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

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

A screenshot of the Cinnamon desktop on Linux Mint

If you are a fan of Linux Mint, you know that you have more than one choice of experience on the distribution. Specifically, users get to select one of a few desktop environments for Mint. While Mint’s menu of desktops offers a wealth of options, less experienced users might not know what sets them apart. This guide aims to demystify the two main desktops for Mint while presenting some points of comparison between them.

What Are Desktop Environments, Cinnamon and MATE?

Cinnamon and MATE are both desktop environments, but what exactly is that? A desktop environment (DE or simply desktop) is the graphical look and layout of a system, plus the default set of utilities, applications and settings options. Both Cinnamon and MATE are developed by, and tailored for, the Linux Mint project, and they are both built off the GTK+ set of graphics libraries. And because they run on the same operating system (the Linux Mint distribution of Linux) and pull from the same family of graphical libraries, they are both compatible on the same hardware--anywhere that Cinnamon can run, so can MATE, and vice versa. 

Despite these similarities, the two desktops are designed with different philosophies in mind. MATE is a continuation of the otherwise discontinued version 2.x of the Gnome desktop and retains the traditional desktop schema of a bottom panel with a simple application menu and list of running apps, and a home screen where files can be laid out.

Cinnamon, on the other hand, is a kind of alternate track vanguard of the Gnome 3.x project. It gives a nod to the traditional 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.

You can run both Cinnamon and MATE on most Linux distributions, but they work best on Linux Mint. For the purposes of comparison and giving them their best chance to shine, the guide below will evaluate them based on their current respective editions of Linux Mint. They are also probably the two most polished desktops you can run on Linux Mint — Xfce is also a choice, but it is not a priority for developers so it gets a bit less love.

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Aesthetics: Cinnamon Wins With Consistency

Linux Mint with Cinnamon desktop and the Themes menu open

Cinnamon is all about looking sleek and consistent, while still letting the user 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, can easily be perused and installed from Cinnamon’s Themes menu. If you want to consider more theming options, you can navigate to an online extension “store” that lets you modify Cinnamon while keeping your panel from getting out of control and cluttered.

Between these two methods, you have access to the newest GTK+ 3 themes vying to give Linux a fresh contemporary style. You can also install GTK+ 3 themes on MATE, but Cinnamon is optimized to run them. As Cinnamon is Linux Mint’s flagship, they want it to look the part.

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Speed: MATE Stays Lean With the Barest Minimum Memory Footprint

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

Overall, MATE is leaner and less hardware-intensive than Cinnamon, which makes it generally snappier. The “traditional,” 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.

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Customization: MATE Comes Loaded With Multiple Windowing Engines Under the Hood

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

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, icons and more. For instance, 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 allows you to choose from multiple window managers and more than one compositor, a kind of effect drawing engine. 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 much more.

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Stability: MATE is Built on the Solid Graphical Foundation

Linux Mint with the MATE desktop, with the menu opened

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.

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

Linux Mint Cinnamon with the System Settings panel open

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 instantly 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.

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

Linux Mint MATE with a document reader open

This category really depends on your preference. As hinted at above, utilities are the pre-installed apps that allow you to 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, Cinnamon is what you want.


However one chooses to score them, there’s really no definitive answer for which of these desktops, or any desktop, is better. The most important criterion is whether a desktop suits your workflow and personal style. That said, you stand a better chance of finding a UX that is best for you when you know what you have to choose from.