Ubuntu MATE 16.04 is the first Long-Term Support release for an upstart project that is quietly revolutionizing the Linux desktop experience by combining proven technology with cutting-edge innovation. It promises to provide both new and experienced Linux users with a dynamic, yet solid desktop operating system that will keep pace with the ever-changing trends in open source computing. I have been using it since it went into Beta. I first installed it in a virtual machine but realized quickly that I wanted this on hardware and I have adopted it as my main Linux distribution for all of my machines. Yes, it’s that good, and in this article, we’re going to take an in-depth look at Ubuntu MATE and find out why it may just be the best thing to happen to Ubuntu since Ubuntu was introduced in 2004.
A MEETING OF THE MINDS
Martin Wimpress and Alan Pope are a couple of British software developers who came together in 2014 to build a new distribution of Linux. The goal of the project was to better integrate the MATE Desktop with Ubuntu. These guys aren’t just average code crunchers, though. They are both talented engineers. Mr. Pope’s day job is with Canonical, the company that distributes Ubuntu, and he holds the title of Community Manager. He has also headed engineering and development for Ubuntu. Mr. Wimpress is the head of development for Ubuntu MATE and his resume includes contributions to many Open Source Projects including the MATE Desktop and Arch Linux. They both are well-spoken, charismatic and gregarious gentlemen who shatter the typical stereotype of the anti-social computer nerd and they are affectionately known as Wimpy and Popey to the open source community. They regularly appear in podcasts about Linux and open source and Popey is regularly seen as the face of Ubuntu at conferences and conventions. Their enthusiasm for open source technology is infectious. They have brought together a very skilled and innovative team of contributing developers for the Ubuntu MATE project, which quickly gained officially supported Ubuntu Community flavor status in early 2015.
To understand what makes Ubuntu MATE special we must take a few moments to cover a little bit of history. Ubuntu launched in 2004 with the GNOME 2 desktop and by 2010 GNOME 2 was one of the most beloved environments for Linux because of its flexibility and stability. GNOME is an independent project and many distributions use all or part of the GNOME suite of tools and applications. It was in late 2010 that GNOME announced a drastic reworking of the GNOME Desktop released GNOME 3 in early 2011. This restructuring did not sit well with many and it touched off a firestorm in the Linux Community. Ubuntu responded by creating the Unity Desktop and Linux Mint countered GNOME 3’s radical interface with Cinnamon, a more traditional desktop experience. Both were based on GNOME 3 but offered very different functionalities. GNOME 2 was forked into the MATE project which maintained the traditional interface but continued development.
GNOME 3, and the many desktop environments based on it, have proven to be problematic. GNOME 3 was designed with late model computers in mind that have multi-core processors, accelerated graphics and substantial reserves of RAM. GNOME 3 uses animations, transparencies and other effects that tend to suck up processor power and can significantly slow down lesser hardware, robbing resources from applications and making for a shaky desktop environment. The basic GNOME Desktop is minimalist in nature. Most users find that the need to do a lot of tweaking to get it to facilitate the experience they want. Further functionality is provided through extensions that often break when the core desktop is updated. GNOME 3 proper tends to be offered on more advanced Linux distros like Fedora, Arch, and OpenSUSE.
On the other hand, MATE has proven to be very lightweight. It works well on older hardware and low-resource modern hardware like the Raspberry Pi. Running MATE on a modern machine, with lots of power under the hood, provides a stable and lightning fast computing experience. The MATE Desktop comes installed with everything needed to make it your own but there are thousands of themes and enhancements available that users can mix and match.
Putting the power of Ubuntu alongside the frugal and flexible MATE Desktop would be an attractive proposition in and of itself but Wimpy and his Band of Merry Developers have gone way beyond just plopping the stock MATE Desktop on top of Ubuntu. They have aggressively developed tools and tweaks that are unique to Ubuntu MATE, and in the process, they have literally turned the entire Linux ecosystem on its ear. They’re challenging long-held notions about how users usually get their systems installed and configured and they’re making it super easy to find and install the very latest in Linux software. All of this is on top of a rock-solid Ubuntu LTS base system.
Let’s break things down a bit and get to know Ubuntu MATE 16.04, shall we?
