Updated: November 20, 2019
How is an ermine different from a martel or a beaver? Je ne sais quoi, the French would say, but good news! We can discover how different Eoan Ermine is from Disco Dingo, and/or other Linux distributions out there in the wild. Commencing the autumn season of testing, joy, tribulation and unknowns, we begin with the MATE edition of the family.
Now, some notes ere we begin. I happen to know the head honcho of the MATE project, but this familiarity shall not be affecting the outcome of this review in any shape or form or whatnot. Furthermore, I did dabble some in the beta version of Ubuntu MATE and provided some feedback on the rough edges here and there, which again, is something you should know in advance. All that said, my Lenovo G50 laptop with its plethora of partitions and installed systems is about to receive a new one. Let's do it.
I grabbed the 2.2 GB ISO from the official site, etched it, and off we go. The system booted cleanly, without any random messages polluting the splash sequence. The desktop comes in the typical MATE green and gray. Not bad, but a bit bland, and the font contrast can be somewhat better. Looking around, Ermine does look a tad sharper. For instance, the pesky keyboard indicator is gone. Overall, some of the papercuts have been pruned, the rough edges polished.
The notifications work quite well. Clean and simple. But then, while copying files to a network share, I noticed that the Caja icon in the system area was too big. The system menu comes with no favorites by default, so when you launch it, you'll see 'Sorry, no items found' in the right pane, which can feel a bit odd. Moreover, the clear text icon comes in gray on gray, so I guess some theming is missing perhaps.
Very good. Wireless, no sweat. Samba sharing - fast and elegant, and I didn't need to make any tweaks to be able to connect to Windows shares. Printing also works great, both Wireless and Samba - the only negative thing is the alpha border that seems to affect some but not all applications. This makes clean screenshots more difficult, because whatever is in the background gets included in the images. Bluetooth also worked. In fact, my phone already had the MAC address of the laptop stored, so it initiated a pairing prompt. No issues, but the actual Bluetooth setup wizard didn't seem to be aware of this, so naturally, the "second" pairing failed, but this is a bogus message. All in all, quite all right.
Again, no complaints. MP3 and HD video, solid. Well, you get those borders again. And if GNOME MPV is running, when you double-click a new file (say a new song) from the file manager, you'll see a message that reads 'Opening file...' show in the bottom panel for a few seconds. Feels rather unnecessary, I think. You also get no system area integration, which is why we're gonna be using VLC after the installation.
Three out of three - Android, iPhone, Windows Phone. I was able to copy and delete files on the first and the former, naturally not on the Apple device, because PTP, duh. There was one bug - Lumia 950 was listed correctly in the sidebar, but not in the address bar, where it read Lumia 520. How naughty. To be fair, both Windows 8 and Windows 10 incorrectly list this same phone, but there's no reason to aim low.
A rather standard affair. Ubuntu MATE 19.10 does pretty much the same thing as the last dozen Ubuntu releases. Simple, straightforward. Now, on my 16-partition machine, the actual disk scan and discovery is ultra-slow, about 10 minutes, and then you lose even more seconds any time you mark or change any particular partition.
You also get experimental ZFS support, but this meant destroying everything else on my disk, and I didn't want to do that. Once I've chosen the right root device, the actual installation started, complete with a reasonably pretty slideshow. The whole process took about 40 minutes, with the GRUB setup being the longest. But once this was done, the system was configured all correct like. Time to dive in some moar.
Brewing the tea, sipping the drink
The installed distro booted fine - still no ugly text messages polluting the startup sequence. Really nice. The Wireless connection was preserved. Unfortunately, the Welcome screen doesn't come up until the second login, an old issue, and the language setup was odd - I had a non-US version selected, which is annoying. But then, switching to En (US), the Favorites section in the menu still remains hard-coded to the Old Empire dialect.
