Updated: July 1, 2013
Here's the third review of the Linux Mint Olivia family. We already had two reviews of the Cinnamon version, one on a rather generic laptop with Intel graphics, plus SSD, and the other on a slightly more complex box featuring Nvidia graphics and Broadcom Wireless. So far, Olivia has shown really awesome results, near perfect in almost every sense of the way.
Let's see what the MATE version can do. The last time I tested MATE, I did an in-vivo installation on top of an existing Cinnamon installation, and this kind of robbed the environment of some of its spicier details. Therefore, for this round, we will do a proper test, starting with the live session and a separate installation. We will be using the T61 laptop for this review. Now, follow me.
Live session & installation
I will skip some of the details, naturally. You will just have to trust me they work just as well as in the Cinnamon edition. Anyhow, the desktop is quite pretty, with its silvery theme, almost identical to its more culinary sister. However, I must admit the first time the session loaded, it kind of stopped responding after a few minutes, and I was forced to restart the X Server to get things going again.
Look & feel
MATE is essentially Gnome 2, with some extra perks. You get a handsome system menu, a refined file manager and a polished and well arranged Control Center for managing your settings. The effort to make the two distinct versions feel the same is evident, and this attempt is quite commendable.
You can also tweak the desktop to your liking without having to use nerdy tools like the gconf-editor. You will get fine with simple GUI applets that will take care of the problems for you.
Almost everything else was peachy at this point, Wireless and Samba sharing, which was snappy all right. Multimedia codecs were all there, and the system was fully usable out of the box. So indeed, we move to the installation stage. For now, there is not that much to tell, but worry not, we will get there.
There was one niggle though. The screenshot utility would not remember the last location for saved screenshots, and it would always presented me with a blank drop down menu, so I had to re-choose the home directory or the Pictures folder every time. Then, for some reason, I was not successful in saving files directly to remote shares.
Went well, without a fuss. Quad-boot setup, no worries.
So here we are, in the installed desktop. So far so good.
Le problems de started when I tried to update the system. The first repository refresh warned me that some of the indexes were just broken. The interesting part is that the system complained about 32-bit packages, even though I was using a 64-bit operating version. Now, don't go down the noob highway please, and assume that I am somehow confused about any of this. Yes sometimes you do need 32-bit stuff for 64-bit systems, regardless, and for some reason, the default repo did not have everything.
W: Failed to fetch http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu/dists/olivia-updates/restricted/
binary-i386/Packages 404 Not Found [IP: 126.96.36.199 80]
I fixed the problem by using the Software Source tool and changing the mirror. Once this was done, the updates completed smoothly and precisely. But it's a shame that this kind of omission crept into the distro.
Some other issues
One more thing I did not quite like is that panel editing was not as posh as I would have hoped for. For example, when trying to shuffle icons around and such, you can see the color gradient in the right-click options, and this is not a pleasant effect.
Then, there was a rather naughty issue with Firefox and a few other programs and tools. The thing is, like the Cinnamon edition, even though I specified English as my language of choice, the locale was set to whatever region I had selected during the installation. We will have a tutorial on this, but never mind that now. Anyhow, I decided to change the locale and used the gedit text editor to achieve this. When I launched the program from the command line, my current working directory was my home, and with sudo, the permissions on the hidden .gnome directory were changed to root ownership.
Afterward, trying to change the desktop theme or fire up the browser, .gnome was not accessible for writing to either of these programs, and the subsequent startup failed, without any visible messages. I had to try to recreate the problem from the command line to figure out what gives, and after that, the solution was simple. But this is something that must be avoided at all costs, by design.
Naturally, a must with any distro test, I tried a bunch of new wallpapers and themes to see what gives. I have to admit I found a lovely theme called Elegant Brit, which comes with blue-orange-gray motifs, and it's quite splendid.
The program arsenal is quite similar to what you've seen on Cinnamon, so this will not be driving your decision. Again, like the other edition of Mint 15, there's the slight issue of icons not fitting well into the system area, but this is unrelated to the software you use. Indeed, on the list, LibreOffice, GIMP, VLC, Firefox, Thunderbird, Pidgin, and friends, plus a lot of good stuff just waiting for you in the official repositories.
You can say a lot of things about MATE, but you can't fault its speed. Even the boot sequence was extremely fast, maybe even faster than the 8-second record I have seen with Xubuntu on this model. Then, the memory usage was about 300MB or less, compared to 350MB for Cinnamon on this very hardware, alongside snappy response and a quiet CPU behavior. All in all, quite impressive, and a solid trim from previous versions, where we saw a reversal of figures, in favor of Cinnamon.
Stability and such
Apart from the several glitches mentioned earlier, Linux Mint 15 Olivia MATE was stable and robust, although not as good as Cousin Cinny. Here's another movie pun. If you get this, mail away. Ahem, yes. Suspend & resume also worked fine.
Linux Mint 15 Olivia MATE is a very good distro, only, unfortunately, not quite as good as the Cinnamon flavor. Flavor, hihihi. For some reason, I had more troubles and niggles than with the other edition, including a desktop seizure early in the live session, missing repos, home permissions, and some visual warts. Nothing too dramatic, but for a distribution that must dabble in perfection, these ought to be fixed, vanished, gone.
Overall, you will not go wrong with MATE, but in the spring edition of Linux Mint, it's simply not the best implementation you have seen in your life as a geek. Grade wise, in this incarnation, Olivia deserves about 8.5/10. Maybe I am being too harsh, or perhaps too generous, but that's how it is. Anyhow, worth a try, especially if you like things simple.