The Mint Experiment

Anyone who’s known me for years knows I’m a died in the wool Windows man.  Over many years from Windows 3.1 onwards, I’ve done down that road until ultimately all my machines are now Windows 10 – and I have to say that, while it could be argued before Windows 7 that it was not the most reliable operating system in the world, from that point on pretty much all of that changed. I regularly leave Windows 10 machines running for weeks on end and I’m sure they’d keep going for many months if it were not for the only remaining issue- that of pesky updates which Microsoft are determined we have whether we like it or not.

Now to be fair there was a time when Adobe – a company I cannot stand, used to issue updates for Acrobat almost on a daily basis and at least that no longer happens. I can usually tell when Windows wants me to update because Skype conversations become almost unusable and other strange things happen – at that point I reboot the machine and lo and behold – a Windows update is in progress – don’t turn off your machine. Thanks – I’m in a hurry for  train…

In my previous role as IT Director of the FSB, I would take it upon myself, being a hands-on type, from time to time, to try the latest Linux on one of our PCs, only to end up with utter disappointment as it would fail to connect to a WIFI access point or the video would hang over the end or some such issue – there was always SOMETHING – and so I would scrap that idea for a several months before trying again. At one point I used to get hate mail from  members who were clearly selling Linux machines –  for supporting Microsoft! Serious hate mail.  So over the years I kept trying again and always ending up with disappointment. (I’ve never used Linux on my personal machines because yes, I do like the latest state of the art, graphically intensive games and yes I do use lots of proprietary packages such as Magix and others which are simply not available on Linux.

In recent times as regular readers know, I’ve been forced into taking an interest in Linux because Debian (a Linux variation) runs on the Raspberry Pi. 2 years ago I bought a Raspberry Pi 2 (having played with the original Pi, loaded up the graphical operating system and immediately put it on Ebay in disgust at the speed). On the Pi2, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Raspbian ran at a reasonable speed and since then I’ve done many different board reviews and installed Raspbian and Debian on lots of boards, leaning on experts along the way as my knowledge started to build.

A while back I took the plunge and installed Ubuntu onto one of these boards and with help from others soon came to realise that there were not THAT many differences between Debian and Ubuntu and one of the things that has struck me in all this time is how reliable the operating system can be – I’ve a Pi that’s been sitting controlling stuff for well over a year now without as much as a sneeze despite me poking live updated and tweaks into it without rebooting.

Linux Mint on an old Dell laptop

And so with that in mind, last week I took an old DELL E4300 I had lying around which had simply refused to update to Windows 10 from Windows 7 (no matter how many ways I came at it) and which was so old it was really not worth opening up – and grabbed myself a USB stick with Ubuntu on it, ready after maybe 3 years of abstinence and armed with much better knowledge than previously, to try again.

Well, what a disappointment that was. Ubuntu loaded up no problem, with it’s rather dated looking purple interface – and asked me for my WIFI password – I promptly gave it this – and before long I had a working laptop. Or so I thought. The WIFI icon looked broken – yet I could pull up a browser and go on the web  – no problems. I was impressed by the ability to watch video on the BBC website, something that in the past on Linux was just not on.

tmp95E7That enthusiasm lasted maybe an hour. The App store decided not to work – coming up blank. But hey, that was just one program. I noted a nice graphical email client complete with calendar. I set it up and within minutes I had my Google calendar up and running. But as soon as I tried putting in email  – “Cannot get email as there is no Internet connection”. I opened a browser and sure enough the Internet was fine – but still that broken WIFI indicator. From there, things went downhill – it could not store draft emails due to a permissions issue and – nope – sorry life is TOO SHORT FOR THIS – I was reminded of the frustration of previous years… what HAVE these Linux guys being doing all this time, I thought.

I was in the process of giving up when I read something about Linux MINT. I liked the interface. In the instructions for installation I had to go get PendriveLinux so I could install the image on a USB stick. You should be seeing links here as appropriate. I went off to the official download page and picked the 64 bit version using the Xfce graphical interface as it had been suggested that while simple out of the box, this version had lots of options. I put the Mint Linux onto the USB stick and put it into the laptop. I must admit I found a certain satisfaction in wiping Ubuntu. The installation went well and WIFI came up but this time, no broken WIFI indicator. The taskbar seemed to be missing a battery indicator but It didn’t take me long to figure out how to add all sorts of widgets to the taskbar to make me feel at home (including a battery indicator).

I noted that Thunderbird email was installed and I set that up with my two email accounts – no problem whatsoever… but no calendar. Of course, that’s a plug in and it needs another plug-in to get Google calendar functionality – but all of that took mere moments to organise and now I have fully fledged email and calendar. Granted it is a little slow at pulling in the 35,000 emails in my main in-box – but it’ll get there I’m sure.

I hit a few obstacles on the way – my by now standard VNC server would not have it until Mr Shark suggested I try  x11VNC – that worked a treat.  Then I had it asking pesky password questions every time I tried to breath – that was easy to fix  – then I noted on power up that the KEYRING wanted another password – you’d think I was operating a bank. That went quickly – and from there everything went smoothly.  But this was Linux MINT – about which I know nothing at all. The funny thing was, doing an APT-GET UPDATE showed that in fact this is Ubuntu Xenial… now I’d already, with lots of help from MrShark, modified my all-singing install script for Ubuntu. I didn’t really expect it to work on this machine but having written down the steps to put everything together I thought “what the hell” and ran the script – it failed of course as it looks for UBUNU, DEBIAN, RASPBIAN or DIETPI – and this was LINUXMINT. I added a check for the latter THOROUGHLY expecting a host of horrific error and compatibility errors.

