Cinnamon vs. Mate vs. XFCE: The Best Linux Mint Edition

A photograph of a desktop monitor with a green background light.

Linux Mint is one of the most accessible Linux distros that you can get today. It achieved this by blending the right amount of long-term security with an abundance of high-quality applications. This article will pit three of the most popular Linux Mint Editions: Cinnamon, Mate, and XFCE against each other to help you decide which is the best for you.

Cinnamon vs. Mate vs. XFCE: Linux Mint Quick Comparison

Category Cinnamon Mate XFCE
Overall Interface Sleek and modern Simple and traditional Basic and plain
Customizability Comes with a variety of pre-built themes by default. Has some options but are limited to the defaults. Has some options but is limited to the defaults.
Third-Party Extensions Support Uses Spiceworks, its own extensions framework. None. However, “Mate Tweak Tool” allows you to fine tune the desktop’s default elements. None. Extending the desktop requires you to install third-party apps.
Default Apps The desktop environment receives regular features and security updates. Comes with an office suite and multimedia programs. Comes with an office suite and multimedia programs.
Update Frequency The desktop environment receives regular feature and security updates. The desktop environment receives occasional security updates. The desktop environment receives occasional security updates.
Ease of Use Incredibly easy to use even for new computer users. Has desktop elements that are familiar to more experienced users. Lean desktop elements can be challenging for new users.
Resource Consumption Consumes around 1-1.1 GB of RAM on idle and takes 8-10 seconds to cold boot. Consumes around 700-800 MB of RAM on idle and takes 6 seconds to cold boot. Consumes around 600-700 MB of RAM on idle and takes 4 seconds to cold boot.

What Is Linux Mint Cinnamon?

Linux Mint Cinnamon is the homegrown flagship edition of the Mint project. At first glance, it provides a clean and highly responsive interface that is both easy to understand and use. This makes Cinnamon attractive to new users who are looking for a beautiful “set and forget” distro that you can quickly learn how to use.

A screenshot of the default Cinnamon desktop in Linux Mint.

Besides that, Cinnamon also has Spiceworks which provides a way to create and install third-party addons to its base desktop environment. These range from simple themes to large extensions that can enhance how the desktop works. As a result, the Cinnamon desktop is perfect if you want to fine-tune your environment to your computing needs.

Lastly, Cinnamon is also at the forefront of desktop development. It is one of the few complete desktops that started migrating to Wayland from Xorg. While the initial reports are already encouraging, Cinnamon Wayland is still under heavy development. As such, using Cinnamon Wayland as a daily desktop could result in instability and breaking updates

Pros

  • Purpose-built for the Linux Mint distro
  • Large third-party extensions support
  • Has initial Wayland support

Cons

  • Can have an unstable update that breaks your desktop
  • Comes with a wealth of tools that you might not need
  • Consumes a lot of system resources on idle

Check out our extensive review of Cinnamon.

What Is Linux Mint Mate?

Linux Mint Mate is a developer-supported edition of Mint that provides a stable platform for users. To make this work, the developers designed this edition to be a pragmatic and utilitarian desktop filled with tools for day-to-day computing.

A screenshot of the default Mate desktop in Linux Mint.

At its core, Linux Mint Mate doesn’t strive to be an “eye candy” system. This sentiment is most evident in the edition’s lack of third-party add-ons and extension support.

That said, these limitations give Mate an edge over the speed and overall stability, making it an appealing system for users who want a “no-fuss” machine thathave all the programs for basic tasks.

Pros

  • Provides a stable computing platform
  • Uses a traditional desktop paradigm familiar to most users
  • Has a handy tweak tool for minor GUI customizations

Cons

  • Lacks extensions and plugin support
  • Updates are few and far between for the desktop environment
  • Doesn’t have a reliable fractional scaling support

Check our extensive review of Mate.

What Is Linux Mint XFCE?

Linux Mint XFCE is a developer-supported edition of Mint that aims to be a lightweight alternative to modern desktop environments. Unlike the others, XFCE prioritizes compatibility with lower-end hardware. For instance, it can run on machines with as little as 800 MB of RAM.

A screenshot showing the default XFCE desktop in Linux Mint.

This focus on optimization means that Linux Mint XFCE can be barebones on both features and default apps. This means that getting the system you want might require using the system’s package manager to install missing programs.

While it might be cumbersome, this level of freedom makes Linux Mint XFCE a great base for a custom desktop. As such, it’s the perfect system for power users who want to create their custom environment without starting from scratch.

