How to customise your Linux desktop: MATE

Now for part five in my Linux desktop customisation series: this time it's the turn of MATE, the reincarnation of Gnome 2.

So far in this series I have looked at Xfce (lightweight but full-featured), KDE (one view of the future of desktops, extremely configurable), Gnome 3 (a very different view of the future, very limited configurability) and Cinnamon (now a full-featured and very configurable desktop in its own right).

Next up is MATE, a desktop which was created specifically to preserve the Gnome 2 desktop.

From that rather limited beginning, MATE has grown to become a popular and well-respected desktop. I was just looking at the MATE Desktop Environment web page, and there is a list of at least 20 distributions which have a MATE variant or spin. As always, I want to be sure that I have the latest version of MATE, and that it is well integrated with the distribution, so I am using Linux Mint Debian Edition (2 - Betsy) for the examples in this post. As of this writing that is running MATE version 1.12.0.

Since this post is about desktop configuration, I would like to start with a very high-level question. One of the systems that I wanted to use for examples was running LMDE Cinnamon, rather than MATE. That presented me with the question "Is it possible to add MATE to an LMDE Cinnamon system?".

The answer turns out to be yes, well, sort of. I went into both the Software Manager and the Synaptic Package Manager, and I found the package task-mate-desktop. Installing that seems to download and install all of the packages necessary for MATE; then once I rebooted (or just restarted the X display manager) I could choose between Cinnamon and MATE in a little control at the top right of the login window.

BUT, the Mint-specific MATE configuration had not been done. The obvious symptom of this was that it had the default Debian wallpaper, rather than the LMDE wallpaper, and when I tried to change the wallpaper (see below for details) there were no others in the default list. There might have also been some other bits and pieces missing or needing configuration.

I could probably have worked my way through most of the missing configuration - it might not even have been all that much to do. But I decided that for reasons of completeness and accuracy in this post, I should really make sure that my test system is running a standard LMDE MATE installation, so I went back and reinstalled using the LMDE 2 (Betsy) MATE distribution.

LMDE 2 (Betsy) MATE 1.12

This, then, is the standard Linux Mint Debian Edition MATE desktop. Nothing surprising or out of the ordinary here, it's a desktop with wallpaper and a couple of icons, and a panel that spans the bottom of the screen with a menu button and some icons at the left end of the panel.


If I click that menu button, I get the Mint Menu shown here. This looks like a pretty standard menu, but if you are familiar with Gnome 2, you can already see the heritage here. Applications, Places and System were the three drop-down menus on the top panel of Gnome 2, and they are featured on this first menu page.


Favorites has been given its own page, accessed by clicking the button at the top right of the initial menu.

It is important to note that what is shown here is the Mint Menu, there are at least two other panel menus available, which I will look at later.


Starting as always with a very simple customization, I am going to change the desktop wallpaper. To do that, I need to get to the Appearance Preferences control. There are two ways to do that, either right-click anywhere on the desktop background, which brings up the menu shown here, or go through the Mint Menu on the panel to Preferences/Appearance.


The Appearance Preferences control, shown here, gives you an illustrated list of available wallpapers. There is also an 'Add' button at the bottom right, so you can use your own image. What MATE does not have, which Cinnamon and others did, is the option to have a slideshow. There are some add-ons and extensions available which add this capability, but I will not be going that far in this post.

Note also that this window has several other tabs at the top; from here you can also change the Theme and Fonts, and configure how Menus and Toolbars look and behave.

That's the simple part of the desktop out of the way. Next I want to look at the panels, but I'm going to change my approach a bit from the previous posts. It seems like I was focusing a little too much on the mechanics of configuring the desktop (click here, move there, update that) and not enough on the results, or on the overall effect of the changes. So I want to do something more like what I did in the first post, about Xfce, where I used the configuration changes to create my preferred desktop for a netbook. Since MATE was created to continue the line of the Gnome 2 desktop, I think what I will do is reconfigure this desktop so that it looks as much as possible like Gnome 2 did.

Adding a Panel

As I recall, Gnome 2 generally had two Panels, at the top and bottom of the screen. So I'm going to start by adding another panel.


In this screen shot I have cheated a little... the top panel has already been added, but the panel menu is still open so that you can see where the New Panel option is located. Of course, an empty panel is not terribly interesting or useful, so the next step is to get some content on it.

The Gnome 2 desktop had a set of menus at the left end of the top panel, with Application Places System categories. If I right-click on the top panel, and choose Add to Panel, I get the window shown here. Scroll down a bit, and I find three different kinds of menus; the main MATE menu, the advanced Mint Menu, and a "Custom Menu Bar".

If I select that last one, I get exactly what I want! Hooray! Well, it lands in the middle of the top panel, which is not where I want it, but I just right-click, choose Move, and then drag it over to the left end where it belongs.


Now that I have the Gnome 2 menu that I want, I can get rid of the original Mint Menu at the left end of the bottom panel. Right-click on the menu and I get this... oops. Remove and Move are not active.

MATE has yet another kind of panel locking, this time it is individual items on the panel that are locked. Oh yeah, I remember now that it worked that way in Gnome 2... wow, these guys really have done a good job! Ok, click on Lock to Panel (to unlock it), then right-click again and now those items are active and I can hit Remove from Panel.

By the way, this menu also shows the Move item that I used to get the new panel menu from the center to the left end.