Installing Ubuntu MATE is very much like any other Ubuntu flavor. The Ubiquity Installer hasn’t changed much since Ubuntu 10.10 and what you are presented with when you boot it up is a MATE Desktop that looks and feels very much like the lauded Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat of yore. Long-time Ubuntu fans are sure to smile at that but the similarities between the two are only superficial. Ubuntu MATE 16.04 is very different under the hood. It starts with the Ubuntu MATE Welcome application at first boot and every one after if you do not opt to untick the box that switches automatic loading at startup off. The Welcome application is not just a cute little marketing ploy but acts as a gateway to all the tools you need to configure and customize your new operating system. You can also use it to gain access to the Software Boutique which we will discuss in greater detail later.
New users would benefit from a few moments spent reading through the Introduction and Features page. Of course, you can just click “Getting Started” too, if you’re in a hurry. You’ll be presented with an easy-to-follow menu that will let you install updates and drivers. You will also be able to download a comprehensive codecs package that makes the system able to work with most every kind of multimedia file out there. Clicking the Customization button takes you to the MATE Tweak Tool and offers a link to download a huge selection of desktop wallpapers. We’ll talk more about the MATE Tweak tool in a bit.
THE STAR OF THE SHOW
Clicking the Software button on the main Welcome page takes us to the most incredible tool provided in the entire system: The Software Boutique.
This wonderful application is Ubuntu MATE’s vision of an app store. It does NOT contain every piece of software available for Ubuntu but it represents a hand-picked selection of the most in-demand applications for Linux. A user can easily browse through the categories to fully flesh out the system in a very short time with just a few clicks. The magic of the Software Boutique lies in the way it obfuscates software sources and provides the same simple functionality for installing everything listed.
Most of the software on an Ubuntu system comes directly from the Ubuntu repositories but there are many applications that are only available through PPA’s or provided by third-party repositories. Google Chrome and Spotify are good examples of proprietary apps that lots of folks want to use but tend to be harder to get installed. Hooking up a PPA from a terminal or downloading and installing a .deb package to get software can be very confusing for new users and it’s a pain even for experienced Ubuntu veterans. The Software Boutique makes all of this super easy by automatically handling all those extra functions in the background. It also offers software outside of the main repositories, which means that folks don’t have to go hunting for it on the Internet. Spotify and Google Chrome are available for install with one click in the software Boutique along with many other desirable privately-maintained packages.
This obfuscation also means that the Boutique will dynamically change over time. Users are prompted to subscribe to updates when the Welcome app first comes up. This means that as the software changes so will your choices. Ubuntu 16.04 will be supported until 2021. That’s a long time, and two or three years down the road, many of the versions of the software in the main repositories will be rather stale. The official Ubuntu repos don’t change much. Many developers offer newer versions in PPA’s when they become available. The Software Boutique will be able to offer the ability to upgrade these with one click.
A real world example of this is LibreOffice. The version that ships with Ubuntu 16.04 is 5.1. So, let’s say you install 16.04 and a couple of years down the road LibreOffice comes out with version 6.0, that has a bunch of awesome new features and you want to take advantage of them. You will most likely not get that update through the official Ubuntu repos but the Software Boutique will offer a one click solution for adding a PPA to get the latest software from LibreOffice. What if you’re doing just fine with 5.1 and don’t want to change? No problem. Just leave it alone and you’ll still get security updates through Ubuntu.
Canonical is currently developing a new package system for Ubuntu called Snappy. It’s going to take a few years for it to come online but the Software Boutique will be able to allow you to install the new Snappy packages in exactly the same way when they start becoming available. The Software Boutique is happy to run alongside more traditional package managers like Synaptic and the new Ubuntu Software app. Those who want to take advantage of paid Ubuntu apps or have more control of their system will want to go to the “More Software” tab to install one or both of these package managers.
To be fair, Ubuntu MATE is not the first distro to offer an app that facilitates installing third-party software. Long-time Linux users will remember Fedora Plus and Linux Lite currently boasts the Lite Software app. The difference here is the level of polish the Ubuntu MATE team has brought to the concept and the kind of reliable performance that can only come from a great deal of thought and hard work. The Software Boutique is the rock star of the entire distribution.
One more thing before we move on: the Ubuntu MATE Welcome application is available in the main Ubuntu repositories and most of its functions will work just fine on any other flavor of Ubuntu. The Software Boutique is part of the main Welcome package called ubuntu-mate-welcome. Feel free to install it and look around.
TAKE TIME TO TWEAK
As I mentioned earlier, Ubuntu MATE 16.04 comes with a desktop layout that looks exactly like Ubuntu 10.10, but you don’t have to leave it like that. As a matter of fact, there are eight different standard layouts you can choose from with four different menu styles available. The tool that does this for you is MATE Tweak. Not only will it allow you to customize your interface, it also allows you to choose default desktop icons and your Window Manager. The layouts provided can be used as is or you can select one and then customize it further to be exactly what you want it to be. You can save your custom layout, so you can go back to it if you decide to poke around some more later on.
