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Friday, 27 May 2011

SimplyMEPIS 11 - My First Experience with MEPIS, Ever

A disclaimer in the beginning: I have been aware of (Simply)MEPIS since at least early 2005 when it used to be on the front and cover CD's of various magazines during that year but have never explored it. I like my Debian 'straight-up' or not at all, and, given that MEPIS is based on Debian stable and given how easy it is to add repositories to the sources list, I felt no need for anything else. Also, regular readers will know I'm not much of a fan of the bigger desktop environments lately, but as MEPIS comes with KDE 4 by default I will try not to let that bias my assessment. With that in mind, let's proceed.

The distribution is available in 32 bit (i586) and for x86_64. Both are around 1.3 GB in size. For the purpose of this review I downloaded the 64 bit version SimplyMEPIS-1.5G_11.0.00_64.iso and installed it on my relatively recent Acer Aspire 5551 laptop bought in September last year. This one sports ATI HD 4200 Mobility graphics, AMD Phenom X3, 4 GB Ram, and Broadcom chips for wired and wireless networking. I usually have to install the firmware for wireless myself and some distributions do not support the wired tg3, which makes for interesting cases with no network access at all. However, given the reputation of this distribution for out of the box ease of use I do not expect these problems here. Let's see.

After the download finished I burned the iso to DVD and headed off to give it a quick test spin to get a feel for the distribution. I went with the first option, but a second option in Grub allows the user to boot using AUFS writable file system, which allows for installing applications and updates to the live session.

Booting time is about average for live optical media, and after a while I got to the KDM login screen, beautifully styled with the distributions' own Underwater theme. User name and password as well as the root password are displayed in red at the top of the screen, a user friendly touch indeed, although a newbie playing around with this and logging in as root may seriously damage their existing installation. You cannot have user friendliness and utmost security at the same time it seems.

Exploring Live from DVD
Poking around revealed a KDE 4.5.3 desktop with most of the standard applications. More on that later.

The smooth look continued with a dark blue wallpaper in the vein of the login background and a black KDE 4 Elegance theme. A collection of the usual KDE wallpapers is also supplied, plus the one from the previous 8.5 release. Most people have their own collections though and looks are easily changed and themes added through the superb online integration in KDE 4.

My screen resolution was properly detected and set up and I found myself able to browse the web on the wired connection. Checking the wireless out, several networks were detected and showed up in Knetworkmanager. To be honest, I don't have the credentials to the network where I am staying and so was unable to test out if wifi does really connect, but it looked promising. But for now I am limited to my wired connection, no fault of the distribution. The desktop is styled in a familiar KDE 3 manner, showing desktop icons and a traditional KDE menu instead of the Kickoff. It even goes as far as having plenty of KDE 3 style sub menus pointing to 'More Applications', remember? There is a shortcut to the Documents folder, which unfortunately detracts from the overall attractive look and feel with the Documents icon label splitting into two lines. Perhaps it's a nod to people crossing over from another OS. Then there's the Trash can and several other helpful icons. We have a shortcut to opening the MEPIS web site in the browser, a link to the MEPIS Quickstart guide, another to the full MEPIS manual, and last but not least a chance to launch the installer. Yes that's right, two manuals in html format, that is quite comprehensive documentation.

The Quickstart is really just a guide to KDE 4, or the 'MEPIS 11 desktop' as it is put. The manual however is even for seasoned Linux users required reading in my view, as they will still find one or the other helpful tip and generally good information among the eleven sections if they are serious about using MEPIS 11, and be it only in the form of links to the wiki on how to best set up a specialist server and the available options. It is also accessible online at mepiscommunity.org. For example cheat codes are listed here should you have trouble booting or are affected by the black screen. New users can also find information on the relationship between Debian and MEPIS and Debian repositories here, and in section three a guide on how to move from Windows including moving over data. The manual even mentions the light weight alternative distribution AntiX which is built on MEPIS and Debian, mainly useful for new people who may not like KDE 4 after all. The mepiscommunity web site hosts a fairly active forum where users can seek help as well.

The live system overall felt immensely responsive and stable when taking access times from optical drive into account, no Plasma crashes. So all fine and dandy then? Not quite. A major annoyance was that the cursor would periodically freeze every few seconds and would remain frozen for sometimes up to a minute or so. Even playing with the Touchpad configuration in KDE System Settings did not change this behavior, which is obviously a serious usability concern. This persisted in the installed system later on but strangely enough not in the VirtualBox session I had set up just to take shots of the boot and logging in process, so it seems related to this particular type of Acer touchpad.

Running in VirtualBox
MEPIS 11 with older wallpaper and the KDE Blend theme
As stated, I only booted into VirtualBox to take a picture of the login screen, but also found out this way that Guest additions are not installed, with the resolution remaining at a low 800x600. I have no reason to believe though that once kernel sources are installed and the modules compiled MEPIS could not be run this way if you prefer that for any reason.
Notice the package icon in the system tray of the screenshot to the left? The update notifier will only show updates once you have synced with the repositories. Or so I thought, but after a cold reboot the icon suddenly showed one available update.

Installing the system
Normally I'm not fond of installer screenshots as I believe they are basically all doing the same and once you have installed a Linux system a few times this is transferrable knowledge. However, the MEPIS installer is quite unique and I'ld like to say a few things about it.
Terms of Use
Number one, the first thing you see once the installer is started is a license and Terms of Use. I have a strong dislike for distribution specific licenses and licenses other than the GPL, BSD, Creative Commons and similar. It is one of several reasons why I never used openSUSE, and even at times feel uncomfortable installing Fedora although it is free software. It is one of many reasons why I prefer plain Debian and Slackware.

Preparing the disk(s)
Copying to hard drive
Once you have agreed, the road is open to partition and format the drive and assign mount points. An auto install option is available that takes care of all this, even giving the user the opportunity to reserve some free space for other tasks. I've never seen this in any other distribution, good idea. When done the installer launches straight into copying the system and then prompts to install Grub as the boot loader, giving another chance to back out before installation actually proceeds.
Setting keyboard and time zone
Installing Grub legacy
In the last remaining steps you can set up networking incl. Samba for file sharing (selected by default) and the computer name, locale and time zone and finally your user name and root password. It's all in one go and when you're done that's it, time to reboot, no more silly questions from hereon. The split pane installer somehow reminded me of the old Mandrake Linux installer in the 7 & 8 days, with helpful feedback on the left hand side explainig every step. Very newbie friendly.

Upon reboot the reminders for live user and root passsword have disappeared, as has the desktop link to the installer, and you're good to go. It's remarkably similar if not identical otherwise to the live system. So, finally, what's it like running MEPIS 11 fully installed?


MEPIS 11- desktop and applications
What's it like? It is fast, that's what it's like, extremely fast! On par with my recent trial of LMDE. You wouldn't believe you're running KDE 4. Must be the Debian base and whatever they did to the 2.6.36-1 kernel. The desktop is ultra responsive and I have trouble following the mouse pointer with the eyes. If anything I need to slow it down. That brings me to the touchpad issue. Freezing persisted in the full installation, although it seemed to a lesser extent, and jerkiness continued in Firefox. Interestingly, an optical USB mouse did not share the same symptoms.
Grub boot screen

The other thing I noticed straight away was that Grub for the first time correctly picked the Windows Recovery Environment and labelled it as such instead of calling sda1 to load Windows 7. It also left two empty lines though where systems are installed (Slackware and another Arch). They have been detected and added but not labelled.

