CUSTOMISE MINT 2O!
Linux Format|October 2021
Linux Mint is fantastic, but it’s also flexible, malleable and tweakable. Jonni Bidwell shows you how to truly make it your own.
Jonni Bidwell

Linux Mint continues to go from strength to strength, as you’ll know if you’ve already had a play with the latest 20.2 release. If not, what are you waiting for? Fire up that there LXFDVD and witness the, er, Mint-ness forthwith. Or check out our thorough review on page 26. See, now you want to install it, don’t you? And that is just the beginning of the adventure. One of the things that makes Mint so cool is its configurability. It’s often said (by us) that Mint is an ideal beginner’s distro, and it turns out it’s also ideal (we say) for beginners to tinker with.

The flagship Cinnamon desktop can be transformed not just with swishy effects and colourful themes, but with all kinds of extensions, applets and desklets (collectively known as ‘spices’ in Cinnamon parlance). And MATE and Xfce, the desktops featured in other editions of Mint, are equally seasonable. But we can do better than that: why not mix it up and install a whole new desktop environment? We’ll show you how to install the outstanding KDE Plasma, we’ll even show you how to make it work with the state-of-the-art Wayland display protocol.

If you like things slimline, we’ll show you how to go minimal with the featherweight Sway desktop, again powered by Wayland. Sway is based on the i3 window manager, popular with power users and those who cannot abide desktop bloat. We’ll have you doing everything in the terminal and tiling like a pro in no time.

And just so no one gets hurt, we’ll start with a handy reminder about how you can use Timeshift to easily undo any desktop-related mishaps.

The joy of tinkering

Sort out roll-backs so you can customise Linux Mint with impunity and immunity (to problems).

Purveyors of historic issues of Linux Format may be able to correct this, but as far as our research can tell, the first mention of Linux Mint in our magazine came in the Distrowatch column of LXF094, when Mint 2.2 was released. Even back then Mint was notable for its out-of-the-box experience, bundling codecs, Java and Flash plug-ins and wireless firmware, saving users from having to shoehorn those on there using fragile instructions from a random forum post.

That experience remains central to Mint, and though wireless hardware is well supported on most distros (and no one needs Flash any more), it still shines. Right from the Welcome screen in fact, which will invite you to set up backups using Timeshift, switch keyboard layouts, or send and receive files from another machine using Warpinator. Oh and there are minimise buttons on windows in Cinnamon – a trend fast disappearing on other desktops, but one which makes many a user feel at home.

Other desktops are going full steam ahead with Client-Side Decorations (CSD, which allows applications to draw their own title bars). This might allow programs to make best use of space and provide a coherent interface. Or it might make them look inconsistent, clumsy or other pejorative terms – it depends who you talk to. At any rate, Mint’s X-apps are refreshing in their avoidance of the CSD wave, and Mint’s huge fanbase suggests that they’re still doing all they can to keep users happy.

Sooner or later though, you’re going to want to change things up. It generally starts with changing your desktop background and Cinnamon theme. These are important, but also quite easy – easy enough that you don’t need us to tell you how to do them. What we’ll be doing is a little more earth-moving. Tectonic stuff like installing whole new desktop environments, swish display managers, maybe even switching to the Wayland display protocol. And while these aren’t without risk, Mint’s Timeshift program allows you to back up your system files (much like Apple’s Time Machine or Windows Restore Points), affording an easy way to undo any desktop mishaps.

Even if nothing goes wrong, it’s handy to be able to roll back to a cleaner system rather than unpick changes manually: see the walkthrough below. If you’ve already got Timeshift set up, take a manual snapshot now before pouring in all the packages over the page. Go on, you know it makes sense!

EASY ROLL-BACKS WITH TIMESHIFT

Start Timeshift Fire up Timeshift and set it up to take a couple of daily snapshots to a local drive with plenty of space (at least 1GB more than the current filesystem size). Timeshift only backs ups system files by default, so files in your home directory aren’t included. There are better tools for backing these up.

Take a Snapshot It might spring into action immediately if the clocks align. But don’t worry if it doesn’t, just hit the Back Up Now button to take an on-demand snapshot. Timeshift backs up incrementally so only changed files are stored. Once the snapshot completes, add a helpful description to help future you keep track.

Restore a snapshot If something goes wrong, you can now easily restore a Snapshot by clicking the button. You might want to examine the files within first, which you can do by right-clicking. Even if things go really wrong, and Mint no longer starts, you can use Timeshift from a live medium. Just point it to the /timeshift directory.

Tweaking Cinnamon

See how easy it is to make your mark on Linux Mint’s flagship desktop environment and beyond!

If you haven’t had a nosey around Cinnamon’s many settings, you might be pleasantly surprised at how configurable it is. When Mint 20 was released much ado was made about the Mint-Y theme now having fifty shades of colour variations (okay, it was 32), but we haven’t found our favourite hue yet. Check out the palette by opening up the main menu and going to Preferences then Themes.

Dark themes are so common even Windows has them (but not Google Docs– Ed) now, but Mint has a corresponding dark theme for each variation. You can download whole new themes from the web too; just don’t expect them to all be in line with your design preferences. Hidden away in the Settings section of the Themes dialog are some oft-overlooked options for scrollbars, including the option to disable overlays.

To customise the main panel, go to Preferences and then select Applets. Now you can add all kinds of shortcuts and widgets. For example, select the Expo applet and click the + at the bottom to add a shortcut (via a smooth animation) to an expo-style overview of your workspaces. For even more efficient workspace shifting (at the cost of some panel estate) add the Workspace Switcher applet. If you want to disable Expo, or any other applet, just click the – button. Like themes, third-party applets can be downloaded by visiting the appropriate tab. Downloaded themes come with no guarantees, so they come with an uninstall option in case they annoy you.

There are some extremely pleasant new wallpapers in Mint 20.2, and we recommend to right-click the desktop and choose Change Background if you haven’t already perused them. But before you click there, take a look again at that desktop context menu. In particular, have a gander at the Add Desklets option. There aren’t many pre-installed desklets, but if you want a digital clock or photo frame on your desktop then you’re in luck. If you delve into the Download tab you’ll find plenty more, including an analogue clock as well as more productive tools such as the Google Calendar desklet.

The final flavour in Cinnamon’s Spices cabinet is extensions. These change the way the whole desktop behaves. Again there aren’t many installed by default, but head to the Download tab and it won’t take long for ‘Wobbly Windows’ to catch your eye. Hopefully you have better luck than us with that particular extension. If you’re of that pedigree, you’ll remember the Desktop Cube extension too, taking your workspace switching to a whole new level. There are other extensions which some may write off as desktop fripperies, such as being able to tweak window decorations, shadows or transparency, but there’s no harm trying them out.

By default desktop effects are enabled in Cinnamon, unless your install has fallen back to software rendering – in which case have a look at the Driver Manager for possible remedies. These effects aren’t the sort of in-your-face, windows catching fire, stunts of the early ‘aughts, but have been designed to help users navigate the desktop. It’s reassuring (sometimes) to see where applications were called into being from, and where they disappear to when they minimise. Be that as it may, you might want to turn these off, and this you can easily do by from the Effects option in the Preferences menu.

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