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 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.
|The KDM login manager|
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.
|Getting the desktop ready|
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|
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.
|Preparing the disk(s)|
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|
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|
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.
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 Linux Mint.
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.