The installation took up around 3.49 GB on a reiserfs formatted drive, and at 3.86 GB slightly more when going with the default auto option in VirtualBox. You get a fairly standard KDE 4 Software Compilation incl. Konqueror which seems to open the on disk html documentation, the latest Firefox 4 (no Iceweasel) for heavy duty browsing and the full LibreOffice 3.3.2. This is one area where MEPIS deviates from the Debian roots and I assume this is according to wishes from the community to have a more modern system with original software. KDE is in 4.5.3, a good decision in my book because 4.5.3, 4.5.4 and 4.5.5 were very stable and appeared, at least to me, quite bug free whenever I tried them, mainly on Fedora.
LibreOffice and the default desktop
Some of the things I really liked is the inclusion of KFTPGrabber, the Kdenlive video editor, VLC instead of Dragonplayer for playing movies and other multimedia needs because VLC is more versatile, and luckyBackup for backup and syncing. I missed KTorrent, and no other torrent client was made available, but that's small fry given Synaptic has 28993 packages available at the time of writing between the Debian Squeeze and MEPIS repositories. If you want KTorrent it's pretty much a given you also have a good network connection. Synaptic btw is at 0.70-pre1 here and this time the Quick search function works and shows immediate results through the filter. Adding and starting KTorrent did not even take a minute.

This being a home desktop oriented distribution no development tools are included, but a few games are that frankly everybody could live without.
Fonts appeared legible and of readable size. Enabling desktop effects did only work in part for me. As the system was running with the free radeon driver all I got was transparency, but that's ok. I'm not into effects that only serve to slow the system and irritate me. However, I did try and install the fglrx driver in the repository for the purpose of this review, but it seems my particular card is not supported.
Access to System Settings and Assistants

One last thing to mention is that MEPIS has several assistants in the Settings section that at least somewhat try to bring some of the functionality of the old Mandriva Control Center to this distribution. They are old, and once played a part in MEPIS becoming known as easy to use and beginner friendly, and they are still good for what they do. The MEPIS User Assistant allows, besides managing users obviously, to reset file permissions on a per user basis if you have messed them up. Not to underestimate, newer users are likely to make these mistakes trying to get things working their way. It happened to me too long ago. This is a good way to go back to sane for people not knowing how to change permissions on the command line, or indeed what they were in the first place.
The Network Assistant could be described as a full equivalent to the respective Mandriva and Redhat/Fedora tools, giving an overview of loaded drivers, allowing to graphically Start/Stop the network, set up a firewall (not enabled by default) and diagnose the network with ping and traceroute. However most useful to many will be the System Assistant which allows to create bootable USB keys from any MEPIS iso file, repair the boot record and reinstall Grub, and even try and repair partitions. Overall, these tools pack a real punch if you know what you're doing, and make things a lot easier for inexperienced users.

Conclusion
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with MEPIS 11. If I was in the market for a new KDE 4 centric distribution it would be a strong contender. It has a helpful community and good documentation. It's got several graphical tools that make administration painless and comes with wireless drivers through Ndiswrapper, multimedia players that have not been crippled, the necessary codecs and Adobe Flash preinstalled. It benefits from access to a huge range of packages through the Debian repositories, enhanced by the additional repositories MEPIS offers. As such it could appeal to users relatively new to Linux just as much as it could appeal to old hands who just want a functional system quick, tired of the rigmarole of having to set up everything by hand. This sounds similar to the user base of PCLinuxOS and Mint.

MEPIS 11
MEPIS is fast and stable and if you're looking for a blend of Debian with newer and quality tested packages it is a better choice than Kubuntu, which in my experience deteriorates quickly and whose KDE implementation is prone to crashes. MEPIS is also a lot faster than Fedora KDE edition, which has proved solid here but runs like molasses in comparison. Yes, plenty of choices out there.

Join me in a week or so when I take a look at another user-friendly Debian-based distribution with KDE, Kanotix 2011-05 'Hellfire', and perhaps make a recommendation which one is better suited following that review.

20 comments:

  1. Awesome review! I think you hit all the major points here, and you certainly had more success with it than I did.
    --
    a Linux Mint user since 2009 May 1

    ReplyDelete
  2. @PV
    Thanks PV. I have read yours too ;)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Glad u like Mepis 11. Mepis 11 is my main distro. I have try so many Debian base distro with KDE 4 and stay with Mepis. No pulseaudio, good forum support, delta patch from beta - rc - final, comunity repo, support live USB and Mepis System Assistant. The last one is great to recover back Mepis GRUB after testing some another distro. I use Mepis boot menu to boot Salix.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for the review. I'm currently looking for a new distribution, possibly with KDE, since I've been extremely dissapinted by Fedora and GNOME 3 and Unity in Ubuntu is no better. I did try Fedora with KDE but I suspect there are better KDE distributions out there. And looks like SimplyMEPIS is wort a try.

    ReplyDelete
  5. @Carol
    After all this I think SimplyMEPIS is definitely underrated as a KDE 4 alternative distribution.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Btw, you may already know, this weeks DistroWatch Weekly also carries a review of MEPIS and is similarly favorable.

    http://distrowatch.com/weekly.php?issue=20110530

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks for your very carefully assembled review. I'd like to add that Mepis does actually come preloaded with both the kernel headers and dkms, so adding proprietary drivers and apps are essentially painless, so it is fully possible to add the vbox extensions without any further downloads.

    Also, while this may not sit too well with some, h2's smxi scripts do work very well with Mepis.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Great distribution. I hadn't used Mepis since version 7. Suddenly I'm liking KDE again!

    Just rename the Documents folder to Docs or something similar, so it will be on one line.

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Anonymous
    Glad you like it. It's an astonishingly fast KDE 4 with a more traditional layout. A good choice for everybody still missing 3.5.
    Re. the Docs, thanks for the tip!

    And thanks to everybody else who contributed so far in the comments!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I'm seriously considering giving Mepis another consideration. I gave Opensuse, Kubunutu, and Linux Mint KDE a go. All where pretty good but I miss the stable base of Debian.

    I could easily just use Debian and go about it all myself, but I like what Mepis offers out of the box. The last time I used it was Mepis 7 and I remember it running flawlessly. But I got bored and moved on to something else.

    These days I'm ready to settle down and get to work/play. From what I've read about Mepis so far, it sounds like a perfect consideration; especially once KDE 4.6 makes it's way in! Still don't understand how something so well put together doesn't get more recognition. Congrats Mr. W!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Right on bud, extraordinary review of a truly high quality system. Good read and look forward to reading more from you!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thanks Andrew, glad you liked it and let me know.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hey that was a good review. I am a noob when it comes to Linux. Was considering testing/using a Linux distro. Do you think this version of Linux is a good start for a noobie trying to enter into the Linux world???

    ReplyDelete
  13. @Ameya
    Hi Ameya, absolutely. It will serve you better and longer than Kubuntu which also uses KDE. PClinuxOS may also be interesting to you. Read the documentation if unsure about something, Mepis has quite a bit. Have fun!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Heya, first time I've written a comment here, this post made me want to make a comment. Thanks a lot for the great reads to date!
    my site > visit this link

    ReplyDelete
  15. An excellent review of Mepis; I don't know how many repo's I've tried over the years (perhaps all of them) my main gripe is stability. If an OS isn't stable, then it has me reaching for the Windows 7 DVD :$ I did try an older version of Mepis which worked pretty solid, and thanks to this excellent review I think I will give it another go!

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  16. Fantastic. Thanks for the feedback, Dapperlix.

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  17. Thank you, Barnaby. I've been using MEPIS for a few years now, exclusively, on all my machine and have found one of the true jewels of this remarkable OS is its MEPIS Community Forum (http://forum.mepiscommunity.org/).

    ReplyDelete
  18. Guys how can I set up programming environment on MEPIS?

    ReplyDelete
  19. Great review, Barnaby! I just installed Kubuntu 12.04 LTE on an HP/Compaq desktop with 512MB RAM and P4 chip. I think I might switch to MEPIS...want to use it for LemonPOS at an Arts & Crafts shop. Can this version of MEPIS fit on this desktop or should I use something else? LemonPOS is a KDE application so that's mandatory.

    Thanks for taking time to write reviews like this.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Thanks for stopping by. I think 512MB should be enough. You could of course also slim down KDE or just keep kdelibs, QT and the necessary applications and run it from a smaller environment, but it should be fine if you turn off all effects that I'm sure you do not want in a work environment anyway. LemonPOS looks interesting, thanks for pointing it out.

    ReplyDelete

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