Cinnamon 1.4

Mint’s Cinnamon Desktop

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Because of their novel look and feel, both Gnome 3 and Ubuntu’s Unity have been running into harsh criticism from many users. In response, Mint, an Ubuntu spinoff, has revived the Gnome 2 feel on its own desktop.

When the Gnome project presented the revamped Version 3 of its popular desktop environment, many community members were not happy. New users were simply not getting used to its radically changed, unusual operating mode. Start menus and taskbars became a separate Activities screen. Critics stomped on the extensive mouse movement, the complicated operation, and obvious accommodation to mobile device touch screens. Linus Torvalds himself chimed in, describing it as “crazy crap” and requesting an improved fork based on the older Gnome 2.

Things were not much better for Ubuntu’s own Unity. Users are still unhappy with Ubuntu’s standard desktop with its native operating mode. Critics pan the complicated launcher call-up, along with the lack of configurability and overview of what programs are currently running on it. Linux Mint developers had trouble endearing themselves to Gnome 3 from the start.

Up until Version 11, Linux Mint was an Ubuntu system with the Gnome 2 desktop that developers expanded with their own applets. But, in the midst of the Linux Mint 12 development cycle, Canonical replaced the Ubuntu user interface with one based on its in-house Unity, with Gnome 3 replacing 2 at about the same time. This development posed a dilemma for the Mint team: Unity introduced a new (highly criticized) look and feel, Gnome 2 was aging, and Gnome 3 wasn’t quite ready.

Mint developers settled on a compromise with Linux Mint 12 by bringing the Mate desktop, which is a Gnome 2 fork, together with Gnome 3. The Mint team added a few of their own extensions. These Mint Gnome Shell Extensions (MGSEs) resuscitated the popular panel with a window list and the favorite Start menu from the previous version.

The solution proved not entirely satisfying to developers. The Gnome 3 extensions were limited in scope, Mate was based on old code, and maintaining two desktops required a lot of effort. Project lead Clement Lefebvre summed it up, saying, “Gnome Shell isn’t going in a direction that is suitable for us, and we’re not interested in shipping Gnome Shell ‘as is’, or in continuing with multiple hacks and extensions.”

Cinnamon

Lefebvre then took a radical step: He rebuilt the Gnome 3 desktop based on his own concept. Luckily, this approach works a bit better than it sounds. Gnome consists of multiple components, whereby the so-called Gnome Shell provides the actual user interface. Thus, Lefebvre simply changed the Gnome Shell, and the rest of the components remained the same.

The result was Cinnamon. Far from being a completely new desktop environment, it’s simply an alternative user interface for Gnome 3. Lefebvre didn’t want just to copy Gnome but create something new that was primarily oriented to the Linux Mint operational concept.

The intention of the Mint team is to have Cinnamon, now in version 1.4, be the new Linux Mint standard desktop. You can test its current development by installing the cinnamon package. Installation instructions for Ubuntu 12.04 are in the next section. As soon as Cinnamon lands on the hard drive, close the desktop and choose Cinnamon from the gear icon.

Cinnamon Shaker

You can also use the new desktop with Ubuntu 12.04, although you’ll need to add a PPA to your software sources. Cinnamon can only run as well as the time the PPA managers put into the care of the Ubuntu version.

The installation is pretty normal. You access the repository, actualize the package list, and install the desktop, as follows:

$ sudo add-apt-repository ppa:gwendal-lebihan-dev/cinnamon-stable
$ sudo apt-get update
$ sudo apt-get install cinnamon

Then, log out of the desktop, select Cinnamon as the desktop from the Login Manager, and log back in.

Sponge

Cinnamon itself operates like a mixture of Gnome 2, Gnome 3, and the Linux Mint Shell Extensions (Figure 1). For Version 1.4 that we looked at, you can see the panel at the lower edge of the screen that provides the accustomed navigation.

Figure 1: The Cinnamon desktop uses the Gnome 3 substructure, but has the look and feel of Gnome 2.

The bottom left corner of the screen shows the Menu button that opens the typical Mint Start menu, which arranges the applications into their usual groups and which open as soon as you mouse over them. Thus, starting a program requires only two mouse clicks. Right-clicking an application will let you drag the icon to the panel, desktop, or favorites (the left-most icons in the Start menu). You can remove icons in the same way.