Changing the MATE desktop is quite easy. Right-clicking in an open space in the panel will allow you to add items to the panel or change things like the panel position, size transparency and more. You can move panel items like launchers and applets by right-clicking and first unlocking them and then selecting “move” from the drop down menu. Once you have it where you want it, just lock it in place. It takes a bit of getting used to but you’ll get the hang of it quick enough. The best part is that you can just use the MATE Tweak tool to put everything back to one of the presets if you totally screw it up.
What Window Manager you select is going to depend on your hardware and how many special effects you want on your desktop. The default at install is Marco with software compositing. You can also opt to use Marco with Compton GPU accelerated compositing and you can enable Compiz for advanced compositing effects or just turn compositing off entirely
Marco with compositing gives you very few effects but conserves system resources. Compiz opens the door to things like automatic thumbnail previews of running programs and animated application and desktop switching. Compiz can be flaky, so keeping it off may speed things up on older hardware. I found that Marco with Compton GPU Compositing worked best for me and I also turned off the animations but the performance with Compiz was perfectly acceptable even my oldest computer.
Ubuntu MATE comes with a standard set of Compiz effects enabled but if you’re more adventurous and would like to play around with it, you can install the CompizConfig Settings Manager (CCSM) and have at it. Be careful, though. Compiz is not for the faint of heart.
KEEP IT ALL UNDER CONTROL
The Ubuntu MATE Control Center brings everything together in one place that you’ll need to manage your computer. It has the usual settings apps you’re used to and more. I’m going to highlight just two of them here.
A pet peeve of mine has always been inadequate graphical tools for managing user accounts. I usually find myself having to open a terminal and issue bash commands to set passwords or modify user account information inferior GUI tools don’t cover. This is not the case at all in Ubuntu MATE.
The User’s Settings app allows an administrator to efficiently create, modify and remove users without any hassle at all. The About Me app lets users choose and avatar and change passwords from within their own accounts.
Setting up a basic firewall is made easy with Gufw. It comes installed and ready to go… All you have to do is activate it with the tool provided in the Control Center.
The Ubuntu MATE Control Center is comprehensive, but not overwhelming. Many Linux desktops aimed at average users provide limited settings menus that don’t include all the available tools that are installed. With Ubuntu MATE, you’ll find just about everything you need easily. Ubuntu MATE doesn’t have as many settings as you would find in KDE Plasma or OpenSUSE’s YaST application, but those options tend to be a bit overkill for the average user.
READY FOR THE FUTURE.
The MATE Desktop’s origins may go back a ways but development didn’t stop after it was forked from GNOME 2. Ubuntu MATE is ready to work with modern GTK and QT based apps and, unlike some current distributions, does a fantastic job of rendering modern GNOME 3 apps with client-side window decorations.
I made an offhand remark in a recent YouTube video I posted about Ubuntu MATE 16.04, where I said that one of the reasons I liked the Software Boutique was because I’m lazy. A viewer left a poignant comment in which he stated that Linux needed to be lazy if it was going to gain mass acceptance. The more I have thought about that the more I agree with him. Yeah, I could go and find all the PPA’s and .deb files to install everything but why should I have to? Why should I have to open a terminal and issue several intricate commands just to install Spotify? It never really bothered me much before but now that I’ve seen how easy the Software Boutique has made it, I would kinda feel put out if I had to go back to doing it the old way.
I have not been this excited about a Linux distro since I started using Ubuntu nearly ten years ago. I have always felt that the entire Linux ecosystem took a wrong turn in 2011 and we’ve all been trying to get back on track ever since. The introduction of GNOME 3 and the desktops that it spawned in reaction to it have proven to be innovative and divisive at the same time. Basically, we started over at version 1.0 and it’s taken five years to get back to where we were stability-wise in 2011. Ubuntu MATE seems to pick up where Canonical and GNOME left off, building on proven technology to focus efforts where they should have been all along: Stability, flexibility and user friendliness.
I have no reservations at all when I say that Ubuntu MATE is a great place to start for newcomers to Linux and it’s also a fine choice for more seasoned users as well. This is the only current distro that I would feel good about just handing an installer disk to a novice user and saying, “Have at it!” Yes, it’s that good. I strongly encourage you to check out Ubuntu MATE 16.04.