Simply Mepis boots on most current hardware. Installation is handled through a very straightforward and simple wizard-like installation program. Drive partitioning can be handled either automatically or through QtParted, a graphical partition editor reminiscent of Partition Magic.
During the installation you pick where you want Mepis to be installed as well as whether and where to install the boot manager (grub.) Finally, one must add an initial user and set the administrator password. Installation time on any recent hardware will be under 20 minutes from start to finish. The questions are well explained and Mepis has sensible defaults. If you don't know what a boot loader is, clicking next will do the right thing. Of course, SimplyMepis will setup dual-booting if it detects a Windows installation.
Upon first boot, users are presented with a grub boot screen offering MATURE (2.4.26) NEWER (2.6.7) or several other options. The default kernel is 2.4.26 but grub is configured to remember the last choice, meaning that it will keep booting whatever you last selected.
When the choice of kernels was up for debate, the Mepis lists were quite active with many users weighing the various options. Mepis was almost based solely on the 2.6 kernel but, with the huge array of hardware out there, 2.4 was left on as the default. Personally, I still pick the kernel depending on the machine and user and think that it was a great idea to leave both kernels on. That said, as the 2.6 kernel matures, I'm certain that the days of a default 2.4 kernel are numbered. Both kernels are compiled for SMP/HT support and use ALSA for sound.
Bootup details can be hidden by a splash screen though hitting F2 will reveal the messages. The bootup screen doesn't rely on a full X server like Fedora Core 2, making it much faster to start up. Once the bootup sequence is complete, users are left at the KDM login manager. Logging in loads up a nicely configured KDE 3.2.3 desktop.
Thankfully, Mepis tries to leverage existing software wherever appropriate. This means that the only Mepis-centric items are a few helper programs: the installation program, "Mepis System Center" and "Mepis User Utilities." The System Center is where one configures network settings and which package sources to draw from, the User Utilities allow the user to remove browser caches and other minor items.
Finally, Mepis includes two lower-level additions, mefstab and meauto, described in the next section.
Similar to Mandrake or SuSE Linux, when a Firewire or USB mass storage device (such as my Apacer 256MB MP3 player) is plugged in, Mepis creates the relevant fstab entries, presents a desktop icon, and allows users to mount/unmount and browse the new device. This works well with pretty much everything I've thrown at Mepis. Furthermore, adding support for a new device is quite straightforward. Mepis simply reads messages from dmesg and hotplug, parses what is occurring and, based on a text file, does the right thing. As new devices are found, the Mepis community can submit their changes back to Mepis. This can then be added to updated .deb packages, immediately benefiting all users.
As a part of its excellent and extensible hardware detection, SimplyMepis correctly handles Apple's iPod as well as the Sony Clie TJ-series PalmOS 5.2 PDAs. In addition, I've used Mepis with a number of USB mice, card readers, a Sony DVD-RW drive, an external USB2 and Firewire hard drive, several USB printers, a Canon scanner and more. In every case, Mepis has handled the device with ease.
Nothing, however, is perfect. Installation on an older SCSI system appeared to work, but gave a kernel panic on reboot. I'm not sure what went on here, and I was only using it to test the system out, but SCSI users should be forewarned. I've also read user reports claiming that Mepis has problems with newer low-end motherboards with low-quality on-board video. (MSI boards with SiS video, if I recall.)
Having said this, at this point, I'd say that Mepis' hardware support is unparalleled in the Linux world.
Other than Smb browsing, Mepis, being KDE-based, leverages the excellent Konqueror file manager. This lets users edit/copy/upload and download over networks using ssh (fish) ftp, webdav, browse tar, zip, bzip files and more. Konqueror is hands-down the most useful and flexible tool that I've ever used and is a major part of why I keep using Linux.
Mepis uses Mozilla as the default browser and mail client. Honestly, Konqueror has matured to the point that I use it as my main browser, only occasionally firing up Mozilla Firefox for poorly-designed pages. However, I understand and agree with the choice of the Mozilla Suite. The suite, while not as nimble or refined as Firefox/Thunderbird offers a mature set of applications. The web browser has great features and a great rendering engine, the mail app is similarly complete. Mozilla also includes the best and cleanest WYSIWYG HTML editor that I have every used.
Out of the box, Mepis includes a working Java Runtime Environment (JRE), Flash 6, RealPlayer 10 and the MPlayer plugin, providing QuickTime 6 support. This means that just about any plugin will work right away with both Mozilla and Konqueror. As someone who has had to chase these plugins down many times before on many distributions, I can vouch for the fact that this is a real time saver. The top-tier distributors would do well to follow Mepis' lead in this regard. Especially with respect to the MPlayer plugin. It supports a wide variety of video types and is completely Open Source.
