Ubuntu MATE 19.04 Disco Dingo - Order and chaos

Updated: June 1, 2019

We commence to continue the distro testing. Among the Dingo pack, we sampled Kubuntu and Xubuntu, both of which proved to be rather solid. A cautious yet optimistic beginning of the spring season. Which means it is time to cast our critical eye upon the MATE edition, the stalwart defender of the classic desktop formula, the protector of yore, and perhaps a useful desktop system should all the chakras and technical details align.

MATE Cosmic was decent, with some excellent areas here, horrible areas there, mediocre spots in between, and a good reasonable mix of qualities everywhere else. I remain pleased with the fabulous Boutique package manager and the overall momentum, plus you get lots of freedom in how to customize the desktop. Now though, we must see if and how Disco changes the balance. Tested on my eight-boot Lenovo G50. After me.

Teaser

Live session

Started fine, no issues. The desktop comes with a familiar gray-green theme that has been Gnome 2 signature color duo since ancient times. You get the classic layout formula plus the Brisk menu launcher. The system hasn't changed much in the past few releases, so in a way, it has a similar approach to Linux Mint. I am also immensely happy that the notifications align so well in the top-right corner, because many systems go for asymmetric margins, and this makes my OCD demons itch.

Live desktop

Notifications

You also have the powerful MATE Tweak tool, which lets you change the desktop layout quickly and easily. This was introduced in version 1.20, and I was quite pleased with all the different options. You can even emulate the Unity style, if you like, plus you get an integrated dock and HUD. Sweet.

MATE Tweak

Network connectivity

Worked fine. Almost perfect, and better than I expected. Wireless, alles klar herr kommissar. Bluetooth was an odd one. I got an instant pairing request from the phone, which had the laptop's MAC address saved from previous distro tests, and this worked fine, but the wizard ran separately from the desktop pairing attempt, and so it failed, because the two devices had already paired. The UI is similar to Xubuntu's, and it's not a pretty one. Way way outdated. Finally, I couldn't browse the device filesystem.

Bluetooth browsing error

Samba was a positive surprise - it worked, without ANY tweaks, more like Fedora 30, but unlike either Kubuntu or Xubuntu of the Disco crop, which didn't even have the samba-common package installed. So we're back in the game of consistency. But hey, I had my connectivity, it was brisk, so no complaints. Printing also worked without issues, including both Wireless and Samba devices.

Printers

Multimedia

No problems. HD video and MP3 playback. Noice. I am not so sure about the VLC system area icon, though.

HD video

MP3 playback

VLC icon

Smartphone support

No problems. All the brands worked well - Android, iPhone (iOS) and Windows Phone. I did get an error with iPhone, but only because it was locked when I connected it. All of the devices mounted instantly, including the little Aquaris that was a bit tardy in the other distros. No beef. Lovely jubbly. This was a giant problem in Cosmic, and I'm glad it's been resolved and then amped to excellence.

Android

iPhone

Windows Phone

Other things

Well, there wasn't much else happening - except the keyboard indicator. I've complained about this issue time and again, and it still remains super annoying. The actual locale code (e.g. us, es, etc) does not show until you access a writable application. Then, it pops up and displaces the icons to the left by about 3-4 mm, and this can happen a dozen times in a minute, making for a visually jarring experience. Why not reserve padded space where the text would show, or better yet, show it all the time!

I tried to close the indicator, and the entire desktop got stuck. As in, not responding to my mouse clicks, although the music continued playing in the background just fine. I had to access one of the virtual consoles as the desktop restart shortcut isn't enabled, figure out the ubuntu-mate user login, and then HUP the MATE panel process. So unnecessary.

I also wasn't too happy about the fonts - they felt a bit pale and fuzzy for some reason. Some of the apps were using a dark theme, so this feels like an inconsistency, similar to what we've seen in Gnome 3. We will check the aesthetic angle after we setup Disco.

Installation

Nothing remarkable, for better or worse. The partition discovery remains slow. I was able to listen to Simple Minds - Don't You Forget About Me and Dire Straits - Money for Nothing (the full, extended version) before the wizard moved its needle. Then, there was the second partition scan, which also wasted a few extra precious seconds. The slideshow is simple, a bit bland. The setup took about 30 minutes overall.

