Ubuntu is a big name in the Linux world. Like Raspbian it’s based on Debian architecture, but it’s run by Canonical Ltd which offers commercial support.
It’s one of the most popular operating systems in the world and there’s a version available for the Raspberry Pi. Called Ubuntu MATE (pronounced mah-tay), it uses the Ubuntu operating system with the MATE desktop environment. MATE is based on GNOME 2, a popular interface.
Ubuntu MATE is an alternative to Raspbian and a lot of fun to experiment with. It is more resource-hungry, and doesn’t have the wealth of programming tools or community support of Raspbian, but it is a popular OS outside of Raspberry Pi and worth investigation – especially with the new faster Raspberry Pi 3B+.
Head to the Ubuntu MATE website and click on Raspberry Pi and 16.04.2 (Xenial). Click on Download Link (or choose the magnet link if you want to be a good citizen and use a Torrent download to save on the bandwidth).
Now, use Etcher to copy the image file to your microSD card. When ready, put the SD card into your Raspberry Pi and power it up.
The first time you boot Ubuntu MATE, it displays a System Configuration window that requires you to create a user (with a password).
Choose your language (English is the default selection) and click Continue. Now you need to choose your WiFi network and fill out the password field; click Connect and Continue.
After that, you need to create your location settings. Choose your location on the map and pick your Keyboard Layout.
Finally, you get to make your user. Fill out the ‘Your name’ and ‘Pick a username’ fields and enter a password. Click Continue to complete the system installation.
Boot and interface
Every time you boot into Ubuntu MATE, you’ll need to select your user and enter the password.
A Welcome window greets you. Click on the various buttons to take a tour of the system. Click Close when you’re ready to start using the operating system. The Welcome page will open every time you boot up Ubuntu MATE; deselect the ‘Open Welcome when I log on’ option tick and click Close if you don’t want to see it again.
The MATE desktop environment will be familiar to anybody who has used a GUI before. Unlike Raspbian, there are two panels at the top and bottom of the screen. The one on the top has Applications, Places, and System (plus an icon for Firefox, the web browser). In the top-right are icons for Bluetooth and Network, plus the Clock and Shut Down icons.
The bottom panel has a couple of interesting items. On the left is a Show Desktop icon. Clicking it hides all the current windows, enabling you to view the desktop.
Meanwhile, over to the bottom-right is a Workspace Switcher. You get four different workspaces (virtual desktops) by default. Clicking on any of the four screens lets you switch between them. It’s like having four different monitors and being able to jump between them (which is great if your screen gets cluttered up with windows).
Clicking on the Applications in the top-left accesses all the built-in software. Ubuntu MATE has a vastly different selection to Raspbian.
Firefox is the stock web browser. Open it using the icon in top panel, or choose Applications > Internet > Firefox Web Browser.
You’ll find plenty of other apps to explore inside the other folders. Some – like Scratch 1.4, IDLE, and LibreOffice – you’ll be familiar with. Others – like Minecraft Pi, Sonic Pi, and Sense HAT Emulator – are Raspberry Pi-specific software found in Raspbian and Ubuntu MATE.
There’s a lot of office software – like Pidgin internet Messenger, Thunderbird Mail, and HexChat – to explore. And media programs like VLC Media Player, Rhythmbox, and Shotwell enable you to access video, music, and photo documents.
All of the options can be found in the System folder. Be sure to check out the Administration > Software Boutique program. Here you’ll find a curated selection of additional programs you can install.
You can access a Terminal window using Applications > System Tools > MATE Terminal or by pressing CTRL+ALT+T. (Don’t forget, you can also drag icons to the panel for faster access.) Ubuntu MATE also supports virtual TTY desktops, which you can switch between using CTRL+ALT+F1 to F6. Press CTRL+ALT+F7 to return to the main TTY desktop.
Take a look at Applications > System Tools > MATE System Monitor. Here you can find detailed information about your Raspberry Pi, including the memory, processor, and available disk space. Click the Processes tab to see what items are running (and you can end stalled processes using the End Process button). The Resources tab enables you to see CPU, Memory, and Network usage over time.
Ubuntu MATE is an interesting alternative to Raspbian, the officially supported operating system. It lacks a lot of the functionality, especially advanced programming tools like Thonny and Scratch 2.0. And there are no built-in links to all the resources developed by Raspberry Pi, which makes it less useful for learning programming. It’s also a bit of a resource hog compared to the lightweight approach of Raspberry Pi Desktop.
But if you want to try out a different operating system, and use a bunch of powerful software on the Raspberry Pi, it’s well worth a look.