Switching to MATE Terminal

Breaking changes to my dotfiles

I have changed my default terminal emulator from Simple Terminal (ST) to MATE Terminal (MT). In the process, I modified 46 files, making 214 additions and 7843 deletions. I also learned how to properly use dconf to control mate-terminal programmatically.

The commit message from the merge into master provides a detailed explanation (please ignore any typo or odd comma). The gist of it is that the new choice is better for portability and maintainability, while also offering a few minor usability benefits.

This is a major review of my dotfiles. It intends to replace my default choice of terminal emulator.

Below is an excerpt of the commit message that signalled the start of this process.


Context: after extensive testing, I have decided to change my default choice of terminal emulator to MT. The previous default was my custom build of the Simple Terminal (ST), by the Suckless community. Here is the reasoning, in outline form:

  • MT is already installed on my system, because MATE is my fallback option for a fully fledged desktop environment.

  • ST has build dependencies, meaning that a user of my dotfiles must first follow the instructions in the README that is bundled with ST’s source code. Without these dependencies, ST will fail to build when performing an environment theme update (using either my tempusmenu or own_script_update_environment_theme).

  • ST needs to be recompiled for a theme change to occur. MT updates faster (courtesy of own_script_mate_terminal_setup) and is less taxing on system resources in this specific instance (my laptop’s fan is not activated).

  • ST has major problems drawing box characters without extensive patching. Only at specific point sizes, does the selected font draw continuous lines. Whereas MT has no such issues.

  • ST cannot draw emoji characters, while it requires an extra package for symbolic fonts (see its README) in order not to segfault when trying to display them. MT supports emoji. Now, it may seem superfluous to have such a feature, but it is important once you consider that people add emoji in emails or blog posts that can ultimately be read through the terminal (such as via neomutt and newsboat respectively). While the font problems are not major, they do add up (terminals are all about text, after all).

  • From an aesthetic perspective, ST is not very well suited to the dynamic size adjustments that happen in a tiling WM. It tends to create an inner padding when set at specific window sizes. This is most noticeable while running tmux (which I do all the time), where the status line will have a large distance from the bottom and right sides. Admittedly, MT is not perfect in this regard, though it is better.

  • MT does not expose its theming options via a typical dotfile, but still is easy to configure programmatically using dconf (what own_script_mate_terminal_setup does).

  • Other terminals that use the VTE widget (this is actually the terminal emulator part, while MT is the implementation/framework) such as {GNOME,Xfce} Terminal and Tilix, would also have the same advantages as MT. However, they are not installed by default, while Tilix has a ton of other features that I do not need (thanks to tmux).

  • URxvt (Rxvt-Unicode), which is a popular choice for minimalist window managers, exhibits similar problems to ST when it comes to font drawing. It also is not installed by default. Furthermore, I am not sure whether it is still maintained or not as version 9.22 is the one available across Stretch, Buster, Sid.

  • Konsole on its own is an excellent choice, but not for my particular use case. It pulls in what seems like half the KDE-related package list.

  • I am writing a book on how anyone can reproduce my custom desktop session on Debian 10 ‘buster’ (planned for publication in late April, early May 2019). Any kind of friction, is a hit on usability.