Ubuntu Mate On The Raspberry PI 400

In a previous article I reviewed the desktop version of Ubuntu on the Raspberry PI 4.

I came up against quite a few issues whilst using Ubuntu on the PI 4 with the main one being performance. In my opinion running the GNOME desktop on a Raspberry PI is never going to work because GNOME takes too many resources. This isn’t a criticism of GNOME because on a laptop with higher specifications it is a decent desktop environment.

I received a few criticisms and comments during that review. One of the criticisms was that I should have overclocked the Raspberry PI 4.

The main comment that I received multiple times is that I should have used Ubuntu Mate.

So here we are. I have installed Ubuntu Mate and I have been using it for about a month and I am going to share with you my experience.

What Is Ubuntu Mate?

According to the Ubuntu Mate website, Ubuntu Mate is an easy to use operating system with a configurable desktop environment.

With modest hardware requirements it is suitable for modern workstations, single board computers and older hardware alike.

The Raspberry PI section of the Ubuntu Mate website says the Raspberry PI version provides a complete, familiar, desktop environment that can be used for basic desktop computing.

In this review I will be looking at the ease of setup, the look and feel, the applications that are installed, how easy it is to install other applications, watching DRM content and general performance.

How To Install Ubuntu Mate On An SD-Card

This guide will show you how to install Ubuntu Mate on an SD-Card and set it up on a Raspberry PI 400.

Setting up Ubuntu Mate is as straight forward as setting up other operating systems on the raspberry PI, with a standard method of creating an SD Card and just a few setup steps such as choosing your language, keyboard layout, timezone, connecting to the internet and creating a user.

Look And Feel

Ubuntu Mate Desktop

Ubuntu Mate unsurprisingly comes with the Mate desktop. The Mate desktop came about during the time that the flagship Ubuntu operating system went down the route of using the Unity desktop and GNOME was working towards the more modern interface that we see today.

Mate was created for people who preferred the desktop to work the way it had previously and it is lighter in resources than Unity (which is largely abandoned) and Gnome.

Ubuntu Mate has 2 panels, 1 at the top and 1 at the bottom.

System Tray

In the right corner of the top panel is a series of icons for managing notifications, bluetooth, network connectivity, audio settings, the time (and calendar) and the ability to log out and switch users.

Ubuntu Mate Icons

In the left corner of the top panel is a menu icon and an area for quick launch icons. By default there is only one quick launch icon which is for FireFox.

Ubuntu Menu

The menu shows a search box, a series of categories and the items within each category. The top menu item is called “Favourites” and you can add applications to it by right clicking on their icons and choosing “pin to favourites menu”.

The bottom panel has an icon in the left corner to hide all applications which enables you to get back to your desktop quickly,

Any application you open will appear as a task in the bottom panel.

In the bottom right there are 4 boxes to enable you to use different virtual desktops. You could have a web browser open on one desktop for instance, mail on another, LibreOffice on a 3rd and your audio player on the 4th. You are of course bound by the memory and CPU limitations.

Finally in the absolute bottom right corner of the panel is a recycle bin.

Changing The Look And Feel

I won’t go into a complete guide here but a quick overview of settings you can change to make the Mate desktop work the way you want it to.

Change Ubuntu Mate Background

You can change the desktop image by right clicking on the desktop and choosing “Change Desktop Background”.

The screen above appears and you can choose from any of the stock images, choose to have a plain colour or add your own images.

To remove a panel, right click on it and choose remove. You can also change where the panel is located by right clicking on it and choosing properties.

Mate Panel Properties

As you can see, you can change the orientation of a panel to appear against any side of the screen (top, bottom, left, right) and you can change the size of the panel. You can also change the background colour of the panel and make it transparent if so required.

You can add items to a panel by right clicking and choosing “add to panel”. You can add a large number of widgets to a panel with the most useful being the “Application Launcher”.

The Firefox symbol next to the menu is an example of an application launcher panel item.

Application Launcher

When you add an application launcher you will be shown a list of categories and when you click on a category you will see the applications within that category. You can also search using the box at the top of the window.

Clicking “add” creates an icon on the panel. You can drag the icon to where you want it to appear on the panel.

Another useful widget is the advanced menu.

Ubuntu Mate Advanced Menu

The advanced menu does a bit more than the standard menu in that you can see places and system options as well as software categories and applications.

There are also other menu widgets available including classic (three separate menus called applications, places and system), brisk (the default with Ubuntu mate) and compact (more like the Raspberry PI OS menu).

Other useful widgets include command (easy access to a terminal window), force quit (easily kill misbehaving applications) and lock screen (easily lock your screen with one click),

Applications

The Raspberry PI 400 is a desktop computer and so you would want to be able to do as many things as you would on a traditional desktop computer.

