Updated: November 16, 2018
Time to continue our distro season testing. The volunteer what we got here is Ubuntu MATE 18.10. It's a very curious breed of system. It self-brands as a system for a retrospective future, and I tend to agree, because there's a mad, brilliant simplicity to the old Gnome 2 layout. And today, we must sample again.
Overall, I liked MATE Bionic, even though it had some problems. The basic idea is sound, there's a strong momentum of innovation in this distro, but like all small projects, it simply can't control everything, and this is where things go unfocused. Therefore, this review is of astronomic [sic] importance. Hi hi. And we shall also compare to Xubuntu Cosmic, recently tested, because it's a nice indication of how these two rather similar desktops behave, and whether there's consistency in the overall desktop. After me.
Booted fine. Quick, no frills, no text messages. The desktop comes with its signature gray-green theme, which is somewhat similar to what Linux Mint does, and what openSUSE used to do of yore. The old Gnome 2 desktop, with some modern tricks. Simple and efficient.
Look & feel
Not bad, but can be better. Livelier. It does feel more upbeat than Xubuntu, and it does give a more presentable view out of the box (like no internal volumes being shown). But notice the clock widget, for instance. It touches the right border, naughty, naughty.
You cannot pin apps to the top panel (favorites and desktop only). You can drag 'n' drop icons there. The system uses hard-coded English (UK) in the menus. But - the keyboard is actually US. You won't know it until you open a program that lets you write. And then the keyboard sysarea icon will change and show the locale too. And then disappear if you stop using a writing-capable program.
This makes the system area jiggle left and right, and it's visually distracting. I couldn't find a way to keep the locale toggled, or remove it altogether. I was forced to actually remove the entire icon. I've reported this in the Bionic review, and this still hasn't been resolved.
This was a weird one. Wireless worked fine, and the connection is super-fast. Samba, well. You get the smb.conf file, unlike Xubuntu, but it has no tweak for Windows 7, so 50% of all Windows boxes are off. You need to manually add the Samba configuration to be able to connect. Bluetooth did not work - failed to add device, but the UI is nicer than in its Xfce-flavored counterpart. Printing worked fine.
No ability to create VPN in the live session, though:
This worked reasonably well, but not without a few hitches. MP3 plays fine in VLC, cover art and all, but the system area icon is a bit odd. Not sure if this is by design. HD video playback was all right, but one time VLC launched without any controls, just the video itself. And the process would not die. I had to manually kill the player, and after that, things were fine again. Must be a glitch. Also, the mouse cursor disappears if you place it over the video area in VLC. Never saw this with other distros before.
There was a disappointing twist here. On the good side, Android and iPhone worked fine. There was a bogus message about iPhone lock error, but this happened in between connecting the device and making the computer trusted. So at most, you will see this only once (narrate Michelle, 'Allo 'Allo style).
With Windows Phone, something rather odd and bad happened. I was not able to connect my Windows Phones, neither Lumia 520 nor Lumia 950. The system was pinging like crazy, throwing messages in a loop, a good three dozen within a few seconds. The logs were full of error messages. This makes me sad. Because this is a regression, and this does not happen in other distros or flavors, ergo inconsistency. Even Xubuntu manages this fine.
[ 1100.636295] usb 2-3: new high-speed USB device number 10 using xhci_hcd
[ 1106.012379] usb 2-3: device descriptor read/64, error -110
[ 1111.516391] usb 2-3: unable to read config index 0 descriptor/start: -110
[ 1111.516403] usb 2-3: can't read configurations, error -110
[ 1111.644297] usb 2-3: new high-speed USB device number 11 using xhci_hcd
[ 1117.228331] usb 2-3: device descriptor read/64, error -110
[ 1122.860330] usb 2-3: device descriptor read/64, error -110
[ 1122.968345] usb usb2-port3: attempt power cycle
[ 1123.620283] usb 2-3: new high-speed USB device number 12 using xhci_hcd
[ 1123.648636] usb 2-3: New USB device found, idVendor=045e, idProduct=0a00, bcdDevice= 1.00
[ 1123.648642] usb 2-3: New USB device strings: Mfr=1, Product=2, SerialNumber=3
[ 1123.648647] usb 2-3: Product: Lumia 950 (RM-1104)
[ 1123.648651] usb 2-3: Manufacturer: Microsoft
[ 1123.648655] usb 2-3: SerialNumber: 123456789
[ 1128.668764] usb 2-3: can't set config #1, error -110
See what I did there? Anyway, there were some (space) oddities with Cosmic MATE (see what I did there!). For example, the Welcome screen did not show when I logged into the live session the first time, but it did show on subsequent logins. Then, the Welcome screen also has a scrollbar - this does not look pretty, and there's really no reason for a scrollbar when the total vertical equity is only an extra line more. Scrollbars make sense if there's a lot more content available than what is shown on the screen/window real estate.
