Ubuntu Mate 21.04 Review


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It’s another Ubuntu release day with 8 freshly baked desktops out of the ISO oven. Standard Ubuntu gets enough coverage so let us have a bite of some of the lesser consumed flavors starting with MATE.

The MATE desktop environment ,as you probably know, is the continuation of the Gnome 2 desktop. The desktop itself is quite flexible allowing for many different layouts as we shall see in a minute. In release 21.04, MATE comes in version 1.24 and with Linux Kernel 5.11. Let’s dive-in!

Ubuntu Mate 21.04 default look
Installation

The ISO dough was quite a chunk coming in at a heavy 2.76 GB. I made it oven ready with Etcher and then dropped it into my testing laptop: A Dell E7240 with 8 GB of RAM and a 128 GB Samsung SSD. The installer is the usual Ubuntu affair. We get the option for a minimal install or a full install with a large set of programs pre-loaded. We also get to choose whether we want restricted extras installed out of the box. I probably didn’t get the “install alongside an existing OS” option as my previous Zorin OS 16 installation was using LVM. I simply used the whole disk option. It was ready after a 5:30 minute baking time!

Standard Ubuntu Installer

Boot times were average at around 12 seconds to the log-in screen and another few after credentials were entered. Ubuntu MATE still uses the older splash screens without the vendor logo which I actually prefer.

I was pleasantly surprised to find htop present by default and it confirms MATE’s excellent efficiency:

  • 571 RAM
  • 95 Tasks
  • 211 Threads
The Desktop

MATE’s desktop is probably the most “cluttered” one around. The default layout gives us a top panel with the usual menu and system tray and a bottom panel that displays open apps and the 4 available work spaces. There are also icons on the desktop: The Home folder and whatever removable media that happens to be attached. It is also quite green. A green that to me shouts “bio-hazard!”, just like the MATE logo.  Does anyone else feel the same way or am I weird? Probably just me. My weird perception aside, I do like MATE’s desktop and the appearance is easily adjusted to my liking with a few quick tweaks.

The excellent Welcome app

Upon first boot we are greeted with the Welcome app. It is one of the best ones out there. There are 4 sections: The first one gives an excellent comprehensive introduction to the system. The second one is about the community with links to the forum and social networks. The third one is about getting involved and helping out and the last one about customizing the installation.

8 desktop layouts to choose from

 

We’ll jump straight into the 4th section and modify our desktop. There are no less than 8 different desktop toppings, I mean  layouts, to choose from! We could for example go with a classic windows or OS X style layout or with Ubuntu’s previous Unity layout. I decided to go with the “Pantheon” layout resembling elementary OS’s desktop. This comes with a “Plank” dock at the bottom, in this case in version 0.11.89. Neofetch, which is also present, confirms MATE is using the Yaru light theme and icons. There are also other themes like Ambiant and Numix as well as dark options available in the settings. A major effort was put into the application of the Yaru theme. According to the release notes, this is the major change compared to the previous 20.10 release. It comes in light and dark modes. The dark mode extends to the browser and instructs websites to use a dark theme when available – neat! They have also applied it to LibreOffice for a seamless user experience.

LibreOffice using “Yaru” theme on desktop with “Pantheon” layout

Dark theme option

Ubuntu Mate uses the Brisk Menu. It is now in version 0.6.2, a bit odd not having reached the 1.0 milestone yet. In it’s default layout it comes with 2 panes with app categories to the left. Type to search works well and it launches the first app on the result list when we hit return. There are some limited options to customize it further in the settings. All in all it is a simple affair that works well.

Usability

Media Playback. I could play all my audio and video files. Celluloid seems to be able to handle any format. Rhythmbox on the other hand only played my mp3 files. The m4a music files had to be played through Celluloid.

Bluetooth was a bit shaky. I went to “Set up new device” from the drop down panel menu to connect to my JBL speaker. The first time it simply failed to pair. The second time it succeeded but I got the dreaded “Sorry, Ubuntu experience an internal error” message. My main gripe was that once it got paired, the sound didn’t switch over nor was there a new option in the sound settings. I had to go into “Bluetooth Devices” and connect the paired device from there. That’s overly cumbersome.

