April 26, 2007

Review: SimplyMEPIS Linux 6.5

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

A few weeks ago, MEPIS released SimplyMEPIS 6.5. The latest version of the Ubuntu-based desktop distribution offers a number of interesting new features, including a 64-bit release and Beryl for 3-D desktop effects. After spending a fair amount of time with the release, I found it to be a worthy update to earlier versions of MEPIS.

The last time I reviewed SimplyMEPIS, it was built on Debian rather than Ubuntu. I expected that SimplyMEPIS might look and feel a little more like Kubuntu now that it's based in part on packages from Ubuntu, but it still has a unique flavor. SimplyMEPIS 6.5 may have Ubuntu's DNA under the hood, but it hasn't lost its identity.

To get started with SimplyMEPIS, download the ISO image, burn it to a disc, pop the CD into your machine, and reboot. SimplyMEPIS works as a live CD, or you can install the operating system to your hard drive from live CD while you're doing other things, like browsing the Net or playing games.

I tried SimplyMEPIS on two machines, both laptops, and also ran SimplyMEPIS under VMware Server on my desktop system. SimplyMEPIS was fairly comfortable with my IBM ThinkPad and found most of its hardware correctly, but it had difficulty detecting the Pentium 4-based machine's 1400x1050 screen resolution correctly. I eventually wound up reconfiguring X using dpkg --reconfigure xserver-xorg to get the resolution issues straightened out.

SimplyMEPIS installation is simple, on par with Ubuntu's Ubiquity installer. SimplyMEPIS does ask users a few additional questions, such as what services the user wants started at boot, but it's just a few clicks from launching the installer to the installation.

For folks with recent Apple hardware, SimplyMEPIS includes a utility for installing and configuring SimplyMEPIS on Macs.

From start to finish, it takes about 30 minutes to install the OS. After the install is complete, it's time to reboot and start using SimplyMEPIS.

SimplyMEPIS provides "assistants" to help set up devices and services. The MEPIS assistants are easy to use, though a few are lacking in some respects. For instance, the MEPIS Network Assistant is easy to use for configuring a wireless connection -- if you know the access point's name (SSID) ahead of time. The assistant doesn't do any discovery for you, so if you're sitting in a public place where you know there's wireless -- but don't happen to know the name of the access point -- good luck getting wireless configured.

Bringing the bling

With the SimplyMEPIS live CD, you can run desktop effects, via Beryl, before you commit to a hard drive install. Beryl worked on both of my laptops, which had ATI graphics chips, without any problems. I like all the options you get with Beryl, but the Beryl Manager and Beryl Settings Managers are a bit confusing to navigate around. It would be helpful if there were a tutorial for new Beryl users, since the desktop effects are a departure from the typical desktop fare that most users will be comfortable with.

While the bling is fun, it's not terribly stable. The MEPIS folks are clear that Beryl is experimental, but I think the Compiz tree might have been a better choice to give users desktop effects. Of course, since the two camps have announced their intent to merge, this will probably be a moot point a few months from now, but when 6.5 was being developed, Compiz was probably a better option. I say that because I've found the Ubuntu Feisty beta release with Compiz desktop effects far more stable than SimplyMEPIS and Beryl.

What sort of problems did I run into? Firefox was extremely unstable running under Beryl, but OK running under the standard KDE desktop. Some effects would turn themselves off, or stop working after a while. I also noticed an impact on system performance if I was logged in to the same session for a long time.

Application selection

SimplyMEPIS is aimed at the desktop user, with a good selection of packages. SimplyMEPIS is KDE-based, but includes a lot of GTK+ applications in addition to KDE/Qt apps. For example, SimplyMEPIS ships with Synaptic rather than Adept for package management and updates. You also get OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Thunderbird, the GIMP, Amarok, and the usual cast of Linux applications -- and, since SimplyMEPIS is based on Ubuntu, many more are available from the SimplyMEPIS and Ubuntu repositories.

Because SimplyMEPIS is based mostly on Ubuntu's Long Term Support (LTS) release, Dapper Drake, some of the packages are a bit outdated. For instance, it ships with KDE 3.5.3 rather than 3.5.6, and OpenOffice.org 2.0 instead of the latest 2.2 release.

SimplyMEPIS also ships with a fair amount of non-free codecs and software enabled, so you'll have support for MP3s, Flash, QuickTime movies, Java, and other goodies right out of the box. Obviously, it's not a distro for free software purists.

For Windows refugees, SimplyMEPIS includes a few packages that will appeal to the notion that a computer needs a firewall and antivirus package. (I agree on the firewall, but not so much on antivirus for Linux.) SimplyMEPIS includes GuardDog, a nice front end for setting up an iptables firewall, and KlamAV, which failed to impress me.

After downloading a few files, including a few zipped archives, I ran a scan with KlamAV. It scanned all my files and complained about every Zip file that it needed to be quarantined due to "Zip.ExceededFilesLimit" -- and it displays this in the "Name of Virus Found" field. A quick search on Google showed that this means KlamAV decided that the Zip files had too many files to scan and gave up. This isn't going to fill users with confidence, though, and might cause users to worry that they have infected files when it's really just a limitation on KlamAV's part.

I did run into one bug that surprised me in SimplyMEPIS. The first time I popped in a CD-ROM to copy files over, I clicked on the CD/DVD icon on the desktop and received an error about /dev/hdc not being a block device. I contacted MEPIS founder Warren Woodford about the glitch, and he acknowledged that it was a widespread issue and there was a fix pushed out a few days later. Woodford also says that he may generate a new ISO image of SimplyMEPIS 6.5 so other users don't run into the same problem.

Overall, I like SimplyMEPIS. It's easy to install and it's a nice desktop system. I didn't find anything about SimplyMEPIS that really wowed me, but that's probably more of a reflection on the maturity of the Linux desktop than a problem with SimplyMEPIS.

There's not a great deal to distinguish Linux distributions these days, since they're all composed of (basically) the same components. All a distro has to really differentiate itself, for the average user, is a few management tools and the timeliness of the software -- and, of course, the community that forms around the distro. SimplyMEPIS does have a friendly, and helpful, community.

If you're desktop distro shopping, I'd put SimplyMEPIS 6.5 in the list of distros to try. It's a nice desktop and worth evaluating.


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