Mate and Cinnamon are the default alternatives offered in Linux Mint 14, the current release. Both are highly successful attempts to provide a GNOME 2-like desktop in response to widespread user dissatisfaction with GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's Unity.
Among experienced users, the two interfaces appear to have been instant successes. Despite having been in development for only a few months when the 2011 LinuxQuestions Members Choice Awards were voted on, Mate received 3.5 percent of the votes for best desktop environment, and Cinnamon 2.5 percent. In the 2012 poll, they did even better, with Cinnamon attracting just under 10 percent of the votes, and Mate 7.5 percent. Although Linux Mint was a popular distribution before either interface emerged, the two seemed to have raised interest in the distribution to even higher levels than before.
But which is right for you?
That depends on what you are looking for. You might get a general understanding of their differences by contrasting Cinnamon's home-page description — "Traditional layout, advanced features, easy to use, powerful, flexible" with Mate's — "The traditional Desktop Environment." But are the two mottoes no more than marketing slogans?
Nor is the decision made any easier by the renaming of GNOME features within them and the widespread insistence that the two interfaces are different.
One difficulty in comparing Mate and Cinammon is that both rename standard GNOME utilities. Cinnamon, for instance, has forked Mutter, calling its version Muffin. Faced with changes to the GNOME file manager Nautilus, it also preserves the GNOME 2 design under the name of Nemo.
Mate has even more name changes. In Mate, Nautilus becomes Caja. The Gedit text editor becomes Pluma, the document viewer Evince becomes Atril, and the window manager Metacity becomes Marco. Similarly, GConf is renamed mate.conf.
These name changes indicate forks. They distinguish Mate or Cinnamon from GNOME 2 or 3, and—most important of all—allow more than one to coexist on the same system while removing the possibility of conflicts. Yet although the changes are useful, they have the effect of making comparisons more difficult because they obscure what you want to compare.
A second difficulty in making a comparison is that purists are constantly insisting that Cinnamon and Mate are two different interfaces.
Strictly speaking, they are right, of course. In their brief histories, Mate's development has focused on reviving GNOME 2 for modern usage, while Cinnamon has been more innovative, offering its own set of panel applets and its Expointerface for handling virtual workspaces. Such differences seem likely to increase in future releases.
However, so far, the differences are mostly in the details. The general user experience remains similar in both Cinnamon and Mate. Both offer what some people are starting to refer to as a "classical interface," consisting of a single screen with a configurable panel and menu with the option for virtual workspaces.
Moreover, their interface are far closer to each other than either is to any other free or proprietary classical desktop. This similarity is enhanced by the Linux Mint branding, which uses the same themes and icons for both.
In Linux Mint 14, the latest release, an observant eye might notice slight differences in the wallpaper, but otherwise, the differences are only noticeable in a few utilities that specifically include Cinnamon in their name or in the About page of a dialog. But without long familiarity or a side-by-side comparison, most users would probably struggle to tell at a glance which is which.
Rather than viewing them as distinct interfaces, Mate and Cinnamon are probably best seen as two different solutions to the problem of providing a classical desktop at a time when GNOME offered only the feature-impoverished fallback mode (which has since been retired with the release of GNOME 3.8).
Alternatively, to use a metaphor that acknowledges the technical differences behind the scene, they are an example of parallel evolution, developments from similar conditions that resemble each other.
Once you compensate for these difficulties, what remains to be compared or contrasted? From a general user's perspective, much less than you might expect—and even less that seriously undermines the temptation to associate the two interfaces.
As you log in, the first difference you are likely to notice is that Mate begins with a dialog window that lists links to user resources, while Cinnamon does not.
The other obvious differences are cosmetic: Cinnamon's panel is darker than Mate's, the menus are slightly different in arrangement, and Mate is more likely to rely on words while Cinnamon uses only icons. Both menus display three columns, with the leftmost column reserved for places and system controls in Mate, and for favorites and system controls in Cinnamon. In both, the middle column is for first level menu items, and the third for displaying the contents of whatever is selected in the middle. Most of the icons are the same, although Mate places its search field at the bottom right and Cinnamon places its on the top left.