A sometimes-forgotten Linux Desktop Environment, Cinnamon is a contender for your desktop that you may not have seen coming. While Cinnamon is developed by the Linux Mint team as a flagship for their distribution, it is also available to download and use on any other distro. This article covers Cinnamon desktop in depth, exploring the user experience and customization options, performance, usability, and recommendations for who should use Cinnamon.
First Impressions of Cinnamon
Cinnamon was initially a fork of GNOME, but with Cinnamon 2.0, it became an independent desktop environment that is no longer reliant on the GNOME library. Upon logging in, Cinnamon looks clean, modern, and focused. It follows a very traditional desktop paradigm from Windows, with an application menu in the bottom left, applications along the bottom panel, and a system tray in the bottom right. It also has desktop icons for all your disks/file systems with “Computer” and your home folder with “Home.”
Once you get over the initial “Wow, this looks like Windows,” you see that there’s been some work done on Cinnamon to make it feel distinct from both the GNOME backend and the Windows-esque appearance. The “Themes” application gives you a nice overview of all your look-and-feel settings and options, with tons of color choices available, with the options to change things around.
If the aim was to create a DE that follows traditional paradigms, then the Linux Mint team has absolutely done that with Cinnamon. Right out of the box, there are dedicated minimize and maximize buttons, all the window controls are on the right side of the window borders, and the application menu in the bottom left has categories and a powerful search function that not only searches application titles but also descriptions. Navigating the desktop is super simple; the desktop puts you in the driver’s seat while not asking you to drive anything too unwieldy.
For anything you need in Cinnamon, you simply open the applications menu and either look through the categories or start typing to search. It’s a centralized location for you to start digging through everything the system has to offer, and it unifies all of the applications into logical categories and a universal access point. It’s quite similar to Windows in that way, but the feel of the applications is reminiscent of many GNOME applications. The interface is simple but effective, and it gives you what you’re looking for without getting in the way. A great example of this is Xed, which is Cinnamon’s take on Gedit from GNOME. It’s simple, elegant, minimal, and allows you to quickly write your script, text file, or readme without much hassle.
The Cinnamon X-Apps
Many of the Cinnamon default X-Apps are like GNOME Core apps plus a little extra user-friendliness. Xed, the text editor, is like Gedit with some easier preferences and choices. The ways the apps are designed is partially why Linux Mint has a great reputation of being user-friendly.
Cinnamon also has a great deal more customization right out of the box than its ancestor. While the default interface is Windows-like, you can easily move the panel around (or remove it if you want) and make it macOS-like/Ubuntu-like or any other style you like. You can customize the panel, the icon for the applications menu, the global theme, the accent colors, the icon theme, the window decorations, the window border, and so much more. Almost every aspect of the desktop interface can be customized. The customization isn’t on par with KDE Plasma, but it’s much more thorough than other offerings. It makes space for you to move in and feel at home without overwhelming you. It’s the best parts of Linux without the worst parts: you have the choice and control without the overwhelming amount of freedom that some options give you.
Keyboard Shortcuts in Cinnamon
Cinnamon also comes with great keyboard shortcuts, especially around window tiling. By holding down the Super key and pressing Left, Right, Up, or Down, you can half-tile windows to the left, right, top, or bottom of your screen. Plus, once a window is half-tiled to one side, you can quarter-tile it by pressing Up or Down. The windows tile without any animation or delay, making things feel incredibly fast and like you can just get work done.
Window management is done with a classic Alt + Tab, giving you an application icon and a drop-down menu of the window preview. In terms of workspace management, it’s a similar setup: hold down Ctrl and Alt and press either Left, Right, Up, or Down. Left and Right will switch workspaces, Down will show you an overview of your workspaces, and Up will give you a gridded overview of all of your workspaces with the option to add more.
Cinnamon focuses on the keyboard, which is playing to the strengths of Linux particularly well, especially with a lack of easy touchpad gestures in Linux. Being able to hold Super or Ctrl and Alt and use the arrow keys to navigate the system, especially with the quick snap of the keyboard shortcuts, gives you a really logical and simple way to work around the system, and once you embrace those shortcuts, you won’t go back.
There are all kinds of Cinnamon extensions available, like a Compiz Cube for your workspaces, a background blur in overview, and wobbly windows, a favorite among its diehard fans. The Cinnamon Extensions give you access to some functional changes in the desktop rather than the typical visual changes afforded by the Themes app. It’s another layer of customization that gives you flexibility in your system.
Another great strength of Cinnamon is its Desklets. These are little applets that you can add to your desktop to give you a larger clock, a dedicated application launcher, CPU usage graphs, and many others. It’s a great way to be able to quickly glance at important information without having to crowd a system tray or open another application. It’s all just baked into the desktop.
Cinnamon performance is excellent. At idle on a freshly-booted Linux Mint 19.3 virtual machine, CPU usage is around two to three percent, and idle RAM usage is at 566MB. That’s quite a small footprint, especially considering its lineage. That makes it ideal for older machines with less powerful CPUs and that have lower maximum RAM specifications. I could envision an older ThinkPad running very well with Cinnamon, especially given all of its useful keyboard shortcuts.
As mentioned before, there are very few animations, which can feel a little un-modern. However, it increases overall system performance and makes things feel lightning fast. Switching workspaces, tiling windows, opening the application menu, everything feels incredibly fast. It makes me want to work faster in order to keep up with the desktop, almost like the desktop challenges me to keep up.
The Cons of Cinnamon
Cinnamon is an excellent desktop environment, but there are some negatives to it. The Mint Icon theme feels a little dated, and it feels like somebody made a caricature of an icon theme from 2007. It’s simple enough to change, like with all Linux desktops, but there’s clearly been much thought that’s gone into the design, theming and accent colors that I’d love to be able to stick with the Mint icon theme. It’s a bit of a letdown.
Another downside is some of the extra applications that come with Cinnamon. Things like Transmission, HexChat, two distinct fonts apps, and two distinct USB formatting and writing applications makes me wonder how much of it is really necessary. I often find myself uninstalling a fair number of applications that come stock with Cinnamon just because they get in my way. The X-Apps are great, as they add usability to the GNOME Core apps, but it’s just hard to get past HexChat in my applications menu.
Where to Experience Cinnamon
The obvious choice is Linux Mint. The Linux Mint team has been iterating on Cinnamon for a good while, and the polish that they’ve achieved is commendable. On top of Cinnamon itself, there are tons of useful applications developed by the team and integrated into Mint specifically, which makes for an incredible user experience. Things like Warpinator, Timeshift, and the Driver Manager give little user-friendly edges to Mint that are hard to find elsewhere.
Who Should Use Cinnamon
Anybody looking for a lightweight desktop that looks good and works well out of the box should give Cinnamon a try, especially if you consider yourself a keyboard shortcut kind of person. Using Cinnamon even for a day or two will give your desktop a new lease on life and help you realize the potential of how quickly and efficiently you can get work done.
Now that you’ve learned some of the ins and outs of Cinnamon, make sure to check out how to enable Autologin in LightDM and why you should use Timeshift in Linux Mint to back up your computer.