all notifications when you don't want to be disturbed. Just remember to turn them on again later.

The bottom panel

Almost everything in the top panel is standard Gnome Shell; the bottom panel is all Linux Mint's doing. On the left-hand side of the bottom panel is a menu for launching applications, the spiritual successor to the Mint menu.

This menu is split in to three main columns. The left most one shows your favourite applications, which can be set in the Overview mode; the middle one shows categories of applications to make browsing easier; and the right most one shows the applications within those categories.

If you prefer a keyboard to a mouse, you can use the Search bar at the top to quickly find the application you're looking for by typing its name.

Next to the menu is the show desktop icon, which will minimise all your open windows. Next to this is the window list. If you have no windows open, it will look like a big, empty space; otherwise, it will be filled with buttons representing your open and minimised windows – it works just like the window list in Gnome 2 did.

At the other end of this panel are the desktop switcher and Mint's new notification toggle. By default, Gnome Shell creates only a single desktop, but automatically adds a second as soon as you open any applications and so on; if you remove all applications from a desktop, Gnome Shell will then remove it. Mint's switcher will immediately mirror Gnome Shell's changes to the number of desktops.

The notification icon is a clever addition. By default, after you dismiss Gnome Shell notifications without doing anything, they disappear in to a small black bar at the bottom of the screen. You would ordinarilly raise this by moving your mouse to the bottom right-hand corner, but with the new taskbar, you would often accidentally cause it to appear and interfere with what you were trying to do.

Instead, Mint has made it so that you need to click this exclamation mark to get access to the notifications.

The beginner's guide to Linux Mint

Overview mode

Overview mode

Phew! Our tour is nearing its end. The final thing we need to show you is the Overview mode.

Although Mint hasn't made any changes to the Overview mode, which is a key component of standard Gnome Shell, if you've never used it you'll be grateful for a quick introduction.

To access the Overview mode, you need to click the infinity icon in the top panel, or quickly through your mouse in the top-right corner; you can also use the Windows key to access it. As soon as you do this, you'll see the desktop turn grey and some new elements overlaid on it.

The large space in the centre of this screen has two functions. By default, it will display thumbnails of all your open windows. This is a convenient way to find that window you know is somewhere amongst all the clutter, but keeps evading you.

It can also be used as an application launcher, however, by clicking the Applications button above it. You can then browse applications by scrolling through the icons with your mouse. You can narrow the selection by choosing one of the categories to the right, or by typing its name or function with your keyboard.

To the right of the Overview mode is the Favourites bar. This is exactly the same as what's in the Mint menu, only from here you can adjust its contents. Right-clicking on any of the icons will give you the opportunity to remove it from the Favourites bar. To add anything to it, switch to the Applications view and then drag the application you want on to the Favourites bar.

Oddly, this Favourites bar also doubles as a dock and stores the icons of open applications as well – something the Mint menu doesn't do.

Finally, there's also a desktop switcher built in to the Overview mode. It's hidden by default, but if you move your mouse to the far right of the screen while in the Windows mode, it will appear. You can use this to drag open windows between desktops, and to switch to different desktops.

Now that you know where everything is by default, let's take a look at how you can customise it to your liking, beginning with extensions.

Installing new extensions

Gnome extensions

The Gnome team are trying to encourage the creation of an entire ecosystem of extensions for users of the Shell to enjoy. As a user of Linux Mint 12, you'll be able to install and enjoy these as developers create them.

Installation used to be a bit tricky. It involved either downloading a file archive and unzipping it to a specific directory in your home folder, or using Gnome Tweak Tool to automate some of this process. In the past month, however, the Gnome team has launched a new website, extensions.gnome.org, that lets you easily browse and install new extensions directly from within your web browser.

To install extensions using this website, launch Firefox and visit extensions.gnome.org. Once there, you can browse through the extensions displayed.

After spotting one you like the sound off, click its name. This will take you to that extension's information page, at the top of which will be an on-off toggle button. Toggling this to on will then install the extension; toggling it back to off will remove it.

We think that the Pomodoro timer extension is a great way to avoid procrastination, and the Window Navigator extension makes the window section of the Overview mode much more convenient.

Theming Gnome Shell

Most people aren't content with tweaking the way their desktop works; lots of us also want to customise the way it looks. It's not yet as easy to install new themes as it is extensions, but there are plenty of nice themes for the Shell that you can install with a bit of effort.

The first thing to do is download some new themes for the Shell. We've discovered that a great place to find them is gnome-shell.deviantart.com, so go ahead and browse their selection of shell themes and then choose one to download as a zip file. We like Faience.

Once it's downloaded and saved in your Downloads folder, open up Gnome Tweak Tool. This is available on the Favourites bar as the square icon with cogs inside – it will display Advanced Settings when you click it.

After it has launched, click the Theme entry on the left-hand side, and then click the box that says (None) next to Shell Theme. In the file browser that opens, head to the zip file of the theme you downloaded, and then select and open it. This will install the theme, and you can then select it in the drop-down menu next to (None). And that's all there is to it.

In this tutorial, we've focused on Mint's implementation of Gnome Shell, but as we've alluded to through our references to Mate and the default applications, there's a lot more to Mint than just this desktop.

Be sure to investigate the Linux Mint website and forums, where you can find lots of other avenues for exploration, including different desktops (KDE, Xfce and LXDE are all supported) and even different base distributions (the rolling release Debian edition is particularly interesting).

Most importantly, experiment and have fun.

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First published in Linux Format Issue 154

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