Linux Mint's Mate: GNOME 2 Lives Again

Tuesday Apr 17th 2012 by Bruce Byfield
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Linux Mint's Mate is the most successful of all the efforts to keep GNOME 2 alive.

A review of GNOME 2 seems redundant at this point. After all, the first release was almost a decade ago, and it's been a year since GNOME 3.0 was announced.

However, a review of Mate 1.2 is not quite the same thing. Mate is Linux Mint's fork of GNOME 2, designed to fill the ongoing demand for this GUI that simply refuses to die.

Announced as "the traditional desktop environment," the point of Mate is not so much what new features it introduces as how well it preserves GNOME 2 while remaining compatible with GNOME 3 -- and how these efforts compare to similar efforts, like GNOME's current fallback mode (aka "Classic GNOME") or Linux Mint's Cinnamon.

Mate is not a separate distribution. Rather, it is a collection of packages that you can add to your current distribution. Packages are now installed by default in the main Linux Mint DVD, and are also available for Arch Linux, Linux Mint, Debian, and Ubuntu in a separate repository. As I write, the packages are not available in any of these distribution's standard repositories, so you will need to add the repository to your system.

Should you install, remember that the repositories are specific to the release version. You will need dependencies from the exact version.

In addition, if the Debian wheezy packages are typical, there are no dummy packages that will install everything, despite some packages being named mate-desktop and mate-desktop-environment. You will need to go through the online list of packages to make sure that you have the utilities and everything else installed.

A Successful Cloning

The first thing to say about Mate 1.2 is that its resemblance to GNOME 2 is a close one. If you yearn for GNOME 2, Mate should leave you with very little to be desired.

Icons on the desktop, multiple panels, applets, an unfolding menu, a single screen -- all that GNOME 3 abandoned -- are faithfully retained in Mate. What is probably even more important to many is that the configuration options of GNOME 2 are preserved.

In fact, Mate is a thorough enough clone that even what I consider the faults of GNOME 2 are included (you may, of course, disagree). By default, the Applications / Places / System menu bar is preserved, and, compared to KDE, the selection of applets is unimaginative.

The greatest changes that the average user is likely to see is that many of the names have been changed. For instance, GNOME's Nautilus file manager is called Caja in Mate. Similarly, the file-viewer Eye of GNOME is Eye of Mate (EOM). From what the release announcement says, these changes are not just filing off serial numbers, but also part of the effort to avoid any conflicts on systems on which both Mate and GNOME 3 are installed.

Most of the changes are behind the scenes. For instance, configuration files are centralized in ~/.config/mate, while the setting daemons now support the Pulse Audio sound server and GStreamer multimedia frameworks. Although such changes are either convenient or else help to keep Mate current, most users would notice them only if they were absent -- if then.

Generally, you have to search closely to find the improvements. For instance, Mate adds the option of a Control Center to GNOME 2, but that is mostly a matter of increasing choice: you can either use the same tools from the traditional systems menu, or else from a single window in which the tools are divided into categories. Other changes from GNOME 2 are similarly minor.

One of the few areas that have been given special attention is the menu. It is now supported by mozo, a fork of the alacarte menu editor used in GNOME. From the list of panel applets, you can also replace the Applications / Places / System menu bar with what is simply called the main menu. The main menu adds the Places and Systems menus to the bottom of the Applications menu, as some distributions have always preferred.

Unfortunately, Mate seems to have dropped the poorly organized but highly configurable fixed-window menu of earlier releases. The classical menu whose sub-menus sprawl across the desktop is clumsy on the large, application-packed hard drives of today and, while the fixed-window menu had problems, its customization features at least gave users more choice. Perhaps an upcoming release with different priorities will restore it.

Another area that has received some attention is the file manager. Caja now has Python support, as well as a number of other extensions, such as a mass image-converter, and a version of Gksu, a graphical login for use when logging into the root account or using sudo. A feature that is unadvertised but that I discovered by accident is audio previews of files.

However, the biggest change in Caja is the addition of Undo and Redo to its Edit menu. These features are so basic yet so useful that one of the first comments on the release announcement expressed appreciation of it.

Otherwise, Mate 1.2's enhancements are so minor that calling them incremental seems like an exaggeration. But, considering that the main point is clearly not features but stability and the general preservation of GNOME 2, that comment is not no much a criticism as a delineation of emphasis. Judged by its main goals, Mate 1.2 is unquestionably a success.

The Incarnations of GNOME

But how does Mate compare with other efforts to keep GNOME 2 alive?

Comparing Mate to GNOME 3's fallback mode shows mainly how half-hearted fallback mode really is. Supporting neither applets nor desktop icons and only limited configuration, the so-called GNOME Classic is a crippled and barely adequate imitation of GNOME 2.

While fallback mode allows users without 3-D hardware acceleration to run GNOME, little else can be said for it, and I doubt that anyone runs it any longer than they need to install another desktop environment to replace it. Probably no one runs it willingly.

With Linux Mint's Cinammon, the answer depends on what you are looking for. Running on top of GNOME 3, Cinnamon is an ingenious hack, but also an awkward one. At times, it feels like an uneasy welding of the two versions of GNOME, with GNOME 2 features like a bottom panel co-existing beside GNOME 3 features such as the overview screen. Such features have such a different design philosophy that they don't feel like they belong on the same desktop.

By contrast, Mate presents a much more unified look and feel. In fact, after a year of GNOME 3, it looks not only classic but pleasingly simple and unfussy.

However, one of Cinnamon’s advantages is that almost every GNOME 2 feature in it is a matter of choice. Far more than with Mate, you can turn features on or off to create a desktop that is exactly what you want. If your preference for GNOME 2 is qualified, or simply if you appreciate choice, then you might find Cinnamon more to your taste than Mate.

I have misgivings about the amount of effort being spent on keeping GNOME 2 or a look alike alive. While I admire the determination of the developers of such efforts -- to say nothing of their willingness to listen to what users want -- I question the time and energy being spent on such an old technology. What else, I keep wondering, might be developed if coders and distributions were looking forward instead of spending their main efforts looking back?

Clearly, though, many users are not yet willing to let GNOME 2 die. For those who feel that way, Mate is probably the most satisfying solution they are likely to get. If the enhancements have been slow in coming so far, perhaps they will come in the next release now that Mate has a solid foundation on which to build.

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