February 9, 2006

Review: SimplyMEPIS 3.4-3

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

SimplyMEPIS is a KDE-based, Debian-derived distro that focuses on desktop use. The previous stable release came out in May of 2005, but the newest version of SimplyMEPIS is scheduled for release today, and it looks like a great release for anyone who's interested in desktop Linux.

The SimplyMEPIS installer is a bit different from other installers you might be used to. Rather than using an Anaconda-like installer or a text-mode installer like Debian's or Ubuntu's, you install SimplyMEPIS using a custom MEPIS installer after you boot into a live CD environment.

The install is about as simple as it gets. After deciding how you'd like the disk partitioned, or letting SimplyMEPIS do it for you, the install procedure asks only if you'd like to install the boot loader to the master boot record, and prompts you to provide a username and password for a regular user, and a password for the root user.

You don't have to wade through a bunch of package options when installing SimplyMEPIS; the software installs a predefined one-size-fits-all desktop bundle that includes multimedia and productivity applications.

Hardware detection

I test-drove SimplyMEPIS on a few different machines to see how well it would cope with different types of hardware. Specifically, I used an Athlon XP 2600+ machine with 1GB of RAM and a Toshiba Satellite laptop with a Celeron CPU and 512MB of RAM. I also tried SimplyMEPIS under VMware Workstation 5.5.

SimplyMEPIS desktop - click to enlarge

With one exception, SimplyMEPIS handled everything very well. On the Toshiba laptop, SimplyMEPIS found and configured the built-in Ethernet card, sound chip, and video just fine. After I installed SimplyMEPIS I decided to go mobile and threw in a wireless PC Card adapter, which it also found and let me configure with no hassle. I tried a few removable USB devices with SimplyMEPIS, a USB touchpad, and USB disk storage, and SimplyMEPIS discovered them all with no problem and put them to use immediately.

SimplyMEPIS also handled the Athlon desktop machine just fine, until I swapped the generic 17-inch LCD for a Dell 2005FPW 20.1-inch widescreen LCD. The monitor still worked, but the SimplyMEPIS configuration would not let me select an appropriate resolution for the monitor -- even though the 2005FPW is in the database of monitors in the software's OS Center. Eventually, I had to go ahead and run xorgconfig to set up X manually in order to be able to use the Dell monitor in its full 1680x1050 glory.

The SimplyMEPIS desktop

Linux distros are built from the same materials -- take the kernel, a package manager, X.org, a desktop environment, and some applications, and you've got yourself a distro. What really makes or breaks a distro is its management tools and how well everything is configured.

The default SimplyMEPIS install consumes about 2GB of disk space, and packs in a lot of useful apps. I was surprised to note that this release still uses the KDE 3.4.x series, rather than KDE 3.5, but KDE 3.4.3 is still perfectly usable.

The SimplyMEPIS package selection is excellent. Though it's a KDE-based distro, SimplyMEPIS isn't limited to Qt-based applications -- so, for example, it includes OpenOffice.org 2.0, the GIMP, Synaptic, Gaim, and other GTK+ apps that are somewhat more popular than their Qt cousins.

Qt apps are well-represented as well, of course. SimplyMEPIS covers multimedia with the amaroK audio player and the Kaffeine multimedia app, desktop publishing with Scribus, Akregator for RSS feeds, and K3b for CD/DVD burning.

The only desktop app that I prefer that wasn't installed by default was the Grip CD ripper, and it was easy enough to grab with Synaptic. I was shocked to find that Vim is not installed by default; SimplyMEPIS ships with Nvi instead. Again, a few minutes with Synaptic solved that problem.

SimplyMEPIS includes support for a lot of multimedia formats that are not supported by default with many other distros. Flash, QuickTime, Real Media, MP3, and Java are all supported right out of the box. SimplyMEPIS would be a good distro for users moving from Windows, who expect multimedia to "just work." Folks who want to be able to play Windows Media files will have to do a little configuration before they're supported -- but this is a legal issue, rather than technical one.

The only big gap in multimedia is in the fact that DVDs that are encrypted with CSS are not playable by default. Of course, this is another legal issue, not a technical one. Kaffeine will play DVDs just fine if you install the libdvdcss library, but shipping the library would probably get MEPIS in some hot water with the uber-litigious entertainment industry.

By default, SimplyMEPIS will enable a firewall unless you disable it during the install -- which is a great idea, but some of its default rules are a bit too restrictive. Specifically, the firewall is configured to block incoming SSH attempts, which seems to be overkill to me. I do like Guarddog, which is the application SimplyMEPIS ships to configure and manage its firewall. It shouldn't be too difficult for most users to find their way around Guarddog if they've ever had to configure a Windows-based firewall app.

One thing that has always bugged me about almost every distro that uses KDE is the fact that the Clock app in the panel is almost invariably set to display military time rather than the standard 12-hour time. I was pleased to see that SimplyMEPIS pre-configures the clock app to a standard a.m./p.m. display rather than military time. It's a small thing, but it's the little things that frustrate many users.

One worthwhile app included with SimplyMEPIS that I haven't seen before is a simple CheckBook Tracker application. I've always felt that GnuCash was overkill for the average user, so I'm glad to see a nice, simple app for users who need to keep track of their checkbook -- and nothing else.

In short, SimplyMEPIS has a broad selection of software that should cover most (if not all) of a users' desktop needs.

After using SimplyMEPIS for more than a week, I really developed a liking for the distro. It's a well-thought-out OS that should serve well for most users. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend SimplyMEPIS for novice and intermediate users who are looking for a desktop Linux distro that requires little time to get up to speed.


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