January 18, 2008

SimplyMEPIS 7.0 is a keeper

Author: Susan Linton

The long awaited SimplyMEPIS 7.0 was finally released just before Christmas, and it was worth the wait. In this mature and sometimes underrated operating system, everything looks good and works well.

Because I was familiar with previous MEPIS versions, the first thing I noticed in 7.0 was the lovely new artwork. The tasteful theme begins at the live CD boot screen and continues through the boot splash and login screen to the desktop. Developers add a air of professionalism to their distributions when they include a matching theme throughout. It shows attention to detail and indicates that an enjoyable user experience is one of the main priorities. I get this feeling when using SimplyMEPIS.

SimplyMEPIS has found the balance between user-friendly and advanced options with its hard drive installer. It is basically a configuration wizard that requires users to select options from drop-down boxes or input data in text areas. It includes all the basic steps usually required, such as choosing the disk, partitioning the disk with GParted if necessary, and choosing the target partitions and filesystem types. There is no package selection; the KDE desktop and the same set of applications is installed on all systems. After the installation, you can choose whether and where to install GRUB (GRand Unified Bootloader), whether to built an initrd, and which common services to enable. You can also input the computer name, hostname, and Samba workgroup name, set locale and keyboard, and set up the user accounts and root password. It's all easy and straighforward.

I was pleased with MEPIS's hardware detection and configuration. My display was correctly configured to use the desired 1280x800 resolution, a welcome sound greeted my first login, the volume controls worked on my keyboard, and my wireless Ethernet adapter was ready for the input of my Wi-Fi Protected Access passkey.

SimplyMEPIS includes several assistants for system configuration. I used the MEPIS Network Assistant to set up my wireless access point password, after which my connection was ready at boot time. I didn't have to fuss around with Ndiswrapper or Wpa_supplicant, as SimplyMEPIS ships with the necessary firmware in place and ready to go. The KNemo network monitor appears in the system tray for easy access to information and statistics concerning the connection.

If you choose Automatic (networkmanager) instead of Manual (mnetwork) under the General tab of the Network Assistant, roaming becomes much easier. When you use KNetworkManager, it scans your location for available wireless access points. A mouse click on the one you want will connect your machine. You can then store any passwords required in KWallet.

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I used the MEPIS X Windows Assistant to set up Nvidia proprientary graphic drivers. When you selecting the Nvidia option, the drivers are downloaded and installed, and the X configuration file is set up. I now have 3-D graphic drivers upon login with very little effort from myself.

With the System Assistant you can set your computer and hostname, set locale, recover disk space, set USB key options, repair GRUB, and test and repair partitions.

The User Assistant helps you add new users and remove or repair existing user accounts. It contains some advanced feature options such as setting up skeleton files or copying existing files from other user accounts. Since setting up new user accounts remains intimidating for new Linux users, this is a particularly helpful program.

But the fun didn't stop there. One of my usual tests for distros is to visit video sites. With SimplyMEPIS I was watching Youtube, Veoh, and even Apple.com without having to install anything myself. The same held true for video formats I had stored locally, such as Audio Video Interleave, CD/DVD image files, and MPEG-4 video -- but not encrypted DVDs.

SimplyMEPIS supports advanced power-saving features for portable computers. A battery charge monitor appears in the system tray via KPowersave, and right-clicking the icon provides options for the performance level of the machine and sleep features. Suspend didn't work initially; a dialog box popped up and stated that I would need to edit the SUSPEND2RAM_FORCE boolean in the /etc/powersave/sleep file. After doing so, suspend and hibernate worked fine.

SimplyMEPIS assembles a desirable set of applications. KDE 3.5.8 is the desktop environment, and under the hood we find Linux 2.6.22-1, Xorg 7.1.1, and GCC 4.1.2. Graphic applications include the GIMP, Xara Xtreme, and digicam. Internet software includes KMail and Thunderbird for email and Konqueror and Firefox for Web browsing. Multimedia tasks are handled by K3b, Amarok, KMPlayer, and KsCD. OpenOffice.org is available for routine office chores. Other utilities include KlamAV, Keep (backup system), and GParted. Planet Penguin Racer is among the included games. For those wishing advanced eye-candy, Compiz Packages have been updated for 7.0 and added to the MEPIS software repository.

Compiz and other software can be install through the APT package management system. Synaptic is provided as its graphical front end, and it comes preconfigured with software repositories. APT Notify resides in the panel to inform users of available updates to the packages on their system. Clicking it opens Synaptic for easy upgrades.

SimplyMEPIS has one of the widest selections of help methods in the Linux community. It begins on the desktop with the MEPIS Users' Manual, one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful guides I've reviewed. It contains sections for most of the common areas of desktop computing with explanations suitable for new users as well as enough depth for anyone more experienced. An online wiki offers more information, guides, and how-tos. Also available are the MEPIS IRC channels and a discussion forum.

My entire experience with SimplyMEPIS was a pleasure. The system is pretty and everything worked as I hoped. I didn't have a single problem, unless you count the manual edit of /etc/powersave/sleep.

SimplyMEPIS has always been and remains one of my favorite Linux distributions because of its no-nonsense approach to the user desktop. It contains virtually all the things I desire in a desktop and does so in a logical and easy-to-use manner. Its selection of included software is well-rounded and intuitive without a lot of overlap. It is one of the rare systems that is equally appropriate for new users and the experienced. I always keep a version of SimplyMEPIS installed so that no matter what else I do to my laptop, I will always have at least one system that will work when I need it.

SimplyMEPIS continues to be at the top of the short list of systems I recommend when asked which Linux distro to try. It is one of the best distributions available today. It is SimplyWONDERFUL.

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