A review of GNOME 2 seems redundant at this point. After all, the first release was almost a decade ago, and it's been a year since GNOME 3.0 was announced.
However, a review of Mate 1.2 is not quite the same thing. Mate is Linux Mint's fork of GNOME 2, designed to fill the ongoing demand for this GUI that simply refuses to die.
Announced as "the traditional desktop environment," the point of Mate is not so much what new features it introduces as how well it preserves GNOME 2 while remaining compatible with GNOME 3 -- and how these efforts compare to similar efforts, like GNOME's current fallback mode (aka "Classic GNOME") or Linux Mint's Cinnamon.
Mate is not a separate distribution. Rather, it is a collection of packages that you can add to your current distribution. Packages are now installed by default in the main Linux Mint DVD, and are also available for Arch Linux, Linux Mint, Debian, and Ubuntu in a separate repository. As I write, the packages are not available in any of these distribution's standard repositories, so you will need to add the repository to your system.
Should you install, remember that the repositories are specific to the release version. You will need dependencies from the exact version.
In addition, if the Debian wheezy packages are typical, there are no dummy packages that will install everything, despite some packages being named mate-desktop and mate-desktop-environment. You will need to go through the online list of packages to make sure that you have the utilities and everything else installed.
The first thing to say about Mate 1.2 is that its resemblance to GNOME 2 is a close one. If you yearn for GNOME 2, Mate should leave you with very little to be desired.
Icons on the desktop, multiple panels, applets, an unfolding menu, a single screen -- all that GNOME 3 abandoned -- are faithfully retained in Mate. What is probably even more important to many is that the configuration options of GNOME 2 are preserved.
In fact, Mate is a thorough enough clone that even what I consider the faults of GNOME 2 are included (you may, of course, disagree). By default, the Applications / Places / System menu bar is preserved, and, compared to KDE, the selection of applets is unimaginative.
The greatest changes that the average user is likely to see is that many of the names have been changed. For instance, GNOME's Nautilus file manager is called Caja in Mate. Similarly, the file-viewer Eye of GNOME is Eye of Mate (EOM). From what the release announcement says, these changes are not just filing off serial numbers, but also part of the effort to avoid any conflicts on systems on which both Mate and GNOME 3 are installed.
Most of the changes are behind the scenes. For instance, configuration files are centralized in ~/.config/mate, while the setting daemons now support the Pulse Audio sound server and GStreamer multimedia frameworks. Although such changes are either convenient or else help to keep Mate current, most users would notice them only if they were absent -- if then.
Generally, you have to search closely to find the improvements. For instance, Mate adds the option of a Control Center to GNOME 2, but that is mostly a matter of increasing choice: you can either use the same tools from the traditional systems menu, or else from a single window in which the tools are divided into categories. Other changes from GNOME 2 are similarly minor.
One of the few areas that have been given special attention is the menu. It is now supported by mozo, a fork of the alacarte menu editor used in GNOME. From the list of panel applets, you can also replace the Applications / Places / System menu bar with what is simply called the main menu. The main menu adds the Places and Systems menus to the bottom of the Applications menu, as some distributions have always preferred.
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