Ok, what else needs to be done... well, there was a clock and some system icons and controls at the right end of the top bar in Gnome 2; those are both on the bottom bar right now. So let's see if I can Move something between two panels...

Well, sort of. The only thing you have to be careful about is that if the panels are set to auto-hide (mine always are, you know how stingy I am with screen space), then you won't be able to move things between panels. The problem is that the destination panel is hidden, and it won't come back when you move to that edge of the screen with something in your hand. It has to be visible already for you to drop something onto it.


So make sure that auto-hide is off, then right-click on the clock, choose Move, and take it up to the top panel and drop it. The Notification Area (the group of status and control icons) is slightly more tricky, because each of the items in that group has its own right-click function, so you can't get to the panel menu to click Move. But if you look closely there is a little handle on the left end of the Notification Area, you can click there.

Don't forget to click Lock to Panel for each item after you get these things where you want them. If you don't, you might find them scrambled after the next reboot.

Almost done now. There are launchers for the File Browser, Terminal and Firefox on the Mint MATE bottom panel. I think that I remember them being on the top panel as well, next to the menus, so I'm going to move all three of them up there.

Ok, one last thing. Gnome 2 had a Workspace Switcher at the right end of the bottom panel. This is a piece of pie now, we already know how to do it. Right click on the bottom panel, choose Add to Panel, scroll down to the bottom and click Workspace Switcher then Add. Move it to the right end of the panel if necessary, and Lock to Panel again. All done, easy as cake!

Retro MATE Desktop

Hey, that looks pretty good! As far as my atrophied old brain can remember, that is a good reproduction of the Gnome 2 desktop.


The only thing left to do is auto-hide the panels, so right-click on either one of them and choose Properties to get the Panel Properties window, and click Autohide.

This is also where you can change the size or location of the panel. MATE has a bit of a quirky way of changing the panel location, unlike the other desktops we have seen so far. As you can see here it has a drop-down list which will let you select the panel location (Orientation) as Top/Bottom/Left/Right. You can't just drag the panel around the display at this point, like you could with some of the other desktops. But if you un-check the Expand option, several things happen - Orientation becomes inactive, and the panel shrinks so that it does not span the entire bottom of the display and it grows "handles" on each end.


You can then grab one of these handles with the mouse, and drag the panel wherever you want it. Well, almost wherever you want it. You can't change horizontal/vertical orientation of the panel by dragging it, so if it is a top/bottom panel to start with, you can only drag it to another top/bottom edge - but that includes edges on secondary monitors as well. When you get it where you want it, click Expand again and it will lock into place.


The last item in the Panel Properties window is also quite interesting. If you enable 'Show hide buttons', a new button will appear at each end of the Panel. If you click on either of these, the panel will go zooming off that side of the screen to hide, and only the button will still be visible. Click the button again and the panel zooms back into view. This is one of those "gee whiz" effects that is fun to show to someone else, but I don't find it particularly useful. I prefer the Autohide function - but what I would really prefer would be an Intelligent Hide function, which MATE doesn't have yet.

The settings in this window apply only to the panel that you right-clicked to bring it up. To set Autohide in the other panel, you have to go back and click it the same way. Xfce wins a few points here for being able to adjust all of the panels from one window.

Well, that was an interesting exercise, I hope that it was better than just "point here, click there" to show not only how to customize the desktop, but also what could be done with it.

If you were looking carefully and did a bit of exploring along the way, you might have seen some other interesting possibilities. In the Add to Panel window in particular, there is a fairly long list of interesting things.


We have already seen two different panel menus - the Mint Menu that was on the original bottom panel, and the Gnome 2 Menu that we added to the new top panel - but there is even a third possibility in that list. The MATE Menu is a sort of combination of the other two, merging the three menus listed separately on the Gnome 2 panel into a single cascading category menu, but without the Favorites and Search capabilities of the Mint Menu.


Another interesting item in that list is the Window Selector. This is an alternative to the Window List that we have in the bottom panel. Rather than having individual buttons with labels for each window, this puts one small icon on the panel which you can click to get a list of windows.

That got me thinking: I could move the panels to the left and right sides, instead of the top and bottom, and use the standard MATE Menu rather than the Gnome 2 menu, substitute the Window Selector for the Window List, shove around a few other things... I could create essentially the same Netbook Desktop that I made back in the Xfce post!

I will be kind and not subject you to all of the details, but for the pedantic I will say that the one thing which falls short in that exercise is the Notification Area, which displays icons for update status, Bluetooth, battery, audio and such. It doesn't reorient its icons vertically when it is moved to a side panel, so it ends up looking like, well, pretty much nothing. Another couple of points for Xfce here, it got this right when I tried it. Oh well.

Of course, a lot of people use MATE not because they are stuck in the past longing for an authentic Gnome 2 desktop, but because they like the look, feel and functionality of it. There are lots of other ways to customize MATE to produce very different and interesting results. The Cairo-Dock, for example, which I looked at with the Gnome 3 desktop, is listed in the LMDE MATE Software Manager utility.

MATE Desktop with Cairo Dock

The bottom line is, as I said at the beginning, MATE has come a long way from its beginning as a way to keep Gnome 2 alive. As I hope these examples have demonstrated, today's MATE is powerful, flexible and highly configurable. It is no wonder that it has acquited a large and dedicated user base.

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