If you want a GNOME 2-like desktop, the leading contenders are both developed by Linux Mint. Users can choose between Cinnamon, which is built on top of GNOME 3, and Mate, a direct fork of GNOME 2.
Mate and Cinnamon are the default alternatives offered in Linux Mint 14, the current release. Both are highly successful attempts to provide a GNOME 2-like desktop in response to widespread user dissatisfaction with GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's Unity.
Among experienced users, the two interfaces appear to have been instant successes. Despite having been in development for only a few months when the 2011 LinuxQuestions Members Choice Awards were voted on, Mate received 3.5 percent of the votes for best desktop environment, and Cinnamon 2.5 percent. In the 2012 poll, they did even better, with Cinnamon attracting just under 10 percent of the votes, and Mate 7.5 percent. Although Linux Mint was a popular distribution before either interface emerged, the two seemed to have raised interest in the distribution to even higher levels than before.
But which is right for you?
That depends on what you are looking for. You might get a general understanding of their differences by contrasting Cinnamon's home-page description — "Traditional layout, advanced features, easy to use, powerful, flexible" with Mate's — "The traditional Desktop Environment." But are the two mottoes no more than marketing slogans?
Nor is the decision made any easier by the renaming of GNOME features within them and the widespread insistence that the two interfaces are different.
The Naming of Parts
One difficulty in comparing Mate and Cinammon is that both rename standard GNOME utilities. Cinnamon, for instance, has forked Mutter, calling its version Muffin. Faced with changes to the GNOME file manager Nautilus, it also preserves the GNOME 2 design under the name of Nemo.
Mate has even more name changes. In Mate, Nautilus becomes Caja. The Gedit text editor becomes Pluma, the document viewer Evince becomes Atril, and the window manager Metacity becomes Marco. Similarly, GConf is renamed mate.conf.
These name changes indicate forks. They distinguish Mate or Cinnamon from GNOME 2 or 3, and—most important of all—allow more than one to coexist on the same system while removing the possibility of conflicts. Yet although the changes are useful, they have the effect of making comparisons more difficult because they obscure what you want to compare.
The Technical Confusion
A second difficulty in making a comparison is that purists are constantly insisting that Cinnamon and Mate are two different interfaces.
Strictly speaking, they are right, of course. In their brief histories, Mate's development has focused on reviving GNOME 2 for modern usage, while Cinnamon has been more innovative, offering its own set of panel applets and its Expointerface for handling virtual workspaces. Such differences seem likely to increase in future releases.
However, so far, the differences are mostly in the details. The general user experience remains similar in both Cinnamon and Mate. Both offer what some people are starting to refer to as a "classical interface," consisting of a single screen with a configurable panel and menu with the option for virtual workspaces.
Moreover, their interface are far closer to each other than either is to any other free or proprietary classical desktop. This similarity is enhanced by the Linux Mint branding, which uses the same themes and icons for both.
In Linux Mint 14, the latest release, an observant eye might notice slight differences in the wallpaper, but otherwise, the differences are only noticeable in a few utilities that specifically include Cinnamon in their name or in the About page of a dialog. But without long familiarity or a side-by-side comparison, most users would probably struggle to tell at a glance which is which.
Rather than viewing them as distinct interfaces, Mate and Cinnamon are probably best seen as two different solutions to the problem of providing a classical desktop at a time when GNOME offered only the feature-impoverished fallback mode (which has since been retired with the release of GNOME 3.8).
Alternatively, to use a metaphor that acknowledges the technical differences behind the scene, they are an example of parallel evolution, developments from similar conditions that resemble each other.
Different Names, Similar Functions
Once you compensate for these difficulties, what remains to be compared or contrasted? From a general user's perspective, much less than you might expect—and even less that seriously undermines the temptation to associate the two interfaces.
As you log in, the first difference you are likely to notice is that Mate begins with a dialog window that lists links to user resources, while Cinnamon does not.
The other obvious differences are cosmetic: Cinnamon's panel is darker than Mate's, the menus are slightly different in arrangement, and Mate is more likely to rely on words while Cinnamon uses only icons. Both menus display three columns, with the leftmost column reserved for places and system controls in Mate, and for favorites and system controls in Cinnamon. In both, the middle column is for first level menu items, and the third for displaying the contents of whatever is selected in the middle. Most of the icons are the same, although Mate places its search field at the bottom right and Cinnamon places its on the top left.
