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Having successfully installed Ubuntu MATE at the start of the year, to replace a defunct Manjaro installation that had done good service for many months before succumbing to the problems of being a rolling distro, I can now report what a fortnight of using it feels like.
First thing to report: it works! It works fine, in fact. All the applications I need (which often weren't in other distro repositories whenever I tried them a few years back) were swiftly and painlessly installed and work just as you'd expect them to. Despite MATE being a GTK (and hence Gnome-ish) desktop environment, key bits of KDE-based functionality work flawlessly -in particular, Clementine is happily playing its way through my music collection.
It also manages to work whilst wobbling nicely. Which is to say, I am afraid I am a fan of desktop bling and thus require my windows to wobble (and my virtual desktops to switch by appearing as faces on a rotating cube). Happily, Compiz integrates with MATE well, so all my required desktop effects are in place and mostly work without drama (the occasional tearing of a wobbling window as it's dragged can be a little annoying, but it's rare enough that I don't mind).
But… but… Whilst all the required functionality is definitely there, it looks dated. I didn't think this would bother me: as an old Gnome 1.4 user, I thought I liked things to be a tad old-fashioned! But there's old-fashioned and then there's Jurassic: and MATE is definitely in the latter park, as far as I'm concerned.
So: this week, I decided to pull the plug on Ubuntu MATE for its cosmetics, not its functionality. Casting about for a suitable replacement, I realised I've acquired the following internal rules about Desktop Environments:
On the same “ye ancient desktops don't do it for me” principle, I can also rule out things like XFCE and LXDE. I'm also not young and adventurous enough to be enticed by the prospect of Budgie -which, in any case, I find very Gnome-like with its attendant problems!
I have some experience with Cinnamon: it is again quite Gnome-y, and although it is now a desktop option for many distros, it began and is still heavily-driven by the Linux Mint developers. I have quite liked it in the past, but it's Minty heritage makes it a bit of a non-starter for me these days. I like Linux Mint a lot, but it's essentially Ubuntu with knobs on, and my last fortnight means I'm a bit over the Ubuntu-experience for at least a few months! It's also still Gnome-like, and 'native' applications for it would be GTK-based ones, and thus subject to Gnome-inspired design principles (meaning menus lacking most of the options you'd like them to have!).
So, for me, at the moment, it comes down to this: use a KDE distro. KDE has lots of graphical bling; it's got more configuration options than you can shake a stick at; its native apps are highly functional and the functionality is readily accessible and tweakable in ye olde fashioned menu-option fashion! It's a little too Windows-like, if I'm being completely honest, but if that bugs you, you can at least tweak it away. But you don't have to tweak much to get a good-looking, bling-filled, desktop experience that's modern and a pleasure to use.
Which brings me to the next question, of course: what's the best KDE-based distro. Obviously, you can install KDE on the top of most distros these days, but I'm after one where it's baked in as a primary option, not added in as an afterthought. Linux Mint is definitely not an option here, of course, because they long ago stopped developing a specifically-KDE version of their distro.