The right side of the bottom panel includes status icons, an improved volume control, the NetworkManager, a calendar, and the battery status indicator. A virtual desktop switch indicator, however, is missing. To activate a second desktop, you can move the pointer to the upper left corner of the desktop or press Ctrl+Alt+Up arrow, which provides an overview of all the desktops.

To add another desktop, click the plus (+) sign. Clicking Ctrl+Alt+Down arrow arranges the desktop windows on the screen (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Scale view, which is based on the eponymous Compiz plug-in, arranges the desktops in one view and is a new feature of Cinnamon 1.4.

New in Cinnamon 1.4

Both of these overview modes are new in Cinnamon 1.4 and are called Expo and Scale. Another important Cinnamon 1.4 feature is its control center (Figure 3), which provides easy access to system controls and is similar to the system controls in the current Unity.

Figure 3: Also new to Cinnamon 1.4 is the control center for controlling a variety of desktop elements.

In the control center, you can change text fonts, activate effects, and extract themes from the web (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Cinnamon initially provides just one theme, but web links provide countless others.

To get themes, use the links under Extensions and Themes. One of the extensions on the web provides a coverflow when you click Alt+Tab, also one for CinnaDock. Be sure to test both of these. By the way, Gnome 3 Themes work with Cinnamon as well, which you have to activate by using System Tools | System Settings. Another feature, which will please many long-time Linux users, are the applets in the panel that take care of small tasks along the way. Cinnamon calls these mini-programs. Apart from the ones included, many more examples are on the web.

Figure 5: You can click the small caret in the panel to open the Settings menu.

Also new is the small caret symbol in the panel that opens to the Settings applet (Figure 5). You can, for example, hide the panel through panel settings, or add and remove applets.

Hide and Seek

To log out, restart, or lock the screen, you’ll have to spend some time searching the desktop. The corresponding functions are hidden under the lower three icons on the left edge of the Start menu (Figure 6).

The other Cinnamon applications are all from Gnome 3, beginning with Nautilus as data manager to the system settings. Unlike the themes, the extensions written for the Gnome Shell don’t work under Cinnamon – the Shell Extensions are empty. Clement Lefebvre promises, however, that they’re portable with not much fuss. Like the Gnome Shell, Cinnamon works with activated 3D graphics only; otherwise, you will end up in Gnome 3’s well known fallback mode, which is more like Gnome 2 with the menus on the upper edge of the desktop.

Figure 6: Click the three icons to log off, shut down, or lock the desktop.

Comprehensive documentation for Cinnamon is still missing, other than the News section of the project web page to keep you informed. No wonder, considering that development is still in a fairly experimental stage. Help for particular topics can be found in the Linux Mint forum.

Back to the Future?

Much like Mate, Cinnamon, which started development in December 2011, was pretty much a one person project. As a major component of Linux Mint, which continues to gain fans, Cinnamon should gain a big following. Daily chores are easily handled from the desktop, and people apt to move screens around a lot will feel quite at home. Reactions to Cinnamon in forums are mostly positive. Clement Lefebvre is actively seeking user input for his goal of creating a desktop “people can use and say ‘this is better than Gnome 2’.” Because it is largely based on Gnome 3.2, Cinnamon doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, at least not yet. If the developers are correct, it will not just be a fork of the Gnome Shell. Upcoming Cinnamon versions will have the Muffin version of the Mutter window manager. The complete system would then be a Cinnamon Muffin, as many forum users have suggested.

That Cinnamon needs some more work is evident mainly from the limited setting functionality. The panel is a rather narrow line on the desktop that you can’t enlarge, no matter what the monitor resolution is. These childhood ailments should cure themselves rather quickly considering Cinnamon’s development pace. The system has the potential to be up there with the other desktop environments – and perhaps it will bump Gnome 3 down a few notches.

For Ubuntu users, however, it’s still questionable whether Cinnamon is installable under Ubuntu 12.04 because it’s uncertain whether Ubuntu can then maintain the stability of an LTS version. This depends, among other things, on how good the Cinnamon PPA caretakers are. At least, the Cinnamon desktop provides the option to switch to another desktop through Login Manager.

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