Ubuntu MATE 21.04 and AnboxThe Ubuntu team published version 21.04, on schedule and without much in the way of surprises. Ubuntu and its many community editions, including Ubuntu MATE, appear to have spent the past six months polishing the desktop environments. There aren't many changes, no leaps forward in terms of the underlying technology like init software, filesystems, and packaging formats which sometimes shake up the Ubuntu community. This time around the big headline change for Ubuntu was adopting Wayland as the default display software for the GNOME desktop. Meanwhile the Ubuntu MATE team included some fixes, addressed some problems when switching between desktop layouts, and polished their themes.
One key item mentioned in the Ubuntu MATE 21.04 release announcement is that their fixes have been pushed upstream to Debian. This means that fixes which appear in Ubuntu MATE 21.04 will not only be available to other flavours of Ubuntu, but improvements to the MATE desktop should also appear in Debian and its dozens of derived distributions.
Ubuntu MATE 21.04 is available for 64-bit (x86_64) machines. On release day ARM images were planned, but not published yet. The project's ISO file is a 2.8GB download. Booting from the Ubuntu MATE media brings up a menu asking if we'd like to run the live desktop, run the live desktop in safe graphics mode, or run the OEM install process. Taking the live desktop modes launches MATE 1.24.1. A window appears and asks us to select our language from a list and then click either a Try or Install button to proceed.
Taking the Try option brings up MATE with a classic two-panel layout. The top panel features the applications menu. The top panel also holds the system tray and a logout and user settings menu. The bottom panel acts as a task switcher.
A welcome window opens and presents us with a series of buttons for accessing information and commonly performed actions. On the information side of things there is an introduction note explaining what Ubuntu MATE is. There are documents we can read which talk about the distribution's key features as well as access the project's user forum and Discord chat room. Links to on-line documents and support open in the Firefox browser. The welcome window's action buttons help us change the desktop layout (more on that later) and launch the system installer.
Ubuntu MATE uses the Ubiquity system installer. Ubiquity has remained mostly unchanged over the past decade and it is one of the easier to navigate installers, in my opinion. It quickly walks us through choosing our preferred language and offering to show us the release notes. The release notes seem fairly conservative with few changes for this release compared to version 20.10.
We are next given the option of a Normal or Minimal installation. The minimal version essentially installs just a base system with the MATE desktop, a few utilities, and the Firefox web browser. The Normal install adds some other popular applications such as LibreOffice and a media player. On this screen we can also choose whether to install third-party software such as media codecs and non-free wireless networking support. I decided to take the Normal install option with non-free items.
When it comes to partitioning we can take a Guided option. This follows up by offering to set up Ubuntu MATE on a LVM volume or ZFS storage pool. Alternatively we can use a Manual partitioning option. The Manual screen is quite friendly and shows us a visual representation of our disk. I noticed when setting up Ubuntu MATE in a virtual machine that creating a new partition table defaulted to a GPT layout while past versions of the distribution would ask whether to use a DOS or GPT layout. As a side-effect of this, the installer now insists on setting up a EFI partition and reserved BIOS boot space. In the past an installation in a virtual machine could get by with one or two partitions (depending on whether we wanted swap space), now it requires at least four, which feels like overkill.
The final screen of the installer asks us to make up a username and password for ourselves. We have the alternative option of connecting to Active Directory for authentication. Ubiquity then copies its packages to the hard drive and concludes by offering to restart the computer.
My new copy of Ubuntu MATE booted to a graphical login screen with a green background. Signing into my account brought back the MATE desktop. The welcome window pops up again and this time it features a few alternative buttons. There is a Software button where the Install button used to be. This Software button launches the software centre which is called Software Boutique. I'll talk about this software centre later. Along with the buttons to access help and on-line resources there are buttons for changing the desktop layout and seeing a list of available web browsers. This latter button brings up a screen where some popular browsers such as Firefox, Chromium, Chrome, Brave, and Opera are listed. We can click a button next to any of these browsers to install them. Some are available as native packages, though others are not. Chromium, for instance, is installed as a Snap package.
The second time I logged into my account a window appeared and asked if I would like to send my hardware information to the developers. We can preview the data which would be sent, which mostly deals with the type of CPU, amount of memory, and hardware present on the computer.
The default theme of the MATE desktop is bright and makes use of a lot of white and light grey. I found this hard on my eyes and was pleased to find there are alternative dark themes available. The distribution famously supports multiple desktop layouts. We can access these alternative layouts through the welcome window or the MATE settings panel. There are layouts available which make MATE look like Ubuntu's Unity desktop, like macOS, and like the classic Windows desktop. I found that sometimes switching layouts would cause the desktop panel to crash, an issue that was reportedly fixed for this release. I will grant that having the panel crash when switching to the Unity-like layout no longer causes the whole MATE session to crash, just the panel.
Ubuntu MATE 21.04 -- Exploring the application menu and running LibreOffice (full image size: 193kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
One aspect of Ubuntu MATE I appreciated was that its screensaver does not activate until the system has been idle for 30 minutes. This is a comfortable default for me and a pleasant vacation from many modern distributions which insist on locking the desktop after five minutes on inactivity.
I started my trial with Ubuntu MATE in a VirtualBox environment. The distribution ran smoothly in the virtual machine. The MATE desktop dynamically resized to match the application window, the system offered average performance, and I encountered no problems with it.
When I switched over to running Ubuntu MATE on my laptop I was pleasantly surprised at how responsive the MATE desktop was. Everything felt very quick and snappy. There are no distracting visual effects or animations to slow down the desktop and everything felt pleasantly quick. All of my laptop's hardware was correctly detected and worked well. Ubuntu MATE was able to boot in both Legacy BIOS and UEFI modes on my laptop.
