Linux Mint 21.3 and Zorin 17 are beta buddies

Irish software projects gear up for latest iterations

Devs at well-loved distros Mint and Zorin are hard at work, with Mint 21.3 expected before the holidays, although Zorin OS 17 may take a little longer. Their respective betas show both are shaping up nicely and boast attractive desktops.

Both Linux Mint and Zorin OS are based on Ubuntu LTS versions, and are developed in the Republic of Ireland by developers who aren't Irish themselves. In the case of Mint, this means project founder and leader Clément Lefebvre, who hails from la belle France, while Zorin OS is developed by brothers Artyom and Kyrill Zorin, whose parents moved thence from Ukraine. Another salient difference is that Mint is free, funded by donations, while the Pro edition of Zorin OS costs £39 (or $49).

The Linux Mint team has just put out the beta version of Mint 21.3, code-named "Virginia." As you might expect, the edition with the Cinnamon desktop includes the latest Cinnamon 6.0, which we talked about earlier this month, while the Xfce and MATE editions will be less different as the upstream projects haven't put out new releases recently.

Mint's "what's new" page talks about quite a few additions. The Hypnotix IP TV player has several new features, including the ability to "pin" your favorite channels, as well as the ability to add custom channels by URL. It can also act as a YouTube player without going via the website, thanks to the upstream YT-DLP tool, and this version of the player adds the ability to directly manage this program's version itself, bypassing the versions in the Ubuntu or Debian repositories.

Mint 21.3's Cinnamon 6 desktop isn't radically different from before, which will be a relief to many.

Mint 21.3's Cinnamon 6 desktop isn't radically different from before, which will be a relief to many (click to enlarge)

Cinnamon 6.0 includes a new type of add-on, called "Actions", which add new options to the Nemo file manager's right-click menu. This complements the existing "Applets" (which run in the panel), "Desklets" (which run on the desktop), "Extensions" (which modify the desktop's behavior), and of course graphical themes. As we mentioned last time, Cinnamon now has experimental Wayland support, which in our brief testing seems to work well.

In testing, Mint didn't detect that it was running in a VirtualBox VM, but that's normal for this distro. We manually installed the VirtualBox guest additions, and it worked well. With the optional codecs and fully updated, it took up 11 GB of disk, and under both display servers it used about 670 MB RAM at idle. There are some known issues in the release notes but at this point we think it's looking pretty good already.

Spot the difference! Cinnamon 6 running under Wayland looks, works, and feels exactly the same, which is a pleasant change.

Spot the difference! Cinnamon 6 running under Wayland looks, works, and feels exactly the same, which is a pleasant change (click to enlarge)

Zorin OS 17 has also gone into beta and this release boasts more updates than you might expect, given that it shares the same Ubuntu 22.04 basis as Mint 21. It's taken the Zorin team three interim releases of Ubuntu to get their "Jammy Jellyfish" version out: since its basis, we've had Ubuntu 22.10, 23.04, and 23.10. They're getting perilously close to releasing their Jammy-based release around the time that the following Ubuntu LTS, "Noble Numbat," is due to appear.

But to be fair, Zorin OS 17 contains a lot of updates over its parent distro. The beta is based on GNOME Shell 43.9, although it uses a lot of accessory apps from GNOME 42: for instance, the Files program is the GNOME 42.6 release. This is newer than Ubuntu 22.04's GNOME 42. We looked at what to expect in GNOME 43 and the released version back in late 2022, and the Zorin team has given it a substantial facelift. The Zorin Appearance app, working with multiple custom GNOME extensions, lets you choose between many conventional desktop layouts, including a choice of Windows versions and others. New in this release, at least in the Pro edition, are MATE-2 style and ChromeOS-like layouts. These mainly affect the desktop itself, and most of the apps still use GNOME's CSD hybrid title-and-menu-toolbar, but it's a welcome change.

The beta of Zorin OS 17 comes some 20 months after the release of its underlying distro – and nearly in time for the next.

The beta of Zorin OS 17 comes some 20 months after the release of its underlying distro – and nearly in time for the next (click to enlarge)

The beta version has what the team calls a "spatial desktop," although it's not connected in any way with the "spatial metaphor" of classic MacOS, as described in detail by Ars Technica's John Siracusa some 20 years ago. On the Mac, what "spatial" meant was that the OS would remember where you put files and windows, on the desktop and in folders, even across reboots and resolution changes and additional screens being connected and disconnected. What it seems to mean in Zorin OS is that there's an optional 3D-effect window switcher, and an optional desktop-cube effect when switching between virtual desktops.

The 3D effect when switching apps is very pretty, but it's not what we mean by a spatial desktop.

The 3D effect when switching apps is very pretty, but it's not what we mean by a spatial desktop (click to enlarge)

Zorin OS now has better window-snapping support, a search function in the start menu, and it inherits GNOME 43's handy Quick Settings menu. The Reg FOSS Desk is not the biggest fan of the GNOME desktop, but the changes and customizations that Zorin makes are very welcome, and look fresher, cleaner, and a lot more usable for those more familiar with traditional desktops. If you like your GNOME straight up and vanilla, this is not for you, but if you prefer a Windows-like layout, this one of the best GNOME-based ones.

As all these customizations are done with GNOME extensions, the desktop supports both X11 and Wayland, just like GNOME itself. It defaults to Wayland, but in testing in VirtualBox, both worked fine – and the installer detected it was running in a VM and offered to automatically install the guest additions, which is a trick that Linux Mint could usefully copy.

The beta is of the Core edition, meaning you get the GNOME-based desktop – but without the large quantity of Flatpak apps that are bundled in the paid-for Pro edition, which in the past made Zorin OS one of the largest distros we've ever seen. Core is somewhat cut-down by comparison, and in testing, it took 13 GB of disk space and idled with a little over 900 MB of RAM in use.

As we mentioned back when Zorin OS 16.3 appeared, a welcome new feature then was new support for version-to-version upgrades, so when version 17 is released, it will be an easier upgrade than ever before.

Both Mint and Zorin OS improve on Ubuntu in various ways. Both sport more familiar desktop layouts, and both add Flatpak support, which no Ubuntu remix does (although Zorin OS has Snap support as well). Both offer a choice of clean, elegant themes that are rather less colorful than Ubuntu. Both take the underlying GNOME desktop and turn it into something more Windows-like. Mint forked GNOME to create Cinnamon, while Zorin extends GNOME with its own custom extensions. Both also offer very similar Xfce editions too.

While Cinnamon is fully FOSS and runs on various distros, you can't get the Zorin extensions from the GNOME Extensions site – although some very outdated early versions were uploaded there, oddly enough by the maintainer of Ubuntu Cinnamon. At last year's Ubuntu Summit, this writer had lunch with the Zorin brothers, and they told us that the popular "Dash to Panel" and "Arc Menu" extensions were forked from the Zorin extensions. We believe that they still contribute code to both projects. Of course, part of the value of Zorin OS is in the close integration between its extensions and the way that the Appearance app simplifies using them.

In an ideal world, we'd love to see these projects working together, perhaps on a common Xfce distro – or better still, working to get their various refinements to GNOME upstreamed into the official GNOME Flashback session ... although we have a suspicion that the GNOME Classic-style layout isn't a priority for the GNOME developers. ®

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