Partitions

Slide 1

Slide 2

The way I'm Disco dancing

So I had the distro installed. No errant text messages polluting the boot screen. The GRUB menu is pale. My Wireless network configuration was preserved. The keyboard indicator was nowhere to be found. Small inconsistencies here and there, 'twould seem.

Installed

Package management & updates

I didn't get the update prompt right away. It took about ten minutes for the updates to show up. Quite odd, because other distros in the family typically notify you right away. Ah well, no matter. I remain quite impressed with Boutique. This is a superb store-like frontend, and it's improved since I last reviewed it. The interface is snappier, the search works better, and I was able to find all the different apps I needed without having to wander off to the wider Web. You can bulk queue programs, and they will be installed for you with nice little notifications firing off in the top right corner ever so OCD-ily tucked away.

Bulk queue

And the updater showed up eventually:

Updater

Applications

The default collection is ok - Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, VLC, Transmission, Rhythmbox. You also get a handful of MATE-specific programs, like the text editor, file manager and alike. Reasonable, but then, Ubuntu MATE has the luxury of not having the best arsenal because because it has the best and most appealing package manager of them all. So nothing too fancy to share here.

Apps

Rhythmbox has the truncated search box if you resize it.

Customization ... and many problems

Things went rather pear-shaped when I started changing the system layout to my liking. Lots of little bugs surfaced, which I had not expected. So far, the session had been quite nice. First, I tried the different layouts available through MATE Tweak. I really liked this - you can try classic desktop formula, Unity-like layout, Mac-like layout, Gnome 2 traditional stuff, and so forth. But most of these were incomplete.

For instance, Mutiny comes with a 66px-wide vertical bar. If you make it smaller, the menu icon and the app icons don't align in size. Vertical scroll is impossibly slow, it takes a good two seconds for the hidden icons to show, and you shouldn't click, just hover, otherwise you'll launch the wrong app. Cupertino was missing the top panel.

Mutiny layout

Inconsistent icons

Window buttons in the Mutiny layout are too small, and not well positioned.

One of the setups had global dock. Sounds great. Except some apps didn't have a menu at all, like GIMP. And after I removed this applet, the menu didn't show up in individual app windows, it was just gone. I was forced to try a different layout to restore it. In the end, I had to manually create my own setup - Familiar, delete bottom panel, add dock.

GIMP, no global menu

The global menu shows desktop entries not GIMP; yes, 'tis the active window.

Then, I had Brisk crash on me. Speaking of Brisk, the menu is not resizable, so you end up with ugly scrollbars, and you can't do much about it. In the end, I removed it, used Advanced MATE Menu, which has a rich preferences section, and had it configured just the way I like it. Brisk also uses a hard-coded Imperial English Favourites entry, which changeth not regardless of your English locale - and yes, you get whatever locale is closest, so even if you go for En (US) keyboard, you may still be annoyed if you select Canada, South Africa or perhaps UK. Or even Hong Kong. I mean there's a REASON why I selected the US keyboard, and there's no reason why the operating system should presume to know better than me what language I want.

Brisk crashed

Brisk

Advanced menu tweaks

Advanced menu

After logging out during the tweaking, I suddenly had the Welcome screen pop up. I have mentioned this in the past. The Welcome screen does not show up on the first very login (i.e. start of the installed session), so you get it the second time you step into your desktop. Clumsy.

Welcome screen

The dock also gave me lots of grief. It wouldn't show all the icons - Chrome just wasn't there. I had to log out and log back in to get everything to display. Quite buggy. I then had Plank suddenly lose both transparency and zoom effect. Instead of having nice icons with black text tooltips ripple up and down under my mouse cursor, it was a static bar, the theming was all wrong, trying to manually create a settings file did nothing. Reading online, in the Ubuntu MATE forums, a few people had the issue, never resolved. The best suggestion was to use Docky, but it ain't there no more! Well, I fixed it.

Chrome not showing in the dock

Chrome is open, but it ain't showing.

No transparency

No transparency in the dock.

Video tearing & Plank

During the testing, I noticed all Youtube videos were tearing - horizontal lines that made everything look wrong. Again, reading in the official forums, I found a compton fix suggestion, which I added. To wit, this command is there to make your video look all nice and proper.

compton --backend glx --paint-on-overlay --vsync opengl-swc

But do note you won't find compton in Boutique! So the lovely package manager only gives you a curated list of software, meaning you can't necessarily rely on it to find all you need, and this means using other package managers or the command line, and this actually diminishes the value of Boutique. You need apt-get.