Package management & updates
Solid. Boutique is quite handy. While the workflow can be a little improved - search auto refresh and such, it works splendidly. The friendliest user interface for software management in Linux. One utility that lets you get all your stuff. Promptly, I installed Chrome - Firefox remains the default, mind - VLC, Steam, Skype, GIMP, and maybe one or two more. You do see the install progress window, which mars the smoothness of the process, but in the end, you have all the applications you need. Nice. There were some updates - not many, and they didn't actually fix any bugs that I encountered early on in the session. More about that later.
This remains both the strong side and the Achilles' Heel of Ubuntu MATE. The nifty MATE Tweak lets you customize your layouts like mad - you got roughly a dozen options, including top and bottom panels, global menu, sidebar - AKA Munity like Unity in Ubuntu, Cupertino style and then some. But this super-freedom brings complexity. Most notably, switching between layouts, Brisk would crash. All too frequently. And then, it would still crash occasionally. The aforementioned updates didn't fix the problem.
I settled for the Cupertino look - and it works fine. Plank now behaves well, it's much more consistent and stable than what we saw in Dingo, but then, it still did crash once. The preferences menu comes with its own weird styling, fatter window decorations, fatter alpha border and such like. The top panel was also showing up as an unpinned item in Plank, and this was rather jarring. I was able to get rid of the artifact by unselecting and then selecting unpinned apps in the Behavior subsection. More work to be done for sure.
I then found out that not all applications integrate well into the system area. This is an old one, and while the MATE team has done a lot of work to fix this - part of the big beta announcement, too - it ain't perfect. VLC now shows correctly, but Skype does not.
Anyway, after some fiddling and tweaking, I had a pretty tight desktop:
The default collection is reasonable, but nothing too astounding. You get Firefox, Transmission, LibreOffice, Cheese, loads and loads of utilities and helper tools, and then some. OK, but can be livelier and more colorful. Luckily, Boutique really helps in this regard.
There are three sides to this coin. The numbers aren't that great - the CPU idles at about 3%, which is quite high, and with memory usage of about 800 MB, this is almost double the typical KDE distro. But then, the system is very responsive. Super fast. And it also comes with a fast boot sequence, among the fastest I've seen on this laptop with its 5,400rpm mechanical hard disk.
Startup finished in 6.054s (firmware) + 2.751s (loader) + 5.336s (kernel) + 25.830s (userspace) = 39.972s
graphical.target reached after 25.806s in userspace
Hardware compatibility, suspend & resume
No issues here either. Another cool element - fast sleep and wake, which goes hand in hand with the earlier observation. It took only about one second for the machine to suspend and only about the same time to wake, and the moment I entered the lock screen password, the system was up, including the Wireless connection.
Alas, the swift, brisk behavior does not extend to juice conservation. While the power management is good and aggressive and all - just unplug the power cord, and it instantly dims the screen to 50%, with only light usage, the system showed just two hours. This needs to normalized to a healthy, full cell, so with an extra 50% charge that a new battery would have, this is still only 3 hours, well behind the ~4 hours results we had for several other distros.
Ubuntu MATE 19.10 Eoan Ermine is a good distro. Not perfect, but it's better than Dingo in many regards. Lots of the old woes have been removed, squashed, fixed, and in fact, the make-it-perfect tutorial I wrote for the spring release is in fact no longer required. A promising start.
But there were troubles, of course. Most of them stem from the over-complicated visual setup, and there's really no reason for so many configurations. Three layouts would be more than sufficient for all practical purposes, and they would make testing and QA so much easier. Indeed, Brisk and Plank were the chief offenders. The performance is good, the battery life can be better, the default app selection can be more exciting, and there are some niggles here and there, like inconsistent borders, icons and alike. Now, if you're after MATE, Ermine delivers a much more cohesive experience than 19.04. So you should definitely consider and test. Overall, something like 8.5/10. Not the greatest of heart and mind grabbers, as mentioned, but I see a solid, positive trend, and that's rather promising. A freedom of choice is always great. Thus endeth this review.