Replacing Ubuntu 12.04 Unity with MATE

Replacing Ubuntu 12.04 Unity with MATE

I am a stubborn man. But part of that stubbornness was the result of a personal kind of evolution, not an unwillingness to change.

For example, my desktop. Microsoft, with Windows 95, gave us something great: the desktop we know and love. Trying my best to ignore Metro— for the sake of this post, at least– some of my habits have changed to fit this model but, more importantly, I have figured out how to change it best to fit my needs. There is room for improvement but I can only imagine those improvements adding new functionality, not removing old, show-stopping hurdles.

Ubuntu, in their awesome, massive growth and other-wise fantastic direction from their leadership, have decided to make a major change. They have decided to abandon our old friend for something pretty radical with Unity. Unity is, for the most part in its latest incarnation, a pretty great thing. It leaves some old hardware behind (always takes balls but some times is needed) in order to innovate and move us all forward and I have grown to like it for some tasks. For example, my parents and grandparents have flourished using it. They all love different things about it but it works for them and I am happy to use the right tool for the job.

However, although my family finds it easier with is bigger buttons and everything-merged-into-one-place design, I find it much harder to use for what I do. I would call myself a power user and, as such, I have certain requirements. Instead of going into those requirements here I will quote Linus Torvalds because I feel he summed up the meat of it pretty well:

I used to be upset when gnome developers decided it was “too complicated” for the user to remap some mouse buttons. In gnome3, the developers have apparently decided that it’s “too complicated” to actually do real work on your desktop, and have decided to make it really annoying to do.

Here’s an example of “the crazy”: you want a new terminal window. So you go to “activities” and press the “terminal” thing that you’ve made part of your normal desktop thing (but why can’t I just have it on the desktop, instead of in that insane “activities” mode?). What happens? Nothing. It brings your existing terminal to the forefront.

That’s just crazy crap. Now I need to use Shift-Control-N in an old terminal to bring up a new one. Yeah, that’s a real user experience improvement. Sure.

I’m sure there are other ways, but that’s just an example of the kind of “head up the arse” behavior of gnome3. Seriously. I have been asking other developers about gnome3, they all think it’s crazy.

I’m using Xfce. I think it’s a step down from gnome2, but it’s a huge step up from gnome3. Really.

As such I had, for a while, switched to Linux Mint like so much of my cohort. I still love Mint but there is a smaller community there and less Mint-oriented information around the web. Sure, majority of the stuff I have come across for Ubuntu also works for Mint, but I only left Ubuntu because of Unity. If I can remove that annoyance I have no reason not to move back as there is safety in numbers. After all, is that not the whole idea behind the open-source philosophy?

Let us rip that mother-loving (see, I made a funny) interface out and replace it with what was not broken in the first place, shall we?

Remember to backup anything you touch before doing this because who knows if I am secretly working for Microsoft and spreading false information to make people think Linux sucks? It could happen, people!

Open up a terminal and run these commands as root:

add-apt-repository "deb $(lsb_release -cs) main"
apt-get update
apt-get install -y --force-yes mate-archive-keyring
apt-get update
apt-get install mate-core
apt-get install mate-desktop-environment

These will install the necessary packages. Note that you must install mate-core and mate-desktop-environment in separates command for– what I assume is– a race-condition situation. If you do not it may work, or it may break your UI. I never really looked into why as the solution is plenty easy to implement and does not harm anything.

Next you have to change a few configuration files so Ubuntu knows where to find some things. Edit /etc/xdg/autostart/gnome-settings-daemon.desktop as root and replace the contents with

[Desktop Entry]
Name=Mate Settings Daemon

Next edit /etc/xdg/autostart/mate-settings-daemon.desktop as root and find the line that starts with Exec=. Replace it with

Exec=/usr/bin/mate-settings-daemon --no-daemon &

Next edit /etc/X11/Xsession.d/80overlayscrollbars (you may have to create it) as root and add the line


If this is a well-traveled installation of Ubuntu you may also want to change the default text editor to pluma (MATE’s version of gedit) and the default file manager to caja (MATE’s version of nautilus). pluma is not such a big deal– I just hate the latest replaces for the find and find and replace functionally in gedit— but caja added some wwwaaayyy-overdo functionality like undo/redo.

I am not sure if Unity will work after this and I never tried despite it only being a few clicks away. Honestly I do not care one tiny bit. I did notice that a significant amount of memory is no longer being used so my netbook is much happier when I am pushing it a little too hard. Once I get Ubuntu running on my Slate 2 I am also betting it will appreciate the spare CPU cycles, as well.

That crack about sabotaging Linux hurt to write. I owe me an apology. :'(

4 thoughts on “Replacing Ubuntu 12.04 Unity with MATE

  1. Hi! First off thanks for the info! I Am Building a customized remastersys image of my perfect desktop and this info was perfect! would you happen to know if its possible for me to completely remove the Unity packages? or will that break the install? Thanks a ton!

    Additionally i agree with everything you have said here, Unity is meh, metro is meh, and my biggest issue isnt so much stubbornness, but i have a system of productivity that i accomplish through a familiar layout that i like and know by heart! gnome 3 moving most of the most used features for me was a huge turn off and Unity is as tough to use for me as metro is on windows, I am not a fan since it makes you follow so many more steps and complications just to do simple tasks.

    1. I completely agree.

      It has been so long since I played with removing Unity components I honestly do not recall. My gut says that it may not break but you will be left with, mostly, a basic X install (which has virtually nothing built into it by design). Not sure it is worth the work when you can use something else as a base closer to your goal.

      I would suggest checking out the other distros. Currently I am running on Linux Mint 14 MATE but I am also checking out Xubuntu and Linux Mint Xfce. The stability issues in Nautilus/Caja are really getting to me (other than that I am 99% happy but the file manage is so important…). Both are Ubuntu under the hood so you can not go wrong with either, just one is closer for a desktop user.

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