Linux Cinnamon vs. Linux MATE: What’s the Difference?

Find the Linux desktop look and feel that’s right for you

Linux Mint—as well as most other popular distributions—supports several well-designed desktop environments, two of the most common of which are Cinnamon and MATE.

What Are Desktop Environments?

A desktop environment is the graphical look and layout of a system, plus a default set of utilities, applications, and settings options. The Linux ecosystem supports more than a dozen commonly used DEs.

Yet of the list, Cinnamon and MATE attract a great deal of interest, because they're both derived from the GNOME desktop standard.

The Cinnamon DE is developed by the Linux Mint team. MATE is managed by a developer from Argentina.

MATE is a continuation of the otherwise discontinued version 2.x of the GNOME desktop and retains the conventional desktop schema of a bottom panel with a simple application menu and list of running apps, and a home screen where files may be stored.

Cinnamon, on the other hand, is an alternate-track fork of the Gnome 3.x project. It gives a nod to the standard desktop while also incorporating advanced menu options, a cleaner minimal interface, and a curated selection of extensions for the status bar and other visual home screen components. The idea here is to provide Linux users a “modern” desktop which strikes a balance between functionality and elegance.

A screenshot of the Cinnamon desktop on Linux Mint

You can run both Cinnamon and MATE on most Linux distributions.

Aesthetics: Cinnamon Wins With Consistency

Linux Mint with Cinnamon desktop and the Themes menu open

Cinnamon

  • Clean design aesthetic.

  • Simplicity of widget and themes administration.

  • Extensible content store.

MATE

  • Adherence to 2.x GNOME means that individual items are fragmented.

  • Design templates don't overlay perfectly because of imperfectly consistent under-the-hood design requirements.

Cinnamon is all about looking sleek and consistent, while still letting people pick the thematic inflection they want. Themes, along with other graphical elements like desklet widgets for the desktop and applet widgets for the status bar, install from Cinnamon’s Themes menu. An online extension “store” customizes Cinnamon while keeping your panel from getting out of control and cluttered.

Speed: MATE Stays Lean With the Barest Minimum Memory Footprint

Linux Mint MATE desktop with the Terminal application open and the top program running

Cinnamon

  • As with KDE, the resource overhead for the glossy sheen isn't trivial.

MATE

  • A component-level plug-and-play design approach limits global resource overhead.

Overall, MATE is leaner and less hardware-intensive than Cinnamon, which makes it generally snappier. The less-flashy look of MATE means it doesn’t have to devote as much memory and processing to glossy visual effects, making everything run smoother. The default utility set for MATE also swaps out a few Cinnamon utilities for smaller, simpler alternatives which, again, cuts down on loading lag time for app startup.

Customization: MATE Supports Different Windowing Engines

Linux Mint with the MATE desktop with a rotating cube switch between worksapces

Cinnamon

  • As with Windows 10, a coordinated design aesthetic necessarily limits the full range of UI tweaks that Linux is famous for.

  • Customizations, being hooked into the window manager, tend to operate globally.

MATE

  • Great for roll-your-own window managment—pick from among several differetn window managers/compositors customize outside of the constraints of a global environment.

  • You're free to chrome things however you like.

While Cinnamon places the customization menus front and center, it presents a somewhat restrictive array of choices. MATE, on the other hand, lets you go wild with whatever tweaks you can imagine. MATE lets you switch things up more piecemeal—instead of applying a single theme over all UI elements the way Cinnamon encourages users to do, MATE lets you go in different directions for the look of menus, window bars, and icons. For example, it’s straightforward to configure the MATE panel differently from the rest of the menu UI, whereas Cinnamon really discourages this.

You can also mess around with the window manager—the program at the heart of a desktop environment that dictates how windows are drawn and positioned—in MATE more than in Cinnamon. In fact, Cinnamon only gives you one option, while MATE supports several different window managers and more than one compositor. One combined window manager-compositor that stands out is Compiz, which lets you delve deep into the graphical effects that adorn moving windows, switching workspaces, and related features.

Stability: MATE is Built on a Solid Foundation

Linux Mint with the MATE desktop, with the menu opened

Cinnamon

  • Some bells-and-whistles are new enough that they haven't been fine-tuned for the full diversity of hardware/software combinations in the Linux universe. As such, you'll see more glitches and inconsistencies the more you stray from standard off-the-shelf systems.

MATE

  • Based on robust, if "old," frameworks—promoting stability.

With simple applications, a no-frills interface, and tried-and-true GTK+ 2 libraries, MATE is rock-solid. By not trying to do too much, and doing everything well, MATE almost never crashes. Things just work, and if you want them to look nicer and still work, you can do that too.

Usability: Cinnamon is Locked and Loaded, With No Need for Configuration

Linux Mint Cinnamon with the System Settings panel open

Cinnamon

  • Themes apply out-of-the-box, and adjust with just a few clicks.

MATE

  • Prepare to take some time to configure everything.

The unified look and full-featured utilities of Cinnamon make it ideal for a modern computing experience. Every customization portal has a consistent app-store like interface, whether it’s an actual app store or a theming menu, that is familiar to any modern desktop or laptop computer user. Every utility, such as the image or document viewer, is also rich and full-featured and does not cut down on menu options for the sake of efficient processing, as MATE sometimes does.

Utilities: ...It Depends on How Fancy You Want Your Apps

Linux Mint MATE with a document reader open

Cinnamon

  • Tends to offer tools that have remained current with Gnome 3.x pathways.

MATE

  • Great for older utilities that perhaps update more slowly, or haven't left the Gnome 2.x universe.

Utilities access and manipulate files of all types, administer your system and basically make the desktop useful. If you’re looking for dead-simple utilities that never fail, MATE is your best bet. If you want a modern, unabridged set of features and a sleek finish, check out Cinnamon.

Final Verdict: Your Patience Matters

Cinnamon

  • Modern design that doesn't require a lot of component-level tweaking.

  • Higher resource overheads but snazzier visual appeal.

MATE

  • Robust, but not as polished.

  • Fine-tuning requires some time and some knowledge of how things work under-the-hood.

  • More customizable.

MATE offers a well-tested, highly configurable interface that's still rockin' the Windows XP motifs. Cinnamon aims to be "modern," and in so doing, you get more polish with less efficiency and customization.