Similarly, in the file manager, the differences go little beyond the names. You do find minor variations—for instance, Cinnamon's Nemo lacks the background and emblems item—but the menus and layouts appear almost identical. The same is true of most core utilities.
Contrary to what you might first expect, the versions of other applications differ little in the latest releases. For instance, both Mate and Cinnamon use the same versions of the Brasero DVD burner and of GNOME Terminal.
Cinnamon does appear to use a later of version of the GNOME calculator (although a difference in versioning makes it hard to be sure). However, although you might expect the more innovative Cinnamon to be more up to date than the conservative Mate, in a random sampling of included apps, as often as not, Mate has the more recent version. For instance, it uses versions 1.12 of Tomboy compared to Cinnamon's 1.10, and version 2.6.0 of the Banshee music player, compared to Cinnamon's 2.4.1.
If the fact that Mate is sometimes more current seems surprising at first, on second thought it shouldn't. After all, with Mate and Cinnamon, we are dealing with shells. The same GNOME technology underlies both.
Real Points of Difference
After comparing Mate and Cinammon for a while, you might start to conclude that the greatest difference is in word choice for menu items, and Cinammon's adoption of GNOME 3's toggle switches for turning features off and on. However, a handful of differences does exist.
One difference lies in the panel applets. For those who prefer a classic desktop, Mate and Cinnamon both have an advantage over GNOME 3 and Unity in that they allow customization of the contents of the panel.
However, Mate's applets are the same selection that GNOME 2 offered, and so far no one seems to be developing new ones. By contrast, Cinnamon has recreated some traditional GNOME 2 applets, renaming them with "Cinnamon" at the start of their names. In addition, Cinnamon offers a handful of new applets, including the Notifications Applet, which stores unread notifications so that they can be read later, rather than simply having them dismissed.
The same is true of administration tools. Mate not only repeats GNOME 2's lack of a font installer, but also lists individual configuration items on the menu, while Cinnamon offers a centralized dialog window for configuration that is far more convenient. As well as a font installer, Cinammon Settings also includes an extensions installer and a tool for configuring hot corners to activate a function by placing the cursor in the corner.
Cinnamon is also optimized for hardware acceleration—which can be a feature or a nuisance, depending on whether you have the 3D drivers to take advantage of it and on whether you appreciate eye-candy. Mate's Marco, a renaming of GNOME 2's window manager Metacity, does support some compositing effects, but in general they are more limited than what Cinnamon can manage.
Cinnamon does run without hardware acceleration. However, you will receive notifications that it is missing, like some nightmare out of Windows. Even more annoyingly, if my experience is any indication, it can become slow without hardware acceleration and sometimes lose control of the mouse cursor. Mate's Marco, a fork of GNOME 2's Metacity, may be more limited in its compositing effects, but at least it is trouble-free and consistently faster than Cinnamon.
Comparing Mate with Cinnamon reveals that their mottoes are accurate descriptions, and not just marketing slogans.
On the one hand, Mate is for those who miss GNOME 2. Aside from minor differences in the layout, it offers exactly the same experience. But it also offers no more. While innovation may come to Mate one day, so far Linux Mint's efforts seem focused on reproducing GNOME 2 while tinkering with it only slightly.
On the other hand, Cinnamon is ideal for those who were mostly content with GNOME yet wouldn't mind seeing some innovations. You might view Cinnamon as an attempt to produce what most users expected GNOME 3 to be.
If stability and simplicity are paramount for you, then Mate is an obvious short-term solution for you. Mate is not fancy and includes as many of GNOME 2's faults as its virtues, but it is fast and reliable.
The main question for a Mate user is how long it will continue to be developed. Eighteen months is probably too short a time to demonstrate a pattern, but to date the visible development on Mate seems to have been spent in ensuring that a GNOME 2 continuation remains a modern option.
Under these circumstances, uses might want to wonder how long keeping Mate going will continue to be an option. At some future point, the effort might simply become too great.
The opposite is largely true of Cinnamon. Based on what has happened so far, any innovation in Linux Mint is more likely to be added to Cinnamon than Mate. And so far, that innovation seems likely to be carefully controlled.
Yet which innovations Cinnamon may see in the next few years remains uncertain. Meanwhile, it seems more than adequate, but not quite as reliable as Mate—and definitely not for systems without hardware acceleration.
Either way, the choice is a gamble. But the advantage of having two tactical approaches to the same strategy is that, if one fails, you always have the other one to fall back on.