Exploring the Cinnamon and Mate desktops environments

A Taste of Mint

Article from Issue 166/2014
Author(s):

The Cinnamon and Mate desktop systems have stirred up plenty attention around the Linux world. We'll show you around these innovative new desktop systems and help you decide which is right for you.

Born in the quest for a better and more polished alternative to Ubuntu, Linux Mint [1] has become a distribution to reckon with. Mint has been steadily moving up the distro popularity charts, closing up on its progenitor. Several factors contribute to the success of Linux Mint: a predictable release schedule, attention to detail, unique and genuinely helpful tools and utilities, and support for proprietary codecs.

Another big contributor to the latest surge in Linux Mint's popularity is the new in-house Cinnamon desktop environment [2] and the decision to include the Mate (pronounced maté) desktop [3] as an alternative. Forming the Mint distro around Cinnamon and Mate, rather than settling for the classic KDE and Gnome desktop options, was a risky move, but it looks like it's paid off. Linux Mint has established a reputation as a versatile and user-friendly distro, and these additional desktop options distance Mint even further from Ubuntu.

The story of Cinnamon and Mate starts with the story of Gnome – the great GNU desktop used in Linux systems around the world. The major update from Gnome 2 to Gnome 3 brought in many fundamental changes to the Gnome desktop. Some of the changes were based on the desire to make an interface that adapted more readily to mobile devices, but the Gnome developers also took some bold steps to reinvent the conventional desktop metaphor in favor of a new vision that they thought would ultimately be more intuitive and convenient.

Many Linux users reacted strongly to this change, including Linux creator Linus Torvalds, who stated "The developers have apparently decided that it's 'too complicated' to actually do real work on your desktop and have decided to make it really annoying to do." [4] Torvalds and many others declared that they were going to keep using Gnome 2 and were not interested in upgrading to the newer version. (Linus has since tempered his opinion of Gnome 3, but he had very strong feelings on the matter back in 2011.)

Linux Mint developers were also skeptical about the new Gnome 3 desktop, but they also appreciated the benefits of the Gnome Shell and other innovations. The Mint team started working on a set of extensions that would adapt the Gnome 3 shell to fit their own goals. The Mint Gnome Shell Extensions (MGSE) eventually took on enough momentum that the Mint project eventually just forked the Gnome 3 Shell and launched the Cinnamon project.

With all the controversy swirling around Gnome 3, the Mint team wanted an alternative for users who simply weren't interested in the Gnome 3 innovations. The Mate desktop was a community Free Software project that had already begun as a fork of Gnome 2. Mint developers adopted Mate as an alternative desktop, adapting it for the Mint environment and adding new features to make it ready for production environments.

Mint is thus developed around two capable desktops: Cinnamon (based on Gnome 3) and Mate (based around Gnome 2). The Gnome project eventually discontinued its work on Gnome 2, which means that Mate is now the lead branch carrying on the Gnome 2 code base. Other distros that prefer the Gnome 2 look-and-feel have adopted Mate (including the DMDc Linux, which is described in another article in this issue). Cinnamon has also gained popularity with other distributions, and Cinnamon packages are now available for Fedora, Ubuntu, and many other Linux alternatives.

The Cinnamon and Mate desktops are out in the world now, available to nearly all Linux users. Any discussion of these two leading desktop environments inevitably leads to the question: Are they really so different? If so, which one should you choose? Read on to find out.

Spicy Cinnamon

Instead of introducing a whole new graphical environment paradigm, Cinnamon focuses on refining and optimizing the existing desktop metaphor. As such, Cinnamon (Figure 1) features all the familiar components, like a system panel, system tray, and a main menu (Figure 2). By default, the system panel resides at the bottom of the screen, and all elements in the panel are neatly organized into groups. The system tray to the right acts as a container for various widgets and notifications.

Figure 1: Cinnamon desktop in all its bare-bones beauty.
Figure 2: The Cinnamon main menu provides quick access to installed applications.

Using the default widgets, you can toggle Bluetooth (if available), connect to a wireless or wired network, tweak power options, and configure time and date settings. The User widget gives you quick access to the account and system settings menu, along with Switch User, Log Out, Power Off, and other commands. Quick start icons next to the Menu item to the left let you launch often-used applications, such as the Firefox browser, the terminal, and the file manager.

Cinnamon uses its own file manager, called Nemo (Figure 3), which is based on Nautilus (the default manager in Gnome Shell). Although Nemo looks like a rather lightweight file manager, it offers all the essential tools for juggling files efficiently. The bookmarks in the My Computer section of the left sidebar give you quick access to specific folders such as Documents, Music, Pictures, Downloads, Recent, and Trash.

Figure 3: Nemo is the default file manager in Cinnamon.

You can easily add other folders to the list via drag-and-drop. The dedicated Bookmarks menu provides commands for adding and managing bookmarks. Using the buttons in the main toolbar, you can navigate through the folders, as well as jump to the home directory and the desktop. The location bar conveniently displays the path to the current folder, and you can edit the path by clicking on the Toggle Location Entry button next to it. The Search button lets you search files and folders by name, and you can use the three view buttons to switch between different views (Icon, List, and Compact).

You can use the commands under the View menu to customize the file manager. Among other things, you can enable and disable certain elements, arrange items by specific criteria, change the sidebar view, and toggle hidden files.

Back at the system panel, the Menu item gives you access to the main menu – a versatile tool for launching and managing installed applications. The main menu's panel is divided into three parts. The Favorites palette to the left contains shortcuts for launching often-used applications. Basically, this palette duplicates the functionality of the quick launch icons in the system panel. Besides the shortcuts, the palette also provides buttons for locking the screen, logging out, and shutting down the machine.

