Updated: June 21, 2019
Several weeks ago, I reviewed Ubuntu MATE 19.04 Disco Dingo, and found it to be okay but rift with bugs and problems that required a fair deal of customization and changes before I could enjoy it. Some of these necessitated fixing problems, others were merely extras to a solid baseline.
In a manner quite similar to what I've written in my Fedora 30 post-install tweaking guide, I'd like to show you what you can do to make Ubuntu MATE Disco instantly fun and productive. I'd like to help you navigate the MATE desktop, figure out how to handle different layouts, workaround niggles, get extra software, and then some. Proceed gingerly we shall.
Step 1: Desktop layout
To help you get familiarized, perhaps you should start with my MATE 1.20 review and the Mutiny article, which detail some of the cardinal changes you will experience when you sample Dingo of the MATE persuasion. The desktop environment comes with a tool called MATE Tweak, which allows you to change the desktop layout among several existing presets, enable Dock, HUD, pull-down terminal (like computer game consoles), and similar.
The best thing is to test these layouts for yourself - and see if you experience any bugs. For example, Cupertino gives you a Mac-like layout with global menu in the top panel and a dock at the bottom. Mutiny gives you a Unity-like layout with a vertical panel on the left side containing application launchers and a large, full-screen menu. Familiar is what you get by default, the two-panel MATE layout very similar to the classic Gnome 2 formula, except you get a more modern application menu. There are several other options, and they all behave somewhat differently.
You can test, make changes and then - most importantly - SAVE your own layout so when you switch to a new one, it does not get overridden. You can also always manually add or delete panels, add widgets to these panels and create your own layouts. You can also enable the dock, HUD or terminal for any which layout you choose or create.
Step 2: Themes and icons
Ubuntu MATE has several components that let you control the look & feel of the desktop. MATE Tweak governs the full desktop. You also need Control Center > Appearance, and here, you can change themes, and for each selected theme, make individual changes to window borders, fonts, icons and alike. You can then save your custom themes, including desktop background (wallpaper) and notifications.
Step 3: Better desktop menu
By default, MATE uses Brisk, which is nice but not configurable enough. For example, it comes with a hard-coded dark theme and non-resizable frame, so you may end up with scrollbars even for tiny changes in the visual layout. As an alternative, you can delete the Brisk widget from the top panel and use Advanced MATE Menu, which comes with a rather rich context menu, and it allows you to tweak the look and feel.
Step 4: Extra software
This is really a simple and rather pleasant step. Ubuntu MATE comes with a superb package manager called Boutique, which offers a truly stellar experience. Best of all, it does a lot of magic behind the scenes, so you can grab extra applications, including proprietary software without having to worry about third-party sources, repositories or anything like that. You can do that reasonably well in stock Ubuntu - after all GIMP, VLC and Steam are available through the standard channels. But you do need extra effort to get Chrome or Skype, for instance. Boutique has a rich arsenal of popular programs, and you will not need to wander about the Web, trying to find it.
Step 5: Video tearing
This is optional and may not affect you. But I did encounter this problem, and the solution is to change how compton window manager runs when you start your session. For me, the downside of this method was that the Plank dock stopped having transparency and zoom effect, so this might not be a perfect solution, but worth considering. Anyway, through Control Center > Startup Applications, add the following command line for a new entry:
compton --backend glx --paint-on-overlay --vsync opengl-swc
That was short, you may say, only five steps. Well, there's isn't much you need to do to make Ubuntu MATE looks and behave nicely. Plus, MATE Tweak and Boutique should keep you plenty busy. After all, with half a dozen layouts and tons of available software, you can really spend a good few hours exploring, until you have the perfectly desired desktop experience.
I wrote this guide because some of the changes aren't straightforward, and some of the tweaks are actually workarounds to bugs. I believe these will probably be fixed in future versions of Ubuntu MATE, but until then, you have the tips and tricks presented here to keep you warm on a cold night. That, and maybe a bowl of mate. Or something. Hopefully, this was useful. I mean the tutorial, not the beautiful joke I made right then. Take care, Web denizens.