MATE and Xfce are two incredibly popular lean desktop environments for Linux. Under the Linux Mint distribution, Cinnamon, MATE, and Xfce are the three main options you’ll have. There are people who swear by each of these desktop environments (DEs), but which is actually better?

As far as lean environments go, Cinnamon really isn’t in the competition at all. Cinnamon is a newer, contemporary-looking DE that subsequently will use up more resources than the other two. Both MATE and Xfce are designed to be extremely lightweight.

Although there are diehard fans of each, they’re more similar than you might think. As open source projects, they don’t get updated as frequently as Cinnamon (which is managed personally by Linux Mint). They also are very similar in terms of weight and stability.

Still, there are marked differences between MATE and Xfce. You might not have a preference in some contexts but, in others, the differences will be meaningful. Let’s explore.

MATE vs. Xfce: A Side-by-Side Comparison

DeveloperOpen Source project started by Perberos Open Source project started by Olivier Fourdan
Update FrequencyAround once a yearInconsistent, major updates between 1 and 4 years apart
Customization (Scale of 1-5)34
Lightness/Leanness (Scale of 1-5)45
Stability (Scale of 1-5)45

MATE vs. Xfce: What’s the Difference?

Since the performance differences between MATE and Xfce are sometimes subtle, it can be hard to tell which you should use just from a basic overview. Here, we’ll go over the grittier details of each DE.

MATE Overview

Released on August 19, 2011, MATE has had a solid decade to develop itself as a trustworthy and practical desktop environment.

MATE’s development team tends to upgrade the software with major annual updates, but it does vary somewhat. It doesn’t update as frequently as a non-open source software would.

MATE Performance and Features

Straight out of the box, MATE looks a bit better than Xfce. It will feel somewhat newer, more “put-together,” and, in some ways, is more customizable than Cinnamon. But, compared to other DEs like Plasma and even Xfce, there aren’t quite as many options for customization.

Despite being formally released in 2011, MATE is actually a fork from the old Gnome 2. MATE sticks closer to Gnome 2’s design features after Gnome 3 changed its visuals substantially from its predecessor. So, if you were a fan of Gnome 2, MATE will be a very comfortable DE for you.

Aside from that, MATE’s leanness makes it something like a low-weight version of Mint Cinnamon. It has more settings options than Xfce, and the performance power isn’t far off, either. At base, MATE consumes 552G of memory and 2-17% CPU consumption. These CPU jumps are much higher than on the Xfce.

Animation people using computer web server desktop environment
Having a stable, customizable desktop environment (DE) for Linux helps you get the most out of your computer interface.

Xfce Overview

Xfce started development all the way back in 1996. In the beginning, Xfce was a simple project built off of XForms, which is where it gets its name. XForms isn’t used at this point, so the name Xfce was changed from being an acronym (it used to be spelled XFCE) to align with the changes.

Although Xfce has had a long and robust history, it has very inconsistent updates at this point. Unless Xfce already has the feature, you can’t really expect any newer functionalities to come soon. Major updates are generally between 1 and 4 years apart.

Xfce Performance and Features

It’s not the ugliest DE out there, but Xfce can look very “bare bones” right out of the box. This is partially thanks to how old Xfce is. The display is naturally a little dated looking, although not as bad as LXDE or Plasma.

The main benefit of Xfce is that it is extremely stable and lightweight. Yes, even more so than MATE! In a neutral state, it uses around 516G in memory and stays very stable with its CPU usage. The difference between MATE and Xfce becomes much less meaningful with a modern computer. They’re both lightweight at the end of the day.

Xfce offers solid customization options, and the panels and theme customizations tend to be very popular. Compared to MATE (and most DEs), the theme customizations are ridiculously easy using Xfce. You also have access to convenient options like shadows and transparent windows.

MATE vs. Xfce: 6 Must-Know Facts

  • MATE is a fork based on Gnome 2, so the interface is strikingly similar.
  • Xfce is slightly leaner than MATE with regards to CPU and memory usage.
  • Although Xfce has a long history, it has very inconsistent upgrades with major updates only coming once every 1 to 4 years.
  • Straight out of the box, both Xfce and MATE are somewhat old-fashioned looking.
  • Xfce and MATE are both very easy to pick up for people who haven’t used a DE before.
  • Xfce and MATE will run on older computers without issue, which isn’t the case with Cinnamon.

MATE vs. Xfce: Which is Better?

Between the MATE and the Xfce, the question of which is better mostly comes down to personal preference. If your computer is extremely limited with regards to performance, then it’s probably best to stick with Xfce.

You might want to give Xfce a try for customization purposes, as well. MATE has good customization, but Xfce has a few options that just aren’t available outside of the platform. For example, transparent windows and a super fast theme setup.

MATE won’t let you down if you’re already used to Gnome 2. The interface is nearly identical thanks to their shared history. Additionally, ex-Cinnamon users will also feel more at home using the MATE since their interfaces are surprisingly similar.

Another reason to use MATE over Xfce is simply that it has more updates. Waiting for years at a time for a single update means that Xfce users are unlikely to have any extra functionality in the near future. MATE isn’t updated very frequently, but it’s still better than Xfce.

Overall, the two desktop environments are quite similar outside of a couple of considerations. We suggest trying out both of them for a week or so to see what feels more fluid to you. Good luck!

MATE vs. Xfce: Which is the Better Lean Linux Desktop Environment? FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What is the difference between XFCE and MATE?

The main differences between Xfce and MATE are in customization, leanness, and upgrade frequency. Xfce has better customization options and is slightly more lightweight compared to MATE. On the flip side, it only receives updates once every 1 to 4 years. 

Is MATE heavier than XFCE?

Yes, MATE is a heavier desktop environment than Xfce. Although they’re both lightweight compared to ‘modernized’ DEs like Cinnamon, Xfce is designed to be as simple and lightweight as possible. It consumes less processing power and less memory than the MATE.

Is Linux MATE good?

The Linux MATE is a great desktop environment. It’s extremely lean, stable, and has decent customization. For an open source project, it also has a reasonable update cycle of around once a year. It’s not as consistent or as frequent as some other DEs, but it’s about as good as it gets for open source.

What is the lightest Linux desktop environment?

The lightest Linux desktop environment is the Xfce. In development since 1996, the Xfce was created to be simple, easy to use, and extremely lean. At a neutral state, it uses around 0.3 to 2% CPU and approximately 516G in memory to run. The apps you’ll use with Xfce will be heavier than the actual environment is in most cases!

What is the most stable Linux desktop environment?

There are many stable Linux desktop environments. The most stable ones include Xfce, MATE, and Gnome. MATE is actually a fork from Gnome 2, so it comes as no surprise that it’s incredibly stable. Similarly, Xfce was designed with leanness and stability in mind. These three DEs are all very similar to each other with regards to stability.

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