Ubuntu MATE 20.04 Focal Fossa - Roll on for the mystery tour

Updated: May 20, 2020

It is time to embark on another distro testing adventure. This spring season, I've tested Kubuntu and then Xubuntu of the Focal flavor, and they gave me distinctly different results, which always worries and saddens me, because consistency is what empires are built upon. And that makes today's test even more important. We shall sample from the MATE's corner now.

Overall, Ubuntu MATE has behaved okay in the past few years. It has an established identity, it's getting friendlier by the release, and it comes with some rather unique features, a refreshing departure from the rubberstamp slog that is the Linux desktop nowadays. But then, 'tis LTS now, so everything must be super-green. And given the distros select colors, it's only expected. Let's begin.

Teaser

Live session

Here we go. Let's see how the boot sequence differs from Kubuntu and Xubuntu. We've got Ubuntu MATE logo animation, filesystem check, random text message, desktop. Three distros of the same family, three different startups. The desktop comes in signature gray and green of the MATE desktop, looking somewhat more polished than Ubuntu MATE Ermine Eoan, albeit still with average font contrast.

Live desktop

Networking

Not the best. Wireless worked fine. Bluetooth - works but I hit issues that were similar to what we've seen in Xubuntu. The MAC addresses aren't translated into device names. If you initiate manual pairing, it works fine, but then the wizard fails. I also got a Bluetooth crash error. Samba sharing works fine - but only with IP addresses, not via shares names. Printing, fine.

Printing

I don't like the forced alpha border - anything in the background gets caught - it's inconsistent, too.

Manual pairing

Bluetooth error

Multimedia playback

Some neat surprises, and then some disappointments. The music player of choice is Rhythmbox, and it finally behaves as it should - after three or four years of bugs. If you click on a song, it plays the song, it does not enumerate the current folder and then stops. I was also able to play music from a connected phone, golly. This would crash Rhythmbox in the past. You don't get metadata or cover art, mind, but the songs play. Then, I got an error - unrelated to the external media device. A rollercoaster of emotions.

MP3 playback

Rhythmbox, smartphone playback

Rhythmbox crash

No border here. Why? I didn't change anything in my workflow.

Video playback was ok - except there's horizontal tearing - in the top quarter of the screen. However, the Celluloid media player didn't really behave. I couldn't find a way to do more than default 10-second skip. Say Ctrl + arrow, as most players do. I did install VLC, and here, I experienced video buffer interferences in the full-screen mode, where the mouse cursor would show and vanish intermittently, and the VLC interface controls wouldn't appear. On a few occasions, I actually had to click in the video area to regain focus of the player. By default, WebM files open in Firefox. I always find this annoying.

HD video

Smartphone support

Android and iPhone (iOS 13), sweet. No problems at all.

iPhone support

Other things

The text editor - Pluma - comes with a dark theme. This makes no sense as the desktop uses a light one.

I found the live session too buggy. The screenshot app also crashed - and here we do have alpha borders again. But this is simply inexcusable for LTS. Even worse than Xubuntu. I didn't do anything special - just use the distro as I always do.

Screenshot crash

Installation

A standard affair. The installer has no alpha borders, it took about 10-15 minutes to probe all my partitions and discover the operating systems installed there. If you choose an English region and US keyboard, you will still get the regional language as your desktop flavor, which is super-annoying. The slideshow is reasonably pretty and inviting. The whole process took about 45 minutes to complete, with the GRUB updates taking the longest. The whole os-prober thing is woefully inefficient and slow.

Partitions

Slides

MATE, meow!

Distro logo, Vendor logo, desktop, Wireless preserved. So far, we have three distros and a total of six permutations of the boot sequence, none of them identical. Anyway.

Desktop

Package management & updates

One thing that Ubuntu MATE does rather well - software. This version is no exception. I got a prompt for some updates, fine, no worries. Then, you have the magnificent Boutique, which lets you grab all manner of good software without having to do any magic or alike. Search, install, Bob's your uncle. Perhaps the interface could be a bit faster, and there might be too many prompts, but it does an exceptional job. I quickly replenished my arsenal.