Ubuntu MATE 21.04 -- The Mutiny layout with a dark theme (full image size: 589kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
In both test environments the operating system was stable, but the desktop panel was not. I experienced almost daily crashes of the panel in both environments. Usually the panel would come back on its own, though sometimes it needed to be manually loaded or I'd need to logout and sign back into my account to restore the panel.
Ubuntu MATE is a mid-weight distribution, creeping toward the heavier end of the scale. The system uses 590MB of memory to log into MATE and a fresh install took up about 7GB of space. This is slightly above average, but still lower than the mainstream distributions which run GNOME.
Apart from the MATE 1.24.1 desktop and the distribution's welcome window, Ubuntu MATE ships with a collection of popular open source applications. The Firefox browser is included with several other browsers readily available. The Transmission bittorrent software is included along with the LibreOffice suite and the Evolution e-mail client. The Atril document viewer is included along with the Caja file manager, and a simple image viewer. I found Rhythmbox and the Celluloid media player installed and the Webcamoid utility is available for handling web cams. The distribution ships with media codecs and was able to play all the audio and video files I threw at it. The Shotwell image manager is featured too.
The distribution also includes a user account manager, the CUPS printing configuration tool, and the GNU Compiler Collection. Ubuntu MATE runs the systemd init software and version 5.11.0 of the Linux kernel.
User menu and the Control Centre
In the upper-right corner of the desktop is a user and settings menu. This menu provides options for logging out, shutting down the system, opening the MATE documentation, and seeing some general system information. I think it's unfortunate the icon for this menu is so small and subtle as the items in the menu are all very useful and particularly helpful to new users. This menu also includes an entry for launching the system's Control Centre.
Ubuntu MATE 21.04 -- The Control Centre (full image size: 487kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
The Control Centre displays a grid of icons which open settings modules. These icons are organized by category. While most of the settings modules adjust the look and behaviour of the desktop there are also modules for adjusting the firewall, setting up printers, and managing user accounts. These settings modules are all clearly presented and worked well for me.
Ubuntu MATE ships with a simple update manager which opens on the desktop whenever new packages become available. The updater lists available new packages and their overall size. We can then click boxes next to each item we want to download or ignore. There were only a few packages available when I was first running Ubuntu MATE, partially (I suspect) because components in the base system are bundled together into one item. All the updates I fetched were installed without any problems.
The main software centre on Ubuntu MATE is called Software Boutique. This software manager can be accessed through the welcome menu, the application menu, and the Control Centre. The Boutique displays a list of icons for software categories across the top of its window. Clicking on a category allows us to see curated or popular items in the category. We can then apply filters within a category to further narrow down results.
The Boutique is set up to display relatively few items in each category - just showing the more popular items in each group. We can click a button next to each item we want to install and it is added to a queue that will be processed later. We can click a button in the upper-right corner of the Boutique window to review the queue and start the download process.
The Boutique processes queued items one at a time and pauses to prompt for our password prior to each package it downloads. This means we cannot simply set-and-forget the Boutique's queue, we need to watch over it and this slows down the process. It also means installing many items becomes tedious as it results in a lot of password prompts.
Should we wish to use a software manager which offers access to the full range of packages in the distribution's repositories, or if we want to avoid these steady password prompts, the Boutique has us covered. There is a category dedicated to other software managers such as Synaptic and GNOME Software.
We also have the option of using the APT command line tools and Snap to manage packages. The Snap framework for portable packages is installed by default. The Flatpak framework is not included by default, but it is available in the repositories.
When trying to run programs from the command line which are not installed there is a pause while the system tries to find the missing program in Ubuntu MATE's repositories. If a result is found we are told what package to install to acquire the program. Usually this happens quickly but it can take several seconds if updates or new packages are already being installed.
While not really relevant to Ubuntu MATE, I wanted to try out Anbox this week. The Anbox software strives to run Android applications in containers on a GNU/Linux desktop. Anbox's install instructions rely on Snap packages and personal package archives (PPAs) so it's mostly limited to running on the Ubuntu family.
I tried to follow the Anbox install instructions and found the PPA the project provides for some dependencies has not been updated to work with Ubuntu 21.04 (or its community editions) at the time of writing. This brought my test to a premature halt, though I hope to return to it later.
I was quite happy with my experiences with Ubuntu MATE 21.04. It had been a few years since I last tried this flavour of Ubuntu and I was pleased to see that the developers have mostly focused on polishing and fixing minor issues. The distribution works well with my hardware, it's responsive, and I like that we can easily switch between desktop layouts to suit the user's preference. The welcome window manages to provide access to a lot of information and resources without being too cluttered or confusing.
The Software Boutique is an interesting idea and I have mixed feelings about it. Having a small collection of popular applications readily available in an uncluttered interface is quite attractive to newcomers. On the other hand, forcing users to install a separate software centre to gain access to less popular (though still useful) applications feels awkward. This is a tool I'd probably want to stick in front of novice users to see how they react to it before I make a decision on it.
The documentation, settings panel, and default layout all feel really polished. The installer is easy to navigate, for the most part, and Ubuntu MATE ships with fairly up to date software. I had just two issues with this release. One was that the desktop panel sometimes crashed, either when switching desktop layouts or when signing in. Usually the panel restarts itself, but sometimes I had to logout and then sign back into my account to get the panel back. The other concern is Ubuntu MATE 21.04 only receives nine months of support. I'd suggest sticking with long-term support (LTS) releases for most people. However, for those who don't mind upgrading about once every six months, 21.04 is a really solid release based on my experience. It's also one of the more user friendly distributions I have used in the past six months.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast