SimplyMepis 2004.01 Review

SimplyMepis 2004.01 Review

I first noticed Mepis at version 2003.10.08. Mepis began as a LiveCD distribution similar to Knoppix. With SimplyMepis 2004.01, Mepis is making the transition to a full-fledged easy-to-use desktop and general-purpose Linux distribution. The following is both an overview and review of this excellent new Linux distribution.

Details and package versions

SimplyMepis is based on a mix of Debian Sarge and Sid. This makes the available packages quite current:
  • Kernels 2.4.26 and 2.6.7
  • KDE 3.2.3
  • OpenOffice.org 1.1.2
  • Gimp 2.0.4
  • Mozilla 1.7.2
  • Skype 1.0
  • Quanta 3.2
  • K3B 0.11.14
  • Audacity 1.2
In addition to these preinstalled applications, Gnome 2.6, KOffice 1.3 and more are available through the available repositories.

Design and installation of SimplyMepis

SimplyMepis was originally designed to ship with the upcoming book "Point and Click Linux" by Rob Miller of Slashdot fame. This book intends to supply the user with an installable Linux LiveCD offering the best of desktop Linux applications. As such, SimplyMepis includes one office suite, one desktop environment and does its best to supply one application for each task, allowing it to fit comfortably under 2GB. This means that you have no package choices when installing the OS. However, being Debian-based, adding any of Debian's 10,000 is a snap.

thumbs/livecd_installCenter1.jpg 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.

First boot and initial impressions

thumbs/kdm.jpg 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.

thumbs/user_default_desktop.jpg
The default Mepis desktop

Using Mepis

I have been using Mepis since 2003.10.08. SimplyMepis 2004 continues the excellent user experience and manages to top out any other desktop-oriented distribution that I have used. I originally found Mepis while searching for an affordable option for our undergraduate labs at work. I had been using Xandros Desktop 2.0 since it had been released and was very happy with it. However, Xandros' license agreement was and remains very limiting. Also, I found their file manager to be significantly less flexible than KDE's Konqueror. Mepis offers a similarly straightforward desktop experience while remaining far truer to it's Debian roots. In fact, at the end of the day, Mepis is pretty much just a well-configured and tested Debian desktop distribution with refreshingly little "special sauce" thrown in. Instead, Mepis distinguishes itself by preconfiguring many details, making the menus and defaults clean, and including the best tools for most tasks.

thumbs/livecd_menus.jpg
The above screenshot shows some of the attention that Mepis pays to the Debian desktop experience. For starters, the menus are much cleaner than the standard Debian menu system. In addition, Mepis selects a good default theme, Plastik, and reasonable fonts. Finally, this screenshot is of the root login from the LiveCD. Note that the background is red. This is to gently remind the user that they are running as root.

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.

thumbs/livecd_sysCenter.jpg      thumbs/user_utilities.jpg
Mepis "System Center" and "User Utilities"

Finally, Mepis includes two lower-level additions, mefstab and meauto, described in the next section.

Hardware support

Meuato is A hardware detection program similar to Red Hat's Kudzu, Mefstab is how Mepis dynamically generates the fstab. These components, while comparatively small, make Mepis really stand out compared to other Debian-based distributions.

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.

Networking and browsing

Rather than using KDE's built-in smb ioslave, which limits it's use to KDE apps and has always been rather flaky for me, Mepis does SMB browsing "right" with the inclusion of SMB4k. SMB4k is a Network Neighborhood-like application for KDE that makes browsing remote file systems a snap, as it actually mounts the remote filesystems, allowing any Linux application to use remote files.

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. thumbs/konqi_flash.jpg

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.

Multimedia support

As mentioned, Mepis comes quite well prepared in the multimedia department. Both the 2.4 and 2.6 kernels make use of ALSA, so one can finally have multiple sounds simultaneously. The Gimp 2.0 is included, as is Audacity 1.2, Scribus 1.2, RealPlayer 10, MPlayer, KMPlayer and Xine. Xmms is the default audio application in most places. Unlike Fedora, Mepis can play and rip MP3s out of the box. Mepis includes a very current version of K3b for all CD and DVD burning needs. Also as mentioned, Mepis' excellent hardware detection makes it a relative joy to use with transient hardware such as portable MP3 player, scanners, digital cameras and the plethora of memory sticks. thumbs/audiocd.jpg

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.

thumbs/multimedia.jpg
Audacity, Xine, RealPlayer, K3b

Problems and suggestions

SimplyMepis is great, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. This section isn't meant to take away from Mepis, just to give one user's opinion on the future direction of the distribution.

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.

thumbs/livecd_gimp_ooo_xmms.jpg      thumbs/My Desktop Toolkits.jpg
Left: Mepis defaults for various toolkits.     Right: My simple modifications

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.

Performance and suitability for daily use

SimplyMepis 2004.01 is very fast for a Linux distribution. I run it comfortably on several PII400MHz machines with 128MB of RAM. KDE 3.2 is by no means a speed daemon with only 128MB of RAM, but it is quite usable. I also find the inclusion of the 2.4 kernel to be a boon on low-end hardware. Where Fedora Core 2 would thrash constantly on machines with less that 256MB of RAM, Mepis seems to run just fine. As the most obvious difference is the kernel, I assume that 2.4's less aggressive scheduler lends itself to lower performance machines.

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.

Conclusion

SimplyMepis 2004.01 is only the second major release of Mepis, yet it already offers what I consider to be the best of desktop Debian. While it began as a one-man small distribution, the community and popularity surrounding Mepis is growing in leaps and bounds. SimplyMepis has once again provided a well-configured, contemporary Linux desktop.

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.