That said, the Welcome wizard is really nice and helpful.
There were some other visual inconsistencies - if you remove the keyboard widget, there's an ever so slightly bigger gap between icons than before. I mentioned this with VLC, but it's true for other notification icons, they look and feel clunky, like the Caja copy indicator, for instance.
Cosmic MATE ships Firefox with its own startpage, which allows you to use either Google or DuckDuckGo - a new review coming soon. This is very neat. I did tweak Firefox, not to have the giant white space padding close to the navigation button and the extensions area. Never figured what that empty space is there for.
Fairly standard and uneventful. Quick, too, once you get the partitions scanned. This was awfully slow, almost fifteen minutes just to enumerate my sixteen partitions and eight operating systems. Language wise, the system offered En (US), but as we shall discover, the locale will override this based on timezone. Meh.
The installer also has a weird system area icon. Not sure if by design or not.
The slideshow is very pretty and informative. You get a lot of good info there, and the distro sells itself pretty well, although people already installing probably need less convincing. The only downside is that the installer has no refresh, so if you switch focus and come back, you may actually see the background image of whatever was under the installer window. This can alarm people, who may think it's stuck or frozen, but it's actually just a drawing/rendering artifact. Anyway, the multi-system setup completed fine, and I booted into the newly configured Mate Cuttlefish.
Le visual refresh thingie:
Time to use Cosmic MATE, see what gives. Again, there are differences compared to Xubuntu. Ubuntu MATE 18.10 loaded fast and quick, without any text messages. The desktop does not offer a Wireless connection, which is a shame, but it's at least consistent with its brethren, but it did not pop the update wizard, which is not consistent. There was no keyboard indicator anymore - but the language was set not to the locale I wanted.
The Welcome screen does come up here, and you will be asked to choose whether you want to send a telemetry report to the development team. Before you freak out, remember tons of distros did this as part of the installation process back in 2005-2010. Relax.
One of the most refreshing things about MATE is the level of unique changes that have gone into the desktop environment with version 1.20. Innovation is so rare in the Linux world nowadays, and it's always great to see smart, new ideas. MATE is on a roll, and you can change the desktop layout using MATE Tweak. You can go for Windows-like, Mac-like, Unity-like, old Gnome, whatever you choose. Very cool. I praised this in a dedicated article from a few months back called the Nifty Dozen, and this remains true with Cosmic. In fact, things have slightly improved since. Plus a mandatory bug and regression or two, of course. Can't have Linux without those.
If you go for a Mac-like layout, you'll have a dock (Plank), top panel with global menu, and a full-screen menu. Plank comes with preferences and high-res icons for its docklets, which is not the case in Xubuntu 18.10. But I couldn't figure out how to use Brisk in its non-full-screen mode with the Mac-like layout. Trying to add a new applet named Brisk just behaved like the other one.
I had a lot of fun tweaking the looks. Definitely one of the more pleasant exercises.
Package management & updates
Boutique has improved, from awesome to awesomer. It's faster, more responsive than in Bionic. The workflow is also a tad cleaner. This really is a nice and elegant package manager, and one of the stronger selling points of this distro. Feels like a proper store should. Updates worked fine (no early desktop prompt), but there were still some issues in the desktop regardless.
I looked at the ISO image size, and the MATE version is bigger than either KDE or Xfce versions. Ubuntu MATE comes at a hefty 2.1 GB weight, but I'm not sure if it brings a lot more on the app side. The arsenal is quite usable and practical, though. You have Firefox, Thunderbird, VLC, LibreOffice (all of it), Transmission, Cheese, and then some. You can get Skype, Steam, GIMP and the rest through Boutique. Quite all right.
