MATE: A Review

Introduction and a Disclaimer

MATE is the continuation of the GNOME 2 desktop environment. The GNOME developers completely revamped it with GNOME 3 - to sum up the changes, it was designed with every type of machine, from standard computer to 2-in-1s to touchpads etc. in mind and thus sports a more MacOS esque interface instead of the traditional Windows UI and with significantly reduced customization while taking more resources. Needless to say, this jarred a lot of users. One of these users forked the GNOME 2 codebase and continued to work on it, creating the MATE desktop. Over time, it became more popular for the purpose of a more standard UI compared to what GNOME 3 is, as well as restoring many controversial removements that mainline GNOME made.

Truth be told, while I am usually a curious enough person I wrote MATE off for the longest time. I just thought of its as a DE for whiny boomers who didn't like the changes of GNOME and GTK 3 and that it was just an inferior XFCE. That changed quite quickly when I used... well not it, but GNOME 2 on Ubuntu 14.04. I was honestly quite impressed with what I saw - it seemed clean and easy to use enough. Granted, however, it did look too dated and it wasn't the most intuitive way around things at all. It may have been a nice competitor with Windows 7, but imo definitely not with Windows 10, the aesthetic difference would make Ubuntu look like an actual boomer's OS compared to it. With that, I desired to try MATE out and see if it was really as good... and it turned out it was better! MATE really has been a nice experience thus far and thus I chose to write about it.

I'm tired of the usual disclaimers, some idiots who i will not name will always be toxic fuckwads and that's that. Even something as boomer as MATE would piss them off... Anyways, I'm testing this on a a 2006 Dell Vostro 1520 with a Core 2 Duo T6670 @ 2.201 GHz running Ubuntu MATE. I may also test it on a 2015 Asus Vivobook E403SA with a quad-core Intel Pentium N3700 @ 2.4000 GHz which will also run Ubuntu MATE. I am also using a 2020 81X2 IdeaPad Flex 5 14ARE05 with an AMD Ryzen 7 4700U with Radeon Graphics (8) @ 2.000GHz running EndeavourOS MATE. The former 2 are pretty weak but, well, MATE is a continuation of a DE designed for computers of their era. So with that, allons-y!

Performance

And here's where the tricks start. I came in thinking MATE was heavier than XFCE but... it's actually lighter! Maybe it's the result of GNOME Software being packaged with Xubuntu by default and that it'd really be lighter on bootup without it, but we'll see soon that isn't the full story. Here's the resource usage on regular bootup after some debloating:

(441 MB)

Here's it on the regular bootup after themeing:

(502 MB)

However, that was Ubuntu MATE. It turns out, it still balloons heavily after themeing on other OSes (though nowhere near the extent Xfce does). This was the second reboot I had with EndeavourOS after fulling themeing it (the first one had redshift on so it would have additional RAM usage):

(485 MB)

Over time though that has slowly increase. My most recent reboot for instance had this:

(591 MB)

So I was overly positive on this as I suspected. It's a shame but read on and you'll see that it's not that bad.

And that's the killer. As you'll see on my XFCE review it heavily balloons in resources after themeing. MATE and GNOME do not do that. MATE is close enough in regular usage to where that means that it is MATE, not XFCE, that is truly lighter. I've brought it up on the XFCE forums and it apparently may be time for a bug report with that... for now though, MATE is lighter and even then they're not that far off. Even once XFCE does fix that assuming its a bug, MATE will have plenty of reason to be used as you'll see reading this article.

If we talk about it in terms of itself however MATE uses enough for me to consider it mid-lightweight. It's not going to run on every 2005 machine with 2 GB of RAM and the weakest Celeron out there, but if you have remotely modern hardware it will do just fine. In another comparison, thisi s about as much RAM as KDE. However, MATE is genuinely lightweight on other resources - it is much easier on the CPU (a newer Pentium could barely handle KDE but an ancient Core 2 Duo ran MATE quite well) and is generally less bloated in terms of software provided. I'd say MATE really is the lightest of the mid-light and light DEs, though LXQt is still much lighter.

Functionality

Does MATE live up to XFCE's imo fantastic functionality however? For the most part yes, though it doesn't do quite as perfectly.