I was with some delight that I returned 15 minutes later to find that not only had the script worked – but without a single error – adding NodeJS, Node-Red, Apache, PHP 7, Mosquitto, SQLITE, MC and several other programs to my installation.  I rebooted to ensure I wasn’t dreaming – sure enough – everything worked.

The laptop has no Bluetooth interface so I plugged in one of those cheap Chinese Bluetooth USB units… and went off to the Bluetooth controls – without ANY hassle my Bluetooth mouse connected!!! I plugged in my Bluetooth headset – it got that – I went off to the BBC website and… – the Bluetooth headset didn’t connect automatically – so I went to the volume control – it was in the options – sure enough – perfectly synced Bluetooth.

Now if SKYPE video will just work….

Up to now, hours later, I have a nicely usable laptop with all my development toys (well maybe not NotePad++ but there are a couple of decent Linux editors,  my email and calendar, Chrome browser and a full office suite – making an otherwise pretty hopeless old laptop into a useable tool!

Issues: This morning I ran out of battery. A sign came up to say the battery is low – save your work – but that that point the mouse and keyboard stopped working – hence saving work was impossible. A moment later, the laptop shut down. I charged it and it came straight back up with the same message – I had no option but to shut it down (sluggish mouse response as an aside). After rebooting all was well.   Also Skype does not appear to survive power cycling and has to be loaded again.

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15 thoughts on “The Mint Experiment

  1. Good to hear you found a distribution which worked with what you needed without having to do it your self. No doubt most things would have worked in Ubuntu and Debian previously but they don’t enable proprietary drivers by default so some things have to be manually enabled to get them working. Wifi for example with Broadcom drivers. But Linux Mint has become popular because they enable those proprietary firmware blobs by default. And package things up nicely.

    I hope you continue learning about Linux and realize that while you brushed it off quickly previously while at the same time putting hours into Window issues, it’s really be a matter of working with the what you know and not having patience for this stuff which is different. If you do keep it up, what you will find is that when something does go wrong, there are reasons for it and you have ways to understand them and fix them. No magical reboots and hoping things are fixed.

    And seeing what you are doing with Node Red, I know you have the ability to do amazing things and stick with it to make them even better. Once again, congratulations with your new system and verifying you script works well with it.

  2. Hi Pete! I’m a big fan of your blog.
    Just to clarify a thing or two 🙂 Ubuntu is based on Debian, and Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu, that’s why you got Ubuntu on apt-get. Debian based distributions use apt-get as package manager, while RedHat based distributions use yum or dnf.

    I am also a big fan of N++ but i found that Atom is really good, its the text editor Github people made.
    you want the file with .deb extension,
    and you install it by running apt-get install atom-amd64.deb in the folder you downloaded it.

    It supports different plugins(for example menu item for installing packages is Packages > Settings View > Install Packages.

    Its multi-platform, and there’s a package to sync settings across all your installations of Atom via Github gist. If you need any help with it, or linux installations, feel free to yell 😀

  3. Your non-British readers may be more familiar with the FSB as referring to the Russian secret service (successor to the KGB) rather than the Federation of Small Businesses to which I presume you are referring. Or maybe I presume too much.

  4. I had been an avid Redhat/Fedora Linux user from 1998 to 2008, but when I ran across Linux Mint and found out that everything ‘just worked’ right out of the box, it became my new Linux distro of choice. In 2011, the ‘Debian’ version of Linux Mint was introduced, and I eagerly switched over to it — having no great love for Ubuntu. The Cinnamon desktop is just icing on the cake — you might want to try it out as well — never even had trivial issues like missing battery/wifi icons 🙂

  5. Actually guys, the normal SKYPE distribution works a treat in Mint – even the video works – I plugged a camera in and it worked immediately.

    The only thing I can’t find – maybe I’m blind but I can’t find a tickbox to have Skype come up with the operating system – which makes it pretty useless as a communications tool. Other packages like OwnCloud come up automatically – any idea why Skype would not? That’s about my only gripe up to now.

      1. Yes, the Cinnamon desktop has a similar app option named ‘Startup Applications’. That is where I have added stuff like Skype, Conky, etc.

  6. Hi Pete,

    I like to Google common sayings to determine origin, usage, etc. Your first sentence caught my eye. “When wool is dyed before being spun into thread (as opposed to after it is spun or woven into fabric), the color is profound and likely to last a very long time. ”

    I enjoy your blog, thanks for all of your posts.

  7. Notepad++ is an easy fix, just install Wine. Its a Windows compatible API layer that allows many Windows apps to run under Linux.

    BTW, found this blog looking for ESP8266 stuff. Just an FYI in case you care. 🙂

    1. I believe I did install WINE – but I’ve left the laptop in Spain and I won’t be back there until April so yes interested but right now can’t do much about it 🙂

  8. from:

    For anyone who doesn’t know this already, Ian Morrison at has put in a ton of work to create a nice “respin” script, which will take several of the major variants (Ubuntu, Mint, Peppermint, Elementary), unpack the original ISO file and then re-create it with fixed bootloaders, updated kernel and additional drivers (ie:- Broadcom WiFi) to make it work with these Bay Trail, Cherry Trail and Apollo Lake devices.
    Ian also makes some pre-spun ISOs available and from personal experience, I can say they’re definitely worth trying, if just to take the pain out of the 32/64-bit UEFI struggle.

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