Based on Ubuntu 12.10, Linux Mint 14, which was officially released last week, is pretty similar to its parent operating system in technical terms. Its application stack is largely the same, with the exception of Ubuntu specific programs, such as Canonical's Ubuntu Software Center and the Ubuntu One data syncing service, that are not present in Mint.
But while Mint owes much of its backbone to Ubuntu developers, it is very different in centrally important ways. Above all, Mint offers alternative desktop environments to users dissatisfied with Unity, the default in Ubuntu, and GNOME Shell, a leading open source interface found in many other mainstream Linux distributions. The standard version of Mint instead offers the MATE and Cinnamon interfaces, whose development has now become closely linked to Mint's.
In Mint 14, MATE and Cinnamon have both received major enhancements. The release features MATE 1.4, which according to Mint developers "not only strengthens the quality and stability of the desktop but goes beyond GNOME 2," on which MATE is based, " by fixing bugs which were in GNOME 2 for years and by providing new features which were previously missing." The full list of MATE enhancements is available online.
Meanwhile, Cinnamon, a desktop environment conceived and created by Mint developers themselves in the wake of GNOME 2's retirement, has reached version 1.6 in Mint 14. New features include the ability to "name" virtual workspaces and associate them with particular activities -- a feature long requested in GNOME -- as well as improvements to various applets that enhance usability and readability. Alt-tab window switching also offers more options for visual configuration.
And that's not all. In total, the new version of Cinnamon reflects more than 800 changes that finally bring this homegrown desktop interface into prime time. It no longer is heavily dependent on upstream work, and just could become a serious contender with Unity and GNOME Shell for the attention of Linux users.
Mint 14 also includes a few modest changes to the application stack, as well as some new artwork. None of these changes are big enough to be the determining factor for many users in switching to Mint, but for those attracted by the advances on the interface front, the application and aesthetic updates are likely to provide icing on the cake.
The Mint project clearly enjoys a lot of momentum as it enters a new development cycle, which will culminate in the release of version 15 of the operating system in late spring 2013. With some evidence (like the distrowatch.com statistics) suggesting that Mint has been the most popular Linux distribution among desktop users for some time now, it is making a major impact on the open source channel, even as its developers eschew most tendencies toward commercialization of the project.
Going forward, the distribution's biggest challenge will probably be ensuring that it does not split its limited resources pursuing two different desktop environments. MATE is not a Mint project, but Mint developers have positioned it at the front and center of Mint while also investing intensively in their own Cinnamon interface. In the long run, this dual focus could produce tensions that may not serve the project. But for now, offering these alternative interfaces to users unhappy with the default choices in other Linux distributions is a central component of Mint's popularity, meaning that dropping either MATE or Cinnamon will be difficult for the foreseeable future.