Ubuntu MATE by default gives you 3 menus - one that resembles XFCE's Whisker Menu, which is fantastic and imo the best menu out there, one that resembles more of a dock, and one that resembles more of the LXQt menu without the search. Needless to say it's up to you on which you prefer. It has a ton of applets for its panels in general that put LXQt to shame and even compete with XFCE. Out of the box, the UI is not the most intuitive, but it is easy enough to make it what you want.

This is a personal gripe but I find that MATE's default layout with the 2 panels is horrendously unintuitive. I do not see how this is remotely efficient - you waste so much time moving the mouse around the screen that you spend more time doing that than actual work. It doesn't help that the Brisk menu is not integrated in by default. There's a reason that MATE kept it after so many years but for the life of me I just do not see the appeal of it.

The default applications are generally decent but they have an issue of having an overly crammed interface. This cramming is one of MATE's greatest weaknesses. Pluma is a decent text editor but it has too many options that belong in menus instead. Caja just has way too much out there. Why can't things be in menus instead of just plain out in the open? Overall these applications still suffer from their layout and end up not being as good as some other DE's defaults. That's not to suggest that they're bad by any means, however - they do what they do and give a lot of power to do it with.

Overall though it's just not quite up there with Xfce's more minimalistic approach. It is good for beginners who would like to have a bit more out of hte box though.

Customization

And this is the kicker. MATE's development team actually understands that regular, non deep-end users would like to make MATE their own beautiful DE and have made it possible to do so through GUIs instead of relying on CLI like XFCE does. The two are honestly about as customizable, though I'd still say XFCE is ahead.

MATE also has a ton of options for everything else. Its control center is super easy to use and gives quite a lot of power. I'd say there's about as much in here as Xfce, with controls over almost every aspect of the desktop.

In particular, the MATE Tweak tool is super nice. It even gives default layouts for panels based off of other OSes and is thus great for Windows/Mac refugees coming to Linux for the first time. You get even more power over specific things such as window configuration, panels, etc.. That being said, I'm not sure why this is its own application seeing that it doesn't offer all that much on its own. Sadly this means that you will have to install it separately on certain OSes.

Customization of the themes, however, is one area that truly showcases MATE's flaws. It can be done in the Appearence menu. You can choose the pre-loaded themes, but in order to fully customize it by adding icons etc. you must edit it as its own custom configuration and specify what you like. That imo gives an absurd amount of power to easily create any theme you'd like and imo is a great strength MATE. That being said, it is relatively unintuitive - why should I need to do all of that just to change my icons? Would it not be just fine to have those separate?

MATE does shine in customization overall. You really get a ton of choices and strong power over the desktop, and it's all doable through GUIs. MATE truly is one of the most customizable DEs out there and is a great choice for beginners who wish to get into it but don't want to get overwhelmed by options or get confused by CLIs. Sometimes it isn't the most intuitive but in general it's very easy for anyone to make it their own.

Aesthetics

This is one area I feel MATE does notably worse on than XFCE, which is contrary to what you'd see on first sight. MATE's generally crammed design really begin to haunt it here. It can be seen in Pluma and Caja - they just do not look as nice as XFCE's Mousepad and Thunar, respectively. Each one of those additional options that is dislayed out there comes at a visual cost, and MATE is a heavy spender.

Expanding on themeing, however, let's go over how to actually do it. MATE generally has a similar approach to adding themes as XFCE does. To theme it, just download the theme zip from wherever you wish (MATE-look.org has the most themes), however you wish (you can use the Pling Store AppImage but its pretty bloated, just go to their site and download the zip) and extract it into the matching directory, then change the appropriate setting:

Again, this isn't nearly as intuitive. Why not just treat icons cursors etc. separately? This style of unintuitive settings is something MATE never manages to overcome and is arguably its greatest flaw.

If there is one strength of MATE however it's that it looks much nicer out of the box, at least on Ubuntu MATE. Ambiant MATE is, well, ambiant. It's super warm and friendly compared to XFCE looking like it came out of 1995. That puts MATE ahead in that category. In the end, however, it doesn't do enough to convince me that it's better than XFCE in this regard. It's by no means bad however and with the right themeing, it can look quite beautiful.

