Ubuntu MATE is a heavyweight among the lightweight distributions

ubuntu mate 2014

The default Ubuntu Mate desktop.

Usually it’s hard to impress a KDE user who runs Arch Linux

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What kind of operating system would you run on your PC? One that hogs resources leaving you with just enough to do your work or one that ‘glides’ over the resources leaving almost everything for you to use?

I would certainly choose the latter. And if I ran a business, where a penny saved is a penny earned, I would be even more conservative about it.

I use Arch Linux with KDE Plasma on my main machine. This combination gives me a fully optimized base OS with a desktop environment (DE) that is known for being the most feature-rich.

However, I am always on the lookout for a DE that can run efficiently on less-powerful  (aka less expensive) hardware, with an easy to manage OS.

I have tried almost every lightweight DE out there and most of them are not that “light”. Those that are actually light have shed way too many features to remain useful for a casual user. One thing that’s consistent across these DEs is that they remind me of Windows 95: They look boring, and ugly.

When the Ubuntu MATE team announced 14.04 LTS last week they had my attention.

Is this the MATE you were looking for?

The distro was co-founded by a UK-based Arch Linux developer Martin Wimpress who wanted to create an Ubuntu flavor of the desktop he liked. While most of the groundwork was done by him, he received a substantial amount of support from Ubuntu developers. I spoke with Martin and Alan Pope, a Canonical employee and Ubuntu developer who is involved with the project, to better understand the goals behind this project. Talking about support from Ubuntu developers, Alan told me that they helped, "In terms of sponsoring packages into the archive, and providing guidance and advice.”

You may be curious, as I was, why it is called Ubuntu MATE 14.04 and not 14.11. Doesn't that contradict the Ubuntu nomenclature, which includes the year and the month of release? The answer is simple: Ubuntu MATE developers always wanted the 14.04 LTS release so that they could offer long term support to their users. “If we called it something like 14.11 LTS it would confuse people. People know “14.04 is the LTS,” explained Alan.

That makes perfect sense. If I were an enterprise customer planning to deploy Ubuntu MATE, I would certainly look for the latest LTS release. I wouldn't bother with something called 14.11! That 11 doesn’t belong in Ubuntu family; it’s either 04 or 10.

Who needs lightweight distribution in the era of 12 core CPUS?

We tend to undermine lightweight distributions assuming that they are meant for low-end hardware. That’s not the case.

As I said in the beginning, it makes no sense that your OS hogs most of your computer's resources. You buy hardware for yourself and not for your OS.

A lightweight distribution works for everyone. Yes, it certainly works on older, less powerful hardware. If you have an old PC, with Pentium III 750-megahertz CPU and mere 512MB of RAM, sitting in your garage, MATE will run on it the way a hot knife runs through butter; you can use it as your media server or donate it to charity instead of dumping it into recycling. It makes even more sense if you are a power user or a gamer, because you certainly don’t want your OS to use the lion’s share of your hardware resources.

As Alan rightly said, "MATE is a “real boy” desktop environment that preserves your system resources for your applications and browser."

Martin claims that MATE is growing in popularity among Linux gamers who want a desktop operating system that can run Steam for example. He stated,“Some users are reporting significant frame rate gains running MATE without a compositor compared to other composited desktops.”

A perfect mate for enterprise customers
“MATE is appealing not only to individuals looking for efficient desktops, it has great appeal for enterprise customers who want to use resources more efficiently. There are enterprises who want a lean desktop for remote desktop use cases. MATE provides a lean, familiar, highly customisable interface for them,” said Alan.

Martin claimed that “MATE is extremely popular with organizations deploying remote terminal services at scale using solutions such as X2Go. One of the objectives of Ubuntu MATE is to seamlessly integrate with remote terminal solutions such as X2Go.”

He then pointed out how MATE is positioned better than Unity, Cinnamon or Gnome 3 to address this. “Ubuntu MATE, does not require a compositor which means MATE is well suited to remote terminal solutions. GNOME3 (regardless of mode), Cinnamon and Unity all require a compositor and therefore not first choice desktop for remote terminal deployments.”

He has spent quite some time with the X2Go developers working on how MATE will evolve to eventually offer "out of the box" X2Go integration rather than relying on third party tools. “As good as GNOME Classic/Flashback is, it doesn't provide the full range of features available in the mate-panel and mate-applets that many people still really like,” he said.

There are a lot of organizations who are still running Windows XP and they need to migrate to some supported operating system. Alan said, "Enterprises are expressing keen interest in an official flavour of Ubuntu which features a lean, supported and familiar user interface. Charities are planning to use Ubuntu & MATE in place of Window XP for refurbished computers."

Isn’t it old?
I have only two worries regarding Ubuntu MATE -- its code base and status as an Ubuntu flavor.

MATE is a fork of Gnome 2. Should I trust a project which is based on obsolete code-base? Martin addressed my concerns and explained, “MATE is the continuation of GNOME2, over the last few years all the useless forks have been removed from it and been re-aligned with newer technologies from the GNOME foundation.”

MATE supports other newer technologies such as systemd, GTK2 and even GTK3. In fact Martin maintains a MATE repository where the complete DE is built against GTK3. “Adding support for Wayland is on the Roadmap,” added Alan.

As far as it’s status as an Ubuntu flavor is concerned the team tried to get it done with 14.10 cycle but they ran out of time and resources. Instead of rushing into things they decided to wait for the next cycle. Alan said, “We expect to cover the necessary requirements to be an official flavor in the 15.04 cycle. Possibly as soon as next month.”

I have tried Xfce, LXDE and many other light-weight DEs and there is a reason why I am not using any of them; they don’t appeal to me out of the box. I found MATE to be the most feature-rich yet visually appealing lightweight DE.

I don’t know if I am going to cheat on my good old KDE Plasma desktop, but I am certainly going to install MATE alongside Plasma on my main system. It will be interesting to do a side by side comparison to see if MATE can deliver the promise that Plasma has made to me.

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