Audacity, which has often been a trial for me to get working properly in Linux, just works, sound just works, KDE's amazing but difficult to configure audiocd:/ IOSlave just works. The audiocd:/ isolave has long been a well-kept secret of the KDE desktop. Upon insertion of an audio CD, KDE will retrieve track information from CDDB and then display the information in a variety of ways, including but not limited to WAV, MP3 and Ogg files. A user can then drag and drop the "files" to the desired directory, at this time the tracks are ripped and encoded complete with all metadata, if applicable.
The only thing that Mepis lacks is out of the box support for commercial DVDs. Linspire offers a licensed version of Xine for $5, it would be fantastic if Mepis did the same. However, if one knows where to look, an included shell script to install the libcss library can remedy this in under a minute. Unfortunately, this would be considered illegal in the US. Hopefully this is something that will be addressed soon.
As has been mentioned, until the US gives up on the DMCA, it would be great if Mepis could find a way to ship with a legitimate commercial DVD player. Support for Windows Media 9 codecs would also be nice. In addition, a well-configured Wine setup may be of use. However, Mepis goes to great lengths to ensure compatibility with Win4Lin, VMWare and Codeweaver Crossover Office.
Also, if I were designing a "lite" distribution, I would use KOffice and Konqueror over OpenOffice.org and Mozilla. Yes, Mozilla and OpenOffice.org offer better compatibility, but the equivalent KDE applications are quite mature as well and are certainly faster and better integrated with the rest of the desktop. Personally, I would find a complete KDE-solution to be a breath of fresh air on the Linux distribution scene.
If KDE-only is too drastic, further work on the appearance of XMMS, GTK applications and OpenOffice would be nice. Including and using one of the many Plastik themes for Xmms and Mozilla would be an obvious improvement, as would a KDE-tailored version of OpenOffice.org, as seen in SuSE 9.1. Several projects designed to bridge GTK and Qt themes exist, it would be great for the next version to include these improvements.
Ideally, this toolkit integration could extend beyond themes. A project that provides GTK2 applications access to Qt/KDE's file dialogs exists and is under active development. If the project is mature enough, this would be a very welcome addition to Mepis. Using KDE's fish protocol from within The Gimp would certainly be handy and new users would certainly welcome the consistent dialogs.
While ACPI support is excellent in Mepis, a dedicated laptop mode would be a much appreciated addition. Ext3 still insist on flushing the file system every five seconds, and waiting for ethernet devices on startup is an antiquated way of doing things. The use of ifplugd is a no-brainer to me. Ifplugd sits in the background and automatically starts and stops ethernet devices as they are available. It doesn't hurt anything to include. In fact, I'm not sure why this isn't installed and setup by default in all Linux distributions. My guess is history and cruft.
While it is true that KDE 3.2 is a fairly heavy environment, my main home machine, a PIII 1GHz ThinkPad with 384MB of RAM, is more than up the job. I only ever feel the need for more RAM when running VMWare.
Both my work and home machine run SimplyMepis. I have added Apache/PHP4 and a gcc to both. In addition to these machines, I have set SimplyMepis up for several students at work, all thoroughly enjoy it. Having the complete Debian tree at your finger tips is a huge boon at a University. I can pretty much handle anything thrown at me with ease. Debian has long been my favourite family of Linux distributions. In my opinion, Mepis currently stands out as the best flavour of Debian. In most cases, it offers the simplicity and usability of Xandros or Linspire, with the full undiluted power of Debian a short trip to a terminal away.
Mepis includes Quanta, my favourite web development tool. The version included comes with the new and interesting Kommander editor/executor. For those who haven't heard of this tool, Kommander is a very promising graphical widget editor similar to Visual Basic that makes it trivial to write small programs. The widgets can be tied together and extended using scripting languages, shell scripts or DCOP. I had never used Kommander before, but it was so intuitive that in literally five minutes, I was able to make a small Kommander program that would automate the installation of all needed C/C++ development packages on Mepis by calling apt-get. Kommander, while young, is very promising. It's inclusion in SimplyMepis is a very interesting development.
The developers behind Mepis are still working out how best to offer up the Debian tree. Being based on a mix of Sarge and Sid, one occasionally runs into dependency issues. These are being actively worked on and ought to be cleared up soon. SimplyMepis draws on Sarge by default. With it set to become stable before the end of 2004, users ought to be able to reliably use the default Debian tree for years to come.
With the commercialization of Linux increasing rapidly and the divide between Free and pay-for offerings widening, Mepis reminds us of the "good old days" of quality distributions unencumbered by restrictive licenses. In my opinion, everyone interested in Linux should try it. If you feel that it offers as much promise as I do, don't forget to thank the developers for their efforts. Registration is possible, donations are welcome and participation is encouraged.