Conclusion

I've compared MATE a lot to XFCE in this article and for good reason. The two are honestly pretty similar in what you get at first sight, and even upon deeper inspection they're fundamentally quite similar. I had for the longest time believed XFCE was better than MATE, but needless to say I no longer quite believe that. MATE really offers more for less. It is generally lighter, especially after being themed, and this is a huge advantage over the formerly lightweight XFCE. This comes at no cost, however, as MATE will spoil you with customization options. It gives quite a lot in the GUI and you can do more on your own. It still manages to please aesthetics wise (in particular it looks far better out of the box and that's important) and it gives good functionality. This all makes it a fantastic DE iwth a lot of power, especially for beginners who would like to customize it without being intimidated while still getting a light experience.

That more-for-less approach does go too far sometimes however. I do prefer XFCE's relatively minimal design and I believe MATE should have that same design. Instead, it does get a bit crowded with the options etc. The default applications are another example of this, in which they do not stick to the idea of doing one thing and doing it well in terms of overcrammed design, too many useless options, etc.. MATE tries to be better than GNOME 3's excessive minimalism for what it costs approach but often jsut goes too far to the other end of the spectrum. This leaves its functionality below XFCE's imo. This is primarily subjective, however, and especially seeing that MATE does target disgruntled users who want an easy-to-use DE, it fits well. It's not always the easiest to use, however. Some default layouts - a menu bar on the top and bottom most notably - and some menu options - most notably customization - are powerful but not the most intuitive. I had to do a fair share of configuration to make MATE as I wanted. It doesn't help that the experience is drastically inconsistent - unlike Xubuntu where it really does feel like Xfce on top of Ubuntu, Ubuntu MATE really does add a lot to it. That's good, but then you find other OSes with it sorely lacking.

Don't count out MATE the same way I did in the beginning, however. MATE is honestly a great DE that is one of the closest to a simplistic, lightweight ideal DE that I've always wanted. While it does go a bit far at times with pandering to the old GNOME and being a bit overly crammed instead of improving past it, for the most part it provides a fantastic experience. Definitely check it out if you haven't used it, it's probably one of the very best DEs out there and I rank it quite highly, particularly for newcomers to Linux.

On a final note, I implore the MATE developers to merge the Brisk Menu into the proejct by default. It will do no harm except slightly increase the codebase, but seeing that the Brisk Menu already has its own devs that shouldn't be too much of an issue in maintainability. User choice is never a bad thing and no one should have to hunt around for what is arguably the best menu. I don't believe I'm alone in this sentiment.

In terms of distros, honestly Ubuntu MATE is the best. The community is good enough, it's still pretty lightweight, it makes worthwhile additions that genuinely add to the user experience (Brisk Menu for instance) and while it does have some bad points (why is the software boutique a snap package?) it really gets the job done. If you want an even more stable and community-based approach, Linux Mint MATE is always there (though Cinammon isn't all that far off, try that if you have the resources). Debian-Testing keeps the update speeds however if you desire that (as of 7/23/2020 live nonfree testing iso images have been down for like a week or so). If you want the more lightweight, systemd-free approach, go for Artix MATE. It's well supported and honestly there's no frills to it - it's simple enough with no additions etc. I'm aware that I usually recommend Ubuntu and Artix but thats because I believe the two are the best at what they do.

If you wish to see my XFCE article, you can view it here. While I still solidly believe MATE as of now is the better DE, XFCE does have its draws, including a cleaner & more minimal UI as well as generally being more intuitive depending on how you go about things.

Name Performance Functionality Customization Aesthetics Overall Tier
MATE
  • 441 on fresh boot
  • ~500 after fully themeing it
  • ~580 after some usage
Very strong, applications give a ton. Sometimes strong to a genuine fault though. Very strong, has a lot and mostly through GUIs. Still not always intuitive but is generally quite easy to work with Meh by default, great once themed. A fantastic DE overall that gives strong functionality and in particular customization. Sometimes goes too far in this. Great for beginners. High, much better meat:resource balance than XFCE and has many unique merits.