No compton package in Boutique

This indeed fixed the videos and broke Plank. I realized the Plank going static on me was caused by the command I've added to the session startup. After I removed it, the dock regained its transparency and zoom jiggle. So I had to decide what I'd like to compromise more on - the continuous desktop use or the occasional media. But then, the solution is to simply use something else that has none of these issues, right. Besides, why would this be a problem here when it's not in either Kubuntu or Xubuntu. The underlying kernel and modules and whatnot are identical. So there must be something in the desktop environment.

Eventually, I made progress. But it was tedious.

WIP 1

WIP 1

WIP 2

WIP 3

And le finale de looks:

Final looks

Hardware compatibility

Something odd happened. My Wireless disconnected after a few minutes of usage. This happened only once, and I wasn't able to figure out why or how, but it's weird. Not since the dark days of Realtek disconnects on this laptop that I've seen this or anything similar resurface.

wlp2s0: deauthenticating from 11:22:33:44:55:66 by local choice (Reason: 3=DEAUTH_LEAVING)

Resource usage

On idle, fresh after reboot, the memory stands at 750 MB, a wee high, and CPU ticks at about 3.5%, which might be a smidgen high. There's also some responsiveness penalty if I compare to a typical Xfce or Plasma session. I know MATE can do be better, so this would be a matter of further optimization. Not bad at all, but there are some gremlins in the works somewhere.

Resource usage

Power management & battery usage

Solid, methinks. If you unplug the cable, the brightness drops to 50% right away, and dims further if you are inactive, and if you plug the power back in, it goes to 100%. Now, the proof is in the pudding. So the earlier responsiveness thingie got me thinking. When I removed the power source, I got a prompt for a rather ambitious 57+ hours time, and I love this kind of innocent buglets. With light activity and 50% brightness, the system had about 2 hours juice (add 50% to that due to battery cell deterioration), and it still comes out way less than what Xfce and Plasma systems do, indeed. So the numbers don't lie. I did see a slightly better estimate with zero activity, but then even tiny amount of work gets the needle down.

Battery indicator estimate glitch

Battery usage

Some niggles

While most of Ubuntu MATE has improved, there are still a lot of little bugs and issues everywhere. For example, the authentication icon in the system area seems cropped - like VLC but not in such a deliberate and nice way.

Cropped icon

Fonts, I mentioned fonts - they are a bit pale. No fonts category in the Control Center - this is done under Appearance, but if you don't know the trick, you might be stuck. Changing anti-aliasing and hinting was really weird. Drastic font changes. Alas, you need to log back out to see the effects. Very odd. But at least you can save custom themes, including background image and notification setup.

No Fonts in MATE Control Center

Caja (file manager) did not resize columns via double-click. Windows borders are not easy to resize either, as the invisible handles are too thin to grab. The touchpad was a little annoying, so I had to turn the taps off.

The biggest problem was - GRUB2 updates. I ran it a week or so after I had MATE installed, as I've made a change in one of the other distros on the host (Fedora), and since Disco was in charge of the boot sequence, I needed to update the menu to reflect the use of new kernels in the Fedora. This update failed. Ubuntu MATE threw a whole bunch of errors. I then booted into Kubuntu 18.04, had it take over the boot sequence, and the update worked flawlessly.

Conclusion

Ubuntu MATE 19.04 Disco Dingo is a somewhat bi-polar release. It's got a lot of goodies and many improvements, notably Samba support and smartphone support, plus Boutique looks and behaves better than ever. The performance and battery life can be better. But the big issue is customization. There are way too many layouts, which are all good and nice for the end user, for the dev team to manage effectively. With six or seven permutations, lots of little things can go wrong - and they did.

I had to fight the dock, the menu, the global menu, the positioning of the panels, the fonts, all of it really. Shame, because Ubuntu MATE brings a lot of innovation, but it doesn't gel. Then, hardware glitches. Video tearing, the Wireless disconnect. Not something I've seen with the rest of the bunch. All in all, this is a reasonable interim release, but it feels chaotic. Worth testing, and you'll probably find it in line with Cosmic. Something like 6.5-7/10. Once the problems get resolved, it could really be a cushty one. Just look at how MX Linux progressed over the last years. So there. Testing, testing, one two dingo.

Cheers.

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