Pros

  • Runs on almost any hardware for little to no resources
  • Can be a great base for custom desktop environments
  • Comes with a simple and basic interface

Cons

  • Doesn’t have the most appealing desktop look
  • Doesn’t have an extensive customization menu
  • Default features can be lacking

Check our extensive review of XFCE.

Comparing Linux Mint Cinnamon vs. Mate vs. XFCE

Now that we’ve established an idea on what each Linux Mint edition can provide, we’re now going to compare them against each other. To do this, we’ll look at the factors that make up a great desktop environment.

Cinnamon vs. Mate

In terms of looks and customization, Cinnamon blows the traditional-looking Mate desktop out of the water. The combination of its sleek and modern interface with an abundance of custom themes makes Cinnamon the better choice if you’re looking for a beautiful system.

A screenshot of Cinnamon's customization menu.

Cinnamon also takes the cake for extensibility. Cinnamon’s Spiceworks enables developers to create third-party features that allow end users to shape and define their desktops. Meanwhile, Mate’s “Tweak Tool” can only modify already existing elements in the Mate desktop.

A screenshot of the Mate Tweak Tool.

For updates, Cinnamon users might see a more regular stream of updates for their desktop, while Mate users will most likely only get security updates. Both editions are also easy to use since they use elements common to modern OSes.

That said, Cinnamon’s features have its price. At idle, the desktop runs at a hefty 1 GB of RAM with no additional apps. A far cry from the 750-800 MB that Mate runs on by itself.

Good to know: XFCE is not the only lightweight desktop that you can get in Linux. Learn how XFCE stacks up against LXDE, an alternative lightweight desktop.

Cinnamon vs. XFCE

Just like with Mate, Cinnamon puts XFCE to bed with its modern and sleek look. However, Mint XFCE can be more customizable if you know the command line. The XFCE desktop is one of the best environments if you’re looking to create your own custom desktop.

Extensibility is the name of the game with XFCE. While it doesn’t have a fancy framework, its minimalist setup allows it to coexist with custom panels from other environments. On the other hand, Cinnamon needs a more rigid desktop in order to make its interface and extensions easy to use for casual users.

A screenshot of the Default Applets available for the Cinnamon edition.

The Cinnamon edition typically gets more updates compared to XFCE. This is because the developers of Linux Mint are also developing the Cinnamon desktop. That said, running XFCE will still ensure that your machine gets regular security updates.

Resource management is the weakest point of Cinnamon and this is clear when you compare it to a lightweight environment like XFCE. On idle, XFCE only consumes around 600-700 MB.

Mate vs. XFCE

Between Mate and XFCE, Mate is the clear choice for overall looks and customizability. Its use of traditional desktop elements and the amount of customization options make it easy for casual users who want to add simple tweaks to their desktops.

A screenshot of the Mate Theme Picker.

That said, XFCE makes up for its lack of customization options with its extensibility. Compared to Mate, it’s easy to install custom window managers that can fundamentally change how your desktop works.

In terms of updates, both Mate and XFCE receive occasional security updates for their desktop environments. Aside from that, both editions follow Cinnamon’s release cycle for their package repositories.

With regards to resource management, XFCE edges out Mate by consuming around 100-200 MB less RAM when running on idle. To add to that, XFCE also loads faster from a cold boot compared to Mate.

Tip: find out the differences between a window manager and a desktop environment.

Final Verdict: What is the Best Linux Mint Edition?

At the end of the day, choosing the right Linux Mint Edition is a personal choice. Each edition comes with its own unique strengths but each also has their glaring pitfalls.

Use Linux Mint Cinnamon

  • When you are looking for a “modern-looking” Linux system.
  • When you want a bleeding-edge desktop with constant updates.
  • When you want to use third-party extensions on your desktop.

Use Linux Mint Mate

  • When you want a “no-fuss” system that just works.
  • When you want a system that doesn’t receive breaking updates.
  • When you are looking for a “traditional-looking” Linux system.

Use Linux Mint XFCE

  • When you want to run Linux Mint on older hardware.
  • When you want to build your own custom desktop.
  • When you need a fast and responsive system.

Picking the right Linux Mint Edition is just the first step in exploring the vast and diverse world of Linux. Learn some of the best software in Linux that you can install today.

Image credit: Jonathan Ybema via Unsplash and Wikimedia Commons (1, 2, 3). All alterations and screenshots by Ramces Red.

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Ramces Red

Ramces is a technology writer that lived with computers all his life. A prolific reader and a student of Anthropology, he is an eccentric character that writes articles about Linux and anything *nix.

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