Ubuntu MATE - Pimp your desktop to perfection

Updated: July 15, 2018

Over the years, I've written dozens of pimping guides for various Linux distributions: Xubuntu, Fedora, CentOS. The only place on Earth with more pimping is the RDL in Amsterdam. But we're here to talk software. As you may recall, I tested Ubuntu MATE 18.04 a few months back. It was okay. No the best, but like a child with so-called potential, this one has a decent chance of becoming a reasonable choice for your production desktop, if and when the various bugs and issues THAT NEVER SHOULD HAVE MADE INTO AN OFFICIAL LTS RELEASE are finally fixed.

On the visual side of things, while you wait for the code redemption - akin to Kubuntu - well, there's a lot you can do. In this article, I'd like to show you the many ways and tweaks you can use to make Ubuntu MATE looks the part. The reason is, MATE has so many features and options, it's not all straightforward. So let's talk.


System layout

MATE has always had a very non-Windows layout, with two panels, the top one used for a three-part application menu, shortcuts and a system area, the bottom one used for open windows and workspaces. Bionic MATE ships with a slightly modified version - the classic Gnome 2 three-tier menu is replaced with Brisk, a classic menu with categories, favorites, pretty icons, and inline search.

What if you want something else? No problem. This is what separates MATE from Gnome 3. Extreme levels of customizability, right out of the box. First, you have the standard stuff. Open the Control Center, hit the Appearance category. Here, you can change or customize your theme, with fine granularity. You can separately choose decorations, button controls, icons, and fonts by choosing elements from completely different themes, no strings attached. This has been Gnome 2 stuff since forever.

But there's more. As I've shown you in the MATE 1.20 and MATE & Mutiny reviews, the desktop environment ships with MATE Tweak. This program comes with a lot of goodies. Specifically, under the Desktop section, you can choose what you show on the desktop. No biggie. Under Panel, there's a lot of stuff. You have several pre-defined panel layouts, plus you can make and save your own.

MATE Tweak

You can use all sorts: Redmond will place the panel and menu at the bottom, Traditional is the classic Gnome 2 stuff, Cupertino will add a dock and a global menu, and Mutiny simulates the Unity look we have in Ubuntu. Each change will reset your previous choice, but you can use the Save as button to preserve your work.


Regardless of which preset you go for, you can always enable a dock (and change its placement), enable a drop-down terminal and also use HUD, which for me still remains a bit of an enigma in terms of activation and actual use.

Global menu

This is one of the many great things in MATE. Right-click on the top panel, preferences, add items. There's a super-long list of applets available, but the one we want is an Ubuntu-like Global menu. It will replace the standard menu in application windows and displace it here, so you save some vertical space and also have a more chic experience. The Global Menu also goes under the name of AppMenu, so if you see either one, don't be confused.

Global menu

The Global menu is quite useful, actually. Elegant, responsive (the lag is minimal), and it has some handy features, like showing your home dir files in the context of your desktop view. You can click on the menu and play songs or videos, for instance, without having to directly invoke a file manager.

Global menu, Skype

Desktop files shown


If you want to have even more visibility - and productivity - you can use a dock as a placeholder for your applications. At the moment, Brisk lacks the option to pin apps directly to the dock, so you will need to manually add them: launch a program, right click on it once it shows in the dock's interface, and then pin. The actual software used is Plank, but you can also add any which dock you want or like. However, the nice thing is the built-in integration.


Unity-like layout (Mutiny)

This will probably interest most people the most. If you choose the Mutiny layout in MATE Tweak, your desktop will transform into an Ubuntu-like Unity setup, with a top panel that has a global menu and some space saved for window buttons for maximized applications, and a left-side vertical panel with an integrated dock.

Mutiny applied

Now, there's a lot you can do to make this look prettier. First, right click on the Dock area and edit the preferences. You can customize the appearance, what shows in the dock (versus workspaces), and more. Then, click on the Panel area (below the Dock), and you can change the panel width, add items, and such.

Dock prefs

I decided to add the Show desktop applet. It was automatically placed close to the Trash icon at the bottom of the panel. The reason is, by default, the dock is locked in its position. If you want to rearrange the stuff, you will need to unlock items first, and then you can move the Show desktop, dock and the Trash as you see fit.

I placed the Show desktop button top most below the application menu, with adequate spacing, placed the dock next, and finally nested the Trash at the very bottom. This seems to work fairly well. The dock behaves similar to Unity, with smart notifications per application, and you can scroll up and down if you have more icons than the vertical space allows. The animations and transitions are not as smooth as Unity, though, and there's a perceptible delay.

Mutiny app overlay

Dock notifications

The app menu opens full-screen, with categories at the top. There are no lenses and scopes, like you have in Ubuntu, but it's still a fully functional menu, with inline search and reasonable looks. Works fine, and gives you a Unity-like feel.


Internet category

Sound & Video category

With these changes in place, you should have the look & feel you expect. The top panel should have a reserved area for windows buttons, followed by the global menu and then the system area on the far right. I have not done much to customize the system area, although you can use individual indicators instead of a group indicator area, if you want to shuffle things around - the shutdown button to the right of the calendar, etc.

Then, you should have a panel with an app menu, an optional Show desktop button, the dock with as many icons as you like (and any theme you choose), and finally, a Trash at the very bottom. In my mind, this makes for the most optimal Ubuntu-like layout. BTW, I've done something similar in Xubuntu, so the heat is on.


Mutiny, work in progress

Final looks


Ubuntu MATE has made a quantum leap of innovation in the past several months, offering a wealth of visual and functional changes and a mindblowing level of flexibility when it comes to customization. You really have the ability to implement anything and everything, and all of it natively, from within the system's interface. The list of options is so long that it can be overwhelming.

Hopefully, this little pimping guide puts some order into this fine and rich chaos. Ubuntu Bionic isn't the most refined distro, but it sure has the almost infinite possibilities to make it appear and behave how you want it. You can have a classic desktop one day and then a MAC-like thing the next and then Ubuntu Unity the day after that. It's all there, very slick, very elegant. Well, it's time for you to do some exploring. See you.


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