January 16, 2004

Spawn of Debian faceoff: MEPIS Linux

Author: Joe Barr

This is the second in a series of reviews of Debian-based distributions. The first review looked at LindowsOS 4.5. This one examines a lesser-known distro called MEPIS, which is unique in many ways, including the name. The MEPIS site explains that the origin of the name may have been the city of Memphis, Egypt, which in ancient times was the largest city in the world. Of course, it's possible that someone is pulling our legs.

The buzz about MEPIS Linux

What do you do if you grow tired of waiting for the leading Linux distros to produce the kind of Linux desktop you want? If you're Warren Woodford, founder of MEPIS, you simply do it yourself.

Reviews of MEPIS are popping up on the Internet now, but I had never heard of it before NewsForge.com editor-in-chief Roblimo mentioned the name to me one day last month. That's why I contacted Warren Woodford and requested a copy for review.

Woodford has a fascinating history in high tech, stretching back to the '70s when he tried to start a PC company. He has designed satellite ground stations, battlefield management workstations, written a thesaurus of the American language, and had success as a NeXT developer and a Java developer.

Somewhere along the way he moved to Linux, trying SuSE first and then settling on Mandrake. In 2002 he felt that Mandrake was never going to deliver the quality Linux desktop he wanted and decided to do it himself. Warren told me by email that "I decided to take matters into my own hands and create the kind of desktop Linux that I needed as a successor to the promise of NeXT and as a foundation for my larger vision of a computing environment that is incredibly easy to use and that facilitates collaboration, publishing, communication, and community by and for all people." MEPIS Linux is the result.

The test environment

I am using a low-cost desktop box I purchased from Fry's Electronics for $199.99 for the review. It came with an 800MHz VIA processor, 128MB DRAM, 30GB hard drive, 52X ATAPI CD-ROM drive, and mainboard with built-in AC97 Codec sound, 3D Graphics Accelerator video, SiS630E chipset, and a 10BaseT/100BaseTX NIC.

The box is connected to the Internet through my home LAN. A Belkin Wi-Fi router sits next to my office desktop, and the test machine connects to it via Cat 5 cable. Connected to my desktop box is an HP printer which is configured to allow sharing with others on the LAN.

Installation

Woodford sent me the two-CD set of the latest release of MEPIS (2003.10.01). When you first boot the MEPIS CD, you are asked if you want to run in Demo or Live version. If you choose Live, MEPIS starts in LiveCD mode, similar to Knoppix or one of the other LiveCD distributions. To install the system, choose Demo mode instead of Live.

After starting in Demo mode, the MEPIS desktop appears. It looks almost identical to the LiveCD desktop. I clicked on a desktop icon for the "MEPIS Install Center" to begin the installation process. After entering the default root password and confirming that I wanted to install MEPIS on the hard drive, off we went.

The first install screen showed the disk that would be use (/dev/hda) and offered me the choice of modifying the existing partitions or using them. I wanted to remove them all so that MEPIS would have the same starting point that LindowsOS did.

The installer started a program called QTPartEd. Just as the name suggests, it is a GUI partition editor. I used it to delete all the existing partitions. Then I proceeded with the installation by allowing MEPIS to partition and format the drive as it saw fit.

Once the formatting of the drive was complete, I had a few more decisions to make. Should LILO live on the MBR or in /root? Was the localization of language and keyboard correct? Then I added a normal user and provided passwords for both root and that user.

Then came one screen each to configure network names (for Samba) and services and servers to run at startup. The default selections were to run Guarddog firewall and leave everything else off. One interesting choice of services was RAID/LVM. I don't believe I've ever seen that offered as an installation option before.

That finished the installation. It took just over half an hour, and most of that time was spent formatting the 30 gigabyte hard drive. The format must have been checking for bad blocks. I don't remember requesting that it do so.

Next: Desktop look and feelPost-install landscape

The default MEPIS desktop is a clean, well-lighted place. Nearly a dozen desktop icons are arranged in two columns on the left hand side of the screen. Along the bottom, the KDE task bar shows the status of your keyboard LEDs, the date and time, and half a dozen icons of its own.

The desktop icons provide one-click access to Mount Partitions, System Center, Removable Disks, Installation Center, Documents, User Utilities, Local Network, registration and support, Print Jobs, and Quick Start documentation. And a trash can, of course.

Mount Partitions turns out to be KDiskFree, which displays information about mounted file systems. The System Center provides a configuration tool to handle localization, Keyring Disks, Mouse, Display, Network Interfaces, Package Management, and other system tweaks.

Removable Disks gives me easy konqueror to whatever lives in /mnt/removable. The Installation Center now has the Install section grayed out, but still offers tools to fix problems with LILO or X. It also allows you to create a boot floppy and to test partitions.

Documents is Konqueror, focused on things like the text file I am saving as I write this in KEdit. The User Utilities allow me to clean up user space and create spam filters. If you use Samba to work with both Windows and Linux boxes on the LAN, you will appreciate the Local Network. Behind the icon is Komba2, a neat Samba network admin tool.

The registration and support icon links to the Mepis Web site, where you can purchase MEPIS and find technical support for it. MEPIS costs only $17 for the two CDs, or $10 for high-speed download. You can also download MEPIS for free from several mirrors listed on the site. Registration on the Web site is free and allows you to post questions in the support forum.

MEPIS installs nearly 1,200 apps and tools by default. The KDE icon on the task bar makes them available to you in a clear and easy fashion. In addition to OpenOffice.org and all the usual suspects for Internet apps, games, and multimedia, there were some things you don't normally see in a default install.

Remote Desktop Connection is one. If you have a VNC server running elsewhere on the LAN, this is all you need to access its desktop. The Synaptic package manager, which is a GUI front-end for apt-get is another. You can also find a tape backup tool and the QT Partition Editor
used during the installation.

Connectivity

Just as LindowsOS did, MEPIS found my meant-to-be-shared HP DeskJet 842C on the LAN and made it ready for my use without me having to lift a finger. Ditto Internet access via DHCP. This category is becoming a real "Move along, nothing to do here" kind of thing for Linux.

Software maintenance

MEPIS depends on apt-get for adding and updating software. You can use it from the command line or via Synaptic. It's pre-configured to check the MEPIS deb repository first, then to check a number of the usual Debian repositories.

Security

MEPIS installs itself behind a firewall and enforces good security practices for the division of tasks between super and normal user. By default, almost all exposed services and servers are turned off.

Support

Free support is available in the forums on the MEPIS website. Registration is the only thing required in order to post questions. If you can find the answer you need by looking at the answers to others' question, you don't even need to register.

The final score

Based on feedback from readers, we've added a couple of new things to the faceoff box score: pricing for the version tested and pricing for priority software updating if available.

MEPIS is a different type of distribution than I've seen before. As noted, it is almost a one-man operation. It's not a free distribution, like Debian, but the prices for it are so low that it almost qualifies. It's probably not the right choice for non-technical Linux newbies, but it's a great choice for those on a budget. MEPIS Linux is the best value for the money of any Linux distribution I've tried yet.

Category LindowsOS 4.5 MEPIS 2003.10
Installation 90 90
Connectivity 95 95
Security 85 95
Software maintenance 95 90
Free/Included Support 75 90
Price as tested $49.95 $17
Upgrade software maintenance $49.95 N/A
Final Grade 88 92
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