I've been a fan of SimplyMEPIS for years. The distribution was one of the early pioneers in the field of user-friendly Linux development, and to this day offers a system that usually "just works." Earlier this month the MEPIS site announced a community variation for older computers based on SimplyMEPIS. AntiX is an installable live CD that features a modern kernel, recent X server, and lighter applications for use on computers with as little as 64MB RAM. I tried it, and liked what I found.
I tested AntiX on my everyday laptop (a Hewlett-Packard dv6105 with a 2.0GHz AMD Turion and 512MB RAM) as well as an older 667MHz Pentium III computer. I was immediately disappointed that a distribution advertised for "antique" computers doesn't ship with (or provide on mirrors) a diskette boot image. Many computers of that target era don't have the capability of booting from the CD-ROM drive. Overlooking that requirement is a major flaw in this distro design.
Despite starting out on the wrong foot, I booted AntiX on my notebook and found myself at a login screen with no clue as to the user and password I needed to log in. Searching for them was a tedious task. AntiX doesn't have its own Web site yet, and all information about it is piecemeal around the SimplyMEPIS site and forum. I found what was reported to be the user and password, but it didn't work. Finally, I was able to use "root" for the user and password and start the tastefully executed Fluxbox window manager.
Like SimplyMEPIS, hardware detection and setup for my laptop was nearly impeccable. The X resolution was optimal, my touchpad and USB mouse functioned smoothly and accurately, and sound worked automagically. Most remarkable was finding my Internet connection available at login. SimplyMEPIS and AntiX are the only two distros that have offered such a convenience for my Ndiswrapper-dependent Ethernet chip.
Under AntiX, removable media is detected by the kernel, but I had to mount the partitions manually. Printer setup is handled through the GNOME CUPS manager. Advanced powersaving features, such as CPUfreq modes and suspend/standby, are available and functional at the command line (with powersave), though there are no corresponding graphical applications. You can easily add battery and CPU temperature monitoring to the desktop application Conky.
The desktop is an uncluttered pleasure. It features only Conky in the upper right corner and a panel at the top. In the menus you'll find ample applications for completing most common tasks, including Abiword and Leafpad for word processing and text editing, the GIMP for image manipulation, Gnumeric for spreadsheets, Firefox, Dillo, and Sylpheed Claws for Internet and communications, Audacity and XMMS for audio enjoyment, Camstream for webcam use, Xine for video playback, X-CD-Roast and Graveman for CD-ROM creation, and much more. System tools include the Synaptic package manager, QTParted, and ROX filer. Configuration utilities include pppconfig, sysvconfig, and a DSL/PPPoE configuration tool. There are a few games as well, such as Xscorch, GnuChess, and Xmahjongg. Under the hood we find Linux 2.6.15-27, Xorg 7.1.1, and GCC 4.0.3. The MEPIS hard drive installer is not listed in the menu, but can be invoked from the command line (at /usr/sbin/minstall).
Performance on my laptop was excellent, but I was curious how AntiX would perform on an older computer. To find out I tracked down the oldest working machine in the family -- a 667MHz Pentium III on an Intel i815 motherboard with 256MB RAM.
Again, hardware detection and auto setup was good. Graphics in that machine are driven by an Nvidia 5900 with an older 17-inch monitor. X started with a resolution of 1024x768. I would have preferred 1280x1024 by default, but I could set that easily through a manual configuration file edit. The generic wheel mouse worked as it should, and the old SoundBlaster PCI 512 card was functional. The system saw my ancient Hewlett-Packard scanner but didn't automatically configure it. It also detected my Ethernet card and loaded the correct module.
Menu and window operations were immediate and responsive. Most applications opened in what seemed like an average timeframe, with a notable exception being Firefox. Subsequent application starts were much faster for some applications, such as Firefox and Graveman. The system performed well during operation; I could barely tell I was working on an older machine. As you can see in the chart below, performance was well above acceptable for this older computer.
AntiX Performance Comparison in Seconds
I was impressed and enamored with AntiX. Its understated and attractive theme are excellent window-dressing for the superior performance hidden within. Since it is based on SimplyMEPIS, hardware detection and setup are very good as well. The distro includes the extras necessary for a complete user experience, such as browser plugins and multimedia codecs. I had no trouble with stability or lack of functionality, except with QuickTime movie trailers, which would not play. I found in testing that performance on an older computer wasn't significantly worse than what I experienced on a modern machine.
However, AntiX's lack of a boot diskette image makes the software useless for many in its target audience. In addition, the lack of graphical solutions for powersaving functions might be inconvenient to some users. Another problem is the lack of a centralized Web site or forum for information and help. Hopefully these issue will be addressed in the future.
All in all, AntiX gets a thumbs-up for its progress so far. I hope to see more from the project in the future. AntiX offers a modern and pleasing alternative for keeping those computers productive.