The system generally behaved quite well and was very snappy. I will look to add further items to test under usability in future reviews.

Update 23/04: I also did a quick test on my 1080p Dell E7250 to check for scaling options. Under Display in the Settings we can only change the resolution. In Mate Tweak, however, there is an option for HiDPI. When selected it scales to 200% which is too large for my 12.5 inch screen. So no fractional scaling I’m afraid. I am happy to report though that connecting a second monitor via my dock worked well, both in extending or mirroring content.

Software

We get a huge selection of apps right out of the box. Here is a quick overview of the major items:

  • Internet: Firefox v.87, Evolution, Transmission
  • Office: The complete LibreOffice suite, Atril Document Viewer
  • Multimedia: Celluloid, Rhythmbox, Shotwell
  • System: Caja file manager, MATE Terminal

Additional software can be installed using the Software Boutique or the GDebi Package Installer. Software Boutique is a great app store. It is more curated and contains only the most popular apps. It suggests installing Ubuntu’s software center or the Synaptic Package Manager should one need more options. Each app is perfectly described especially for users switching over from Windows or OS X. If we search for example for “Photoshop” we get “GIMP” as a result saying it is the Linux alternative – Well done! The source of each app is also shown, albeit not with enough detail. I decided to try and install Chromium which is shown as being sourced from “Ubuntu Repositories” although Ubuntu normally supplies it as a Snap. I immediately got the error: “Package does not exist”. I then tried VLC with the same error. I quickly pinpointed the issue. Since this was a fresh install and I hadn’t done any software updates, the system cannot find its sources. So, after a fresh install it is important to perform a system update or alternatively open a terminal and type:

sudo apt update

This will do the trick just fine without actually updating any software – perfect for the purpose of my quick review. VLC installed just fine after that. I retried Chromium and sure enough it started downloading hundreds of megabytes of data, it was the Snap version. Pressing on “cancel” had no effect, there was no way to stop the installation. Interestingly, I decided to shut the system down but it would only log-out and continue downloading! I then killed it by holding down the power button. Not even that helped. The moment I booted up again, it resumed downloading. I let it finish (kept an eye on System Monitor for network traffic) and sure enough Chromium appeared once downloads stopped. As annoying as that was, it was quite impressive. I got no error messages and Chromium worked just fine. Boutique should, however, differentiate Snaps in the “Sources”.

Final Thoughts

Ubuntu Mate doesn’t excite. It isn’t meant to. It’s a familiar reliable desktop on top of a solid Ubuntu base. After recently testing the likes of Deepin and Zorin OS, this has been predictably a somewhat underwhelming experience. No bells and whistles anywhere to be found. It is a great release though and I particularly appreciate the hard work that has gone into the Software Boutique and into introducing the system as a whole. It is easily one of the best options to recommend to new Linux users. It also goes easy on your hardware and should run fine with just 2 GB of ram.

Have you tested Ubuntu Mate 21.04? Share your experience with us in the comments below!

Cheers!

Mike

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Mike

Chief geek (editor) and maintainer of distrocrunch.com
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RetiredIT
RetiredIT
3 months ago

The last several releases of Ubuntu MATE have been bloated and disappointing. Each release going back to Ver. 16 or 17 has been unable to read a flash drive properly on my Lenovo Thinkpads. Never had that prob;lem with any other distro in the past 15 years. Now using MX Linux 18/19 with MATE and am a very happy camper!

Sam
Sam
3 months ago

Absolutely agree about the bio-hazard vibe! It’s not just you. 😉

Bob
Bob
3 months ago

I like the logo, but you’re right…HAZMAT suit required.

Also, I agree with RetiredIT. It’s not just Ubuntu Mate, it’s ALL of the Ubuntu flavors. Xubuntu has gone from GREAT (16.04) to garbage (20.04).

kUbuntu Fan
2 months ago

You can review Kubuntu 21.04 with Plasma 5.21 its exciting …