I would expect a desktop operating system to have the following types of software application installed by default.

  • Web browser
  • Email client
  • Audio player
  • Media player
  • Office suite
  • Image viewer
  • File manager

Ubuntu Mate provides Firefox as the default web browser and this works well in most situations. With the lack of full Chrome for the Raspberry PI, it is a coin toss as to whether to use Firefox or Chromium.

Evolution is the default mail client and again it is personal opinion whether you prefer Evolution or Thunderbird. I happen to prefer Evolution and I can confirm it works with GMail without any issues.

The default audio player is Rhythmbox, which is as good as it gets, not just on Linux but anywhere. You can use it to play music locally, create your own playlists, stream from online radio stations and create your own DAAP server. You will need to install another package (shown below) in order to play MP3 files.

For playing videos there is an application called Celluloid which is adequate without being outstanding.

LibreOffice is the standard office suite on most Linux distributions with everything you need including word processor, spreadsheets, presentation package and database package.

For viewing photos, Shotwell is available and Caja is the default file manager.

Ubuntu Mate has all the bases covered and from a starting point for new users is better than Raspberry PI OS in this regard.

Installing Applications

One size doesn’t fit all and we all use our computers for different things and therefore there will be other packages that we need to install.

Ubuntu Mate has a “Software Boutique” which is described as a carefully curated selection of the best in class applications.

Software Boutique

The Boutique is good in one sense because there aren’t too many packages and it is easy to see what you are looking for without endless scrolling.

If I want to do some image editing I can easily find both GIMP and Inkscape which can be considered best in class.

Under the “Sound and video” section there is an option to install “Codecs Pack” which will allow you to play MP3 audio within Rhythmbox. You will also find VLC if you prefer this to Celluloid and you can install Kdenlive for video editing.

If there is software you can’t find using the Boutique then you can install the Software Centre or Synaptic.

DRM Content

The biggest issue facing the Raspberry PI as a desktop computer is the ability to play DRM content such as watching Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Using Raspberry PI OS I was able to install Chromium Media Edition (Chromium with Widevine) using this guide.

The same technique didn’t work on Ubuntu Mate so I ended up using the following method.

Firstly I went to https://github.com/monkaBlyat/docker-chromium-armhf.

The following commands clone the repository, build a docker environment and allow you to run a version of Chromium with Widevine included.

sudo apt install docker docker.io pulseaudio-utils pulseaudio
git clone https://github.com/monkaBlyat/docker-chromium-armhf
cd docker-chromium-armhf
sudo docker build -t hthiemann/chromium-armhf .
xhost +local:docker
sudo docker volume create chromium_home
sudo docker pull hthiemann/docker-chromium-armhf
sudo cp chromium-armhf /usr/local/bin
sudo usermod -aG docker $(whoami)
chromium-armhf

I followed this up by creating a desktop file so that I can launch this version of Chromium from the menu and as a quick launch icon.

Alternatively you can open a terminal window and run the following command every time you want to watch Netflix:

chromium-armhf
Netflix Ubuntu Mate

A few points to raise here. Firstly it was way more complicated than the method used for Raspberry PI OS and took a lot longer to install.

I don’t really like either method. They are both very hacky. The Raspberry PI OS method relies on a widevine library downloaded from a third party site and assuming it isn’t compromised, how often does it get refreshed and updated?

The script above creates a docker environment with a version of Chromium and the Widevine library. Whilst it is running in a container, the version of Chromium may be out of date (and almost certainly is) and we still don’t know much about the origins of the Widevine libraries. (We are downloading from a 3rd party site).

You are taking a risk entering your Netflix and Amazon credentials using either method in my opinion.

My advice would be to get an Amazon Firestick instead and use your Raspberry PI for other things.

This is not a criticism of Ubuntu Mate or Raspberry PI OS. It is, I’m sure a hurdle that will be overcome in the future.

Performance

Without overclocking and running from an SD Card, I can confirm that the performance of Ubuntu Mate is similar to Raspberry PI OS and is therefore perfectly adequate to use as your desktop operating system.

I would perhaps advise overclocking to safe levels and running from an SSD will definitely improve your overall experience.

Summary

Ubuntu Mate is a great option for people wanting to use a Raspberry PI 4 as a desktop computer or for Raspberry PI 400 owners.

It comes with a solid selection of applications and is a bit less fiddly than Raspberry PI OS (unless you want to watch Netflix).

Ubuntu Mate provides a better starting point for new users and the desktop environment is a bit more modern looking than the default option with Raspberry PI OS.