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.
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.