MATE Review: A Lightweight Desktop Environment for the Nostalgic

Mate Feature

MATE is one of the great Linux Desktop Environments for those who are looking for something very traditional and nostalgic. It is the living descendant of one of the most popular Linux desktops, GNOME 2, and has a classic feel and approach. In this MATE review, we’ll look at the user interface, performance, and some notable features, and we’ll cover who should try MATE. 

MATE First Impressions

MATE feels classic when you first boot up. This makes sense, as MATE is a fork and continuation of GNOME 2, one of the most beloved Linux desktops of all time. MATE follows traditional desktop paradigms and gives you a great-looking and great-feeling interface. MATE is incredibly sharp out of the box with a great theme and icon pack. The feel is great as well, with very minimal resource usage and a fast, snappy interface. Things run well, and MATE would be a great choice for a lower-end system or those looking to remain efficient on system resources. 

Mate Login Screen
Mate Desktop
Mate Lock Screen

User Experience 

MATE feels like a special mix of a classic, traditional desktop with a distinct Linux twist on it. In a more classic MATE implementation, there’s a menu in the upper left with a categorized list of all your applications, along with a search function. In the upper right there’s a nice-looking system tray with notifications, networking, and sound and time.

In the bottom left there’s a “Show Desktop” button that comes in handy for heavy multitaskers or those who like to use desktop folders and icons. There’s also a trash icon in the bottom right. Everything you’ll need is available in the menu in the upper left. It’s a powerful menu that looks through not only application names but also application descriptions. 

Mate Menu
The basic MATE menu. Note that there’s still a powerful search function.

The Caja File Manager

The Caja File Manager is one of the key applications in the MATE desktop. It’s a great file manager that has a lot of functionality packed into it. Out of the box, it supports several different side panes, including the stock places menu, a tree view, directory history, and directory information. Additionally, there’s an easy button for zooming out to the computer:/// location to see all available disks, drives, and file systems available.

Mate Caja
The main screen of Caja. In the upper left, you can see that “Places” dropdown menu. That’s where you can choose other side panes.
Mate Caja Computer
The convenient button for the computer:/// location is just to the left of the zoom out button.

The Pluma Text Editor

The Pluma Text Editor is a great fork of Gedit that adds some user friendliness. For one, all of the options of saving, opening new files, and find or find-and-replace are all in a top bar rather than hidden behind a hamburger menu. Otherwise, Pluma is a very simple and easy-to-use text editor that just gets out of your way while still being simple to use. 

Mate Pluma
Pluma has all kinds of plugins and settings for each different language you might want to use, and it will auto detect based on syntax and path.

The MATE Search Tool

The MATE Search Tool is a really great way to look through all of your files in your system. It’s a lot like Catfish in Xfce but with some additional options available. You can search for files by name, contents, date modified, owner, group, size, and regular expression pattern match in the name. It’s a great way to work with files in your system, and I highly recommend it if you do a lot of work with files. 

Mate Search Tool
Searching for all files that contain “Configuration”.

Customization

MATE is not as customizable as something as KDE Plasma, but you can change quite a bit. You can change menu icons, panel layout, themes and appearance, and even add and remove panels and docks. One cool thing about MATE is that you can pick and choose the different pieces of different themes and stitch them together to make a custom theme for exactly what you want. Additionally, you can customize the workflow of MATE, adding new workspaces. Overall, MATE is reasonably customizable, so I would recommend it for light tinkerers in this regard. 

Mate Plank
Ubuntu MATE with Plank instead of a bottom panel.
Mate Custom Theme Example
Creating a custom theme

Performance

MATE has excellent performance. A fresh boot of Ubuntu MATE 20.04 uses 478 MB RAM and about 1% CPU to keep things running. That’s very minimal, especially considering the fully-featured desktop that you’re using. MATE will run well on quite old systems with little RAM and anemic CPUs. 

Mate Htop

MATE feels quite snappy to use. Applications open quickly, workspaces switch without delay, and windows snap readily when tiled to sides and corners. Given that it closely follows traditional desktop paradigms, it feels like a perfect fit for an older system that’s going for a more retro vibe or somebody who really feels comfortable in an older paradigm. 

The Cons of MATE

Given that there are several desktops that are forks of GNOME 2, MATE does little to stand out. That makes sense, especially when you hear that some of the creators and maintainers think of it as another desktop for Linux. MATE feels like it wants to be Cinnamon, but has the simplicity of Xfce, and fails to be better than either of those. The simplicity, styling, and legacy of MATE will appeal to those who want to use GNOME 2, but for those who want a fully-featured desktop that’s still just as efficient as MATE, Cinnamon may be a better option. 

Where to Experience MATE

There are two main places I’d recommend experiencing MATE. For a clean, vanilla implementation, I’d recommend Ubuntu MATE 20.04. You get all the benefits of being an official Ubuntu flavor, and given that Martin Wimpress is the head of the Ubuntu Desktop and one of the leads on MATE, it just makes sense that it would be a quality MATE experience. 

Mate Ubuntu Neofetch

The other place is on one of the first adopters of MATE, Linux Mint MATE Edition. Linux Mint is famous for being very friendly to new users and provides many applications to make your life easier, like their excellent welcome screen and update manager. I feel that if you’re not looking for the most basic MATE implementation, Linux Mint would be the best choice. It uses the more advanced MATE menu, keeps the panel on the bottom rather than the top by default, and just generally allows for a more welcoming experience to MATE.

Mate Mint Desktop
Mate Mint Neofetch

Who Should Use MATE

Anybody looking for the “good old days” of GNOME 2 should use MATE. It’s a great DE for experienced users who used GNOME 2 and fell in love with it or enjoyed the workflow, and it’s a great DE for new users to experience a classic GNOME workflow as opposed to the vertical workspaces and no panel in GNOME Shell

Make sure to check out some of our other articles on MATE, like these 5 great MATE themes. Learn how to use KDE Connect with MATE and how to install MATE alongside Cinnamon in Linux Mint to check it out on your system.

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2 comments

  1. Personally I love and use Mate, and will as long as it exists. There is plenty of customization, I don’t need to create a new Distro with my customization, I just need to make it efficient. I have used Cinnamon and XFCE and never seen any advantage in either, but actually found them deficient in what I wanted.

  2. The one thing I do not like in Mate is that you have to go to the Settings Menu for each setting you want to change. KDE and XFCE have a Settings Manager. You load it once and you can change all the settings pretty much at once.

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