The All applications list next to the Favorites palette neatly organizes all installed applications into groups, making it easier to find the needed tool. For example, you'll find all graphics applications and utilities under the Graphics group, while the Preferences group gives you access to all available settings modules. To view a list of all installed applications in a group, move the mouse over it. You can then launch any of the applications in the group by clicking on the desired item. Right-clicking on an application item displays several management commands. Using them, you can add the application's quick launch icon to the system panel, create a desktop shortcut, add the application to the Favorites palette, and uninstall the application.

Instead of wading through groups trying to find a certain application, you can use the search bar. Start typing the name of the application you are looking for, and you should see the list of matching results in real time.

Apart from the Computer and Home shortcuts, the default desktop in Cinnamon is devoid of any embellishments, but that doesn't mean that you can't customize it to your liking. Right-click somewhere on the desktop, and you can access several handy commands from the context menu. The Add Desklets command, for example, allows you to populate the desktop with nifty widgets, like clock, weather, sticky notes, quote of the day, and much more. To view a list of all available desklets, switch to the Get more online section of the Desklets window and press the Refresh list button. Select the desklets you like (Figure 4) and press Install or update selected to install them. Switch to the Installed section and select the desklet you want and hit Add to desktop. If the desklet has configuration options, you can tweak them by pressing the Configure button.

Figure 4: You can populate the desktop with widgets called desklets in Cinnamon.

The Create a new launcher here command in the right-click context menu makes it possible to define and add custom launchers to the desktop. This feature can come in handy when you need to create a launcher for a complex command or a Bash shell script.

All settings in Cinnamon are conveniently accessible through the System Setting panel. All modules in System Settings are organized into several logical groups: Appearance, Preferences, Hardware, and Administration (Figure 5). Most of the modules are not particularly complicated, so you should have no problems figuring out how to use them. Note that, in addition to the standard set of configurable options, some modules feature other useful settings. The Networking module, for example, lets you easily toggle the Airplane Mode that disables and enables all network interfaces, while the Keyboard module makes it possible to define custom keyboard shortcuts.

Figure 5: All settings in Cinnamon are easily accessible through the Preferences panel.

Friendly Mate

Although Cinnamon is largely derived from Gnome 3, and Mate comes from Gnome 2; in practical terms, the underlying code base doesn't make a huge difference for end-users. Mate packages are available for several leading Linux distributions. You can also download an ISO image of the Mate-based version of Linux Mint, and it is even possible to install the Mate desktop on the Linux Mint Cinnamon edition using a single command:

sudo apt-get install mate-desktop
mint-meta-mate

Reboot then your machine, and choose Mate from a list of the available desktop environments in the login screen. On the surface, Mate doesn't look all that different from Cinnamon (Figure 6). The standard elements, like the system panel, a system tray, and the main menu are all present and accounted for. Apart from minor differences, the main menu in Mate looks and acts similar to the main menu in Cinnamon. The Places section provides shortcuts to often-used destinations and tools, whereas the Applications section lets you launch and manage installed applications. In this section, you can switch between the Favorites (bookmarked often-used applications) and All applications (all installed applications arranged into groups) modes.

Figure 6: Mate's main menu.

Although the Mate main menu is not very different from Cinnamon's, the design of the Cinnamon menu is slightly more efficient, as it doesn't require you to switch between two modes. Right-clicking on an application entry gives you commands for adding the application to the desktop and system panel, bookmarking the application, adding it to autostart, and uninstalling it. Similar to Cinnamon's main menu, the menu in Mate features a search functionality, which lets you locate an application by typing its name in the Search field.

Caja, the default file manager in Mate, is very similar to Cinnamon's Nemo (Figure 7). In fact, besides a few minor cosmetic tweaks, you'll be hard pressed to find any significant differences between these two file managers. Similar to Nemo, Caja features bookmarking functionality, support for basic interface customization, and the ability to connect to remote servers. In short, Caja looks and behaves pretty much like its Cinnamon sibling.

Figure 7: The Caja file manager looks a lot like Nemo.

Like Cinnamon, Mate features a spartan desktop. You can tweak its appearance and add custom launchers using commands in the right-click context menu. In theory, Mate supports screenlets (Gnome's version of Cinnamon's desklets), but this feature is not enabled by default. Also in theory, enabling it should be a matter of running the sudo apt-get install screenlets command, which installs the Screenlet Manager utility, along with other required packages. In practice, this functionality is broken (Figure 8). The Screenlet Manager insists on adding third-party software repositories, but fails to do so. Worse still, the Get more screenlets button points to a disabled website.

Figure 8: Screenlets Manager in Mate appears to be broken.

All preferences in Mate are accessible via the dedicated Control Center panel (Figure 9). Here, you'll find the usual assortment of modules that let you configure and tweak specific aspects of the desktop environment: from the overall appearance to network connections. Although all the modules are easily accessible, a few have minor niggles. For example, there are two separate modules – Network and Network connections – for configuring networking settings, and if you want to configure custom keyboard shortcuts, you have to use the separate Keyboard Shortcuts utility.

Figure 9: Control Center lets you configure Mate's settings.

Final Word

Mate: is easy to master, it does the job, and it doesn't stand in your way. The same can be said about Cinnamon, too. But, in addition to being user-friendly and unobtrusive, Cinnamon is more polished and feature-rich than Mate. If you are coming from Gnome 2, you might feel slightly more comfortable using Mate, but you would be doing yourself a disservice by not trying Cinnamon first. So, start with Cinnamon, and if you still think that Mate is a better fit for your needs, you can easily install it using a single command. In at least one scenario, however, Mate makes a better option than Cinnamon right from the start. Thanks to its modest system requirements, Mate runs better on old hardware, so if you are using an older desktop or netbook, Mate is definitely the way to go. In any other situation, it's hard not to recommend Cinnamon.

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