Mixed. Much better audio support - I mentioned this for KDE neon and Xubuntu. Suspend & resume, no sweat. But then, I'm not sure about all those smartphone and network-related errors really. Feels like we're getting onto the hardware support rollercoaster again.
I also had the network glitch once - stopped responding for about a minute, and then came back. I've not had any issues with my Realtek Wireless since the days of kernel 4.8.7. I am not sure why this happened, but it sure doesn't make me happy, either. Touchpad was sweet, no issues - unlike Xubuntu. There are no proprietary drivers, so I'm not sure how the microcode firmware is handled and all that.
The Fn buttons all work fine - but there's no screen brightness indicator in the system area anywhere.
Resource usage, performance
The MATE desktop is indisputably fast. And it offered better, brisker performance than Xubuntu Cosmic. Things happen instantly. The laptop hard disk was cool, the fans didn't whir too much. The utilization numbers aren't enviable, but they don't negatively impact the responsiveness. The CPU ticked at a relatively high 2-3% on idle, and memory usage was about 750 MB. These are unusually anti-frugal numbers on their own.
Power management & battery life
Improved on some levels, not so on others. If you disconnect the external power source, the desktop dims right away. But it does not brighten up if you reconnect the charger. Weird. Battery usage was relatively high, or rather, Ubuntu MATE 18.10 only offered about 2.5 hours with light usage and 50% brightness, despite the very nice record on performance earlier. Might be the CPU noise. This translates into only about 3 hours taking the battery cell degradation into consideration, a good 30-40% less than what you get with Kubuntu, for instance. KDE still rules when it comes to Linux power management.
Problems & other observations
There were a few issues. Brisk crashed several times. The top panel also disappeared once or twice, including once while trying to switch a layout. I tried restarting the MATE session, and even re-configured Ctrl + Alt + Backspace combo, but this didn't really work, and only a full reboot helped. I don't know why - this happened with the latest set of updates, mind. The panel issue also prevented me from using the Mutiny layout - there was only the side launcher but no top panel. The other layouts worked just fine.
The LibreOffice close file without saving prompt is ugly (the stop sign icon needs re-positioning).
The Skype icon does not integrate that well in the system area:
If you try to Save As a file with Firefox, the file dialog shows different partitions but not your home directory shortcuts, like Downloads, Documents and others. The mouse cursor in the login screen and the one on the desktop aren't the same. The desktop one also changed once or twice randomly.
There is no screenshot overwrite prompt. It just happens.Oh, the language thingie - the keyboard is US, the language not US. Why oh why.
No integration between apps and services. Nothing remotely online. This is a 100% classic desktop. Well, not true. There's a Caja Dropbox plugin in the startup items for the session, but I'm not sure how it works, and why Dropbox is more important than the dozen other cloud storage providers.
Well, this may sound like a small thing, but in Pluma, the text editor, if you open a file, the cursor will actually focus on the last position you held it the last time before saving. Not sure if this is intentional, but it sure is a nice gesture.
Firefox handled session cycles beautifully and restored tabs without asking any questions.
Le final desktop looks
Here we are, after a couple of hours of trimming and polishing things:
We mentioned consistency, remember? Well, in this regard, Ubuntu MATE is consistent. Lots of tiny visual bugs, average battery life, an occasional crash or three, and network connectivity issues. These were my top complaints with Beaver and they remain so with Cuttlefish. Ubuntu MATE 18.10 is more or less identical to its LTS predecessor. The changes aren't really big, with some extra hardware problems - the phone side is a big, big disappointment, but you get better overall theming and a more streamlined package manager.
I would like to see this project succeed, but the energy investment from going hobby to pro is exponential, and it can't be done easily. But this is exactly what Ubuntu MATE needs. A super-strong QA process, and more focus on getting things tightly integrated. Power management is another issue. In the end, you should stay with the LTS edition of course, but hopefully, the problems we see here will be resolved in the next version. This reminds me of the situation Xfce was in two years ago. Gaining momentum, becoming better, and then ... we'll see.
Because, speaking of energy, there does seem to be a limited, finite amount of it, and the mojo pendulum seems to have swung away from Xfce to MATE. There are a lot of excellent and unique new ideas in this project, but the glue (gluons in nuclear physics, if you will) isn't strong enough. Grade, about 7/10. I really want to see everything working like clockwork. Having a modern, majestic Gnome 2 reincarnate would be super fun. Take care, Borgians.