Boutique

Boutique, WIP

That Got it! message never goes away; I couldn't dismiss it.

Applications & extras

The 2GB+ ISO doesn't bring a remarkable set to the table. Firefox, Evolution, LibreOffice, Cheese, Shotwell. Okay, but some of MATE tools aren't as good as what's out there. But then, with Boutique, I was able to install Skype, Steam, VLC, GIMP, and friends without any issues.

Apps

Customization

Another strong side of the Ubuntu MATE distro - customization. Using MATE Tweak, you can choose one of seven unique desktop layouts, from the classic desktop formula via the Gnome layout to Unity and MacOS, if you like, complete with global menu, integrated window buttons, dock and whatnot. Very nice.

MATE tweak

No alpha border here ...

In my previous attempts, there were always a lot of bugs. And there still are, some, but not many. This functionality has been seriously revamped. Remember my Make Plasma look like Unity effort? Well, you get something similar here, and it's an organic part of the desktop.

Cupertino layout

Mutiny layout

Unity-like ready

Not perfect, though. In the Unity (Mutiny) layout, if you resize the panel, the menu button can become too small. It jumps between 12x pixel increments, whereas the rest resizes more gradually. The full-screen menu was also misbehaving; sometimes, it wouldn't close, and I couldn't get to the windows underneath. I also couldn't always find the panel preferences option - instead, I would only get the dock settings.

Menu icon

Sometimes, a weird icon would show up - and you can't remove it. These seem to be meta windows for running operations, like Boutique, Steam update and alike, but why they show up or look so out of place, I don't really know. Then, the integrated panel dock crashed - even with current updates - but this only happened in the Unity-like layout configuration.

Weird icon

Meta window

Dock crash

In the end, I found the Cupertino layout to be the most polished and practical one. The plank behavior has been fixed, and it's far more consistent than in the past. Some good changes have gone into Ubuntu MATE 20.04, but then, there are some outstanding bugs, and new ones, too.

Cupertino, nice looks

Hardware support, stability, suspend & resume

Overall, good. Wake and sleep, no problems at all. Fn buttons, cushty. Power management is also solid, with instant screen brightness change. No screensaver, though. Stability is average, given all the app crashes we've seen.

Resource utilization & performance

So what do you get? About 900 MB memory usage on idle, frisky CPU at about 3-4% on idle. Not the best. But then, the one thing that appears to be common with most recent distros is - increased processor noise but seemingly without a major battery drainage penalty. The responsiveness is also quite good.

Resources

Battery life

Numbers are good, but they also change wildly based on usage, even mild one - more so than before. There will always be variation, of course, but it's far more swingy. With desktop in ultra-gentle usage mode, I had 2.5 hours of juice on 50% brightness and 60% cell capacity. This translates to about 4 full hours on a fresh battery, less than what we saw with some Xfce desktops lately. But then, even mild browsing gets the figure down to roughly half. So I'd say 3-3.5 hours is an okay bet for Ubuntu MATE. We've seen better.

Battery life

Other things

There were a few other oddities. The Welcome screen only shows on second login. I had to tweak the language settings. Even so, the word Favourites remains hard-coded in the menu, both the regular one and the full-screen one.

Welcome screen, second login

The Skype icon is truncated, and does not sit well in the top panel:

Skype icon

Conclusion

Ubuntu MATE 20.04 Focal Fossa is not as good as it should be. It's an LTS, and yet, you get application crashes, inconsistent behavior, some fresh new and weird errors I've not seen before. All in all, it delivers an acceptable experience, and Boutique and MATE Tweaks are serious heavyweights that help shift the odds in its favor. But then, they are offset by niggles and bug in almost every aspect of the usage - networking, media, desktop customization, etc.

Feels like it's been rushed too early to the market, and perhaps most of these ailments will be gone in the coming months. But as a starting point, it ain't stellar. Now, I had a similar experience with Kubuntu 18.04, and eventually came to like it a lot. Then again, you can't bet on patience and goodwill from the users, and they have every right to expect the best from a long-term release. Worth testing, but feels raw, so you should wait for the initial avalanche of problems to be sorted. At the moment, something like 6.5/10. And ... cut.

Cheers.

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