Practical Technology

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A first look at SimplyMEPIS 6.5

I have a nomination for the “Worst possible situation to review an operating system” award. Review it, SimplyMEPIS 6.5 release candidate 2, while stuck in a hotel room 2,000 miles from home with food-poisoning.

Trust me, in a situation like this, you are not in the mood to put up with any crap from your computer’s operating system. You’ve got enough going wrong with you without any thing else going wrong.

So, there I was in Salt Lake City, sick as a dog, with my faithful IBM T40 ThinkPad. This system uses a 1.5 GHz Pentium M processor with 1 MB of L2 cache, and a 400 MHz FSB (Front Side Bus). It has 512 MB of DDR SDRAM memory, and a built-in ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 AGP 4x with 32 MB of VRAM for graphics.

The T40s came from the factory with one of three different WiFi cards in a miniPCI slot; mine came equipped with an Intel PRO/Wireless LAN 2100 3B Mini PCI Adapter. It also has a built-in 10/100 Ethernet port. In my case, I also use a NetGear RangeMax WPN511 WiFi card because of its faster — 802.11g — performance and that the card itself has better range than any Centrino-based laptop I’ve ever used

On this system, I had zero — nada — trouble installing the new distribution. Despite what you may read elsewhere about how hard installing Linux is, installing a modern Linux, like MEPIS, which is based on Ubuntu, is a snap on 95 out of 100 systems. I don’t even recall the last time I had to do anything more complicated than hitting the enter button when installing Linux. That’s a good thing, because I don’t think I could have done much more than that on this particular go-around.

SimplyMEPIS 6.5 is built on the 2.6.17 Linux kernel, based on Ubuntu 6.06 LTS (Long Term Service), aka “Dapper Drake,” by the way. Until version 6.0, MEPIS had been built on Debian, but MEPIS designer Warren Woodford found that Debian Stable was too far behind the curve, and Debian Testing/Unstable was advancing too quickly and breaking too often, so he switched to Ubuntu.

Unlike Ubuntu, which uses GNOME for its default desktop, MEPIS uses KDE 3.5.3. As a long-time KDE user, that’s fine by me. The last thing I needed in that hotel room was an interface that I didn’t know by heart.

I was also happy to see all the familiar application faces that I expect to see on a first-rate Linux desktop: Firefox 2.03, OpenOffice 2.02, Thunderbird 1.5.0.10, Gaim 1.5.1 CSV, and so on. The only missing program that I always require on any desktop was the world’s best email/groupware client, Evolution.

That wasn’t really a problem, though, because MEPIS uses the Synaptic 0.57.8 package manager as a front end to the software management apt utility. This is already set to look for new and updated programs on MEPIS’s and Ubuntu’s own repositories, so installing the program took little more than entering its name, and then waiting for the download and installation to complete.

That said, this kind of application installation is only truly easy for someone who already knows what program they’re looking for. Linspire’s forthcoming CNR (“Click ‘N Run”) download and software management service for desktop Linux will go a long way towards making it easy for anyone to download and install Linux applications. While MEPIS has not committed to this system, Ubuntu is joining forces with Linspire in the new CNR. Perhaps MEPIS will eventually follow suit.

Of course to upgrade any program, I needed to be connected to the Internet. Even stuck in a hotel room with a strange network, I had no trouble hooking into the net using either of my WiFi interfaces or the Ethernet connection.

Once home, MEPIS also did well with hooking into my home LAN’s Windows/Samba-based network. This LAN uses both NT domain style and AD (Active Directory) authentication, but MEPIS, armed with Samba 3.0.22, was able to find, authenticate, and use my network’s CIFS (Common Internet File Systems) hard drives and printers.

MEPIS 6.5 also comes with the ntfs-3g driver for reading and writing NTFS partitions from user space. This stable, open-source file system manager is invaluable on dual-boot systems. With it, you can both read and write files living on XP, Windows Server 2003, Windows 2000, and Vista file systems. I don’t tend to use dual-boot systems myself — desktop Linux is fine for me — but on those systems where I do run both Linux and Windows, I’ve already found this new functionality to be invaluable.

Back at my home office, I was also able to see how MEPIS did with its new 3D desktop support. MEPIS comes with Beryl 0.2.0 Final, which is a combined window manager and composite manager that uses OpenGL to provide graphics acceleration.

Thanks to this outstanding business network support, I wouldn’t hesitate to put MEPIS into a small business. While MEPIS certainly doesn’t have the corporate support that Novell can offer you with SLED 10 (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop), I think it would work well in offices that have a Linux expert around to help get users over any rough spots.

Since any kind of graphics magic is just asking for trouble on an older laptop, I tested MEPIS with Beryl on an HP Pavilion Media Center TV m7360n PC. That system has 2GB of RAM, a hyper-threaded 2.8 GHz Pentium D 920 dual-core processor, and an NVIDIA GeForce 6200SE video card that takes up 256 MB of the system’s main RAM. I figured this system would have no trouble with Beryl, although Vista Aero wants more resources before it will do its magic.

I was not disappointed. Beryl .20 worked well on this system. It was, however, a bit cranky to set up. While MEPIS goes the extra mile to help you with Beryl — for example, it provides a package, mepis-beryl, that implements a basic Beryl setup — you may still have to do a lot of manual tweaking to get it the way you want it.

For example, MEPIS and the Beryl Aquamarine windows decoration set simply do not work well together. You also need to keep your eye on what version of SimplyMEPIS, X.org, and AIGLX and NVIDIA display drivers you’re using, to make sure they’re all in sync. For example, I discovered the hard way that XGL with X.org 7.0, which is what Ubuntu Dapper and MEPIS 6.0 use, will not work with MEPIS 6.5. I made the mistake of doing a partial upgrade from 6.0 to 6.5 and spent far too much trying to get MEPIS 6.0’s X.org 7.0 to work with the MEPIS 6.5’s Beryl .20 and the NVIDIA 1.0.9746 driver. They don’t work together.

Instead, I needed to upgrade to MEPIS 6.5’s X.org 7.1. Since you’re going to need to replace all your existing Beryl files and setup if you upgrade from Ubuntu or MEPIS 6.0 to 6.5, you’ll be better off doing a clean install, rather then try to save time by preserving your existing 3D desktop setup. Otherwise, as I now know to my sorrow, you’ll only end up wasting time.

That said, I’ve been doing a lot of reading up on Beryl and its older brother, Compiz, and I’ve found that MEPIS has lots of good company in having trouble with 3D desktops. More often than not, it seems, getting 3D desktops up and running the first time on many distributions, can be a real pain in the neck.

For me, desktop eye candy is not a necessity. I can live very happily without Aero Glass, Beryl, Compiz, Looking Glass, or any of the other 3D, translucent, etc., desktops. If you really must have this kind of thing today, then you should be running Mac OS X Tiger’s Aqua interface. It’s the only fancy desktop that just flat-out runs out of the box.

But, if what you want is a solid, easy-to-use, fully-featured KDE-based Linux desktop that you can use to get work done even when you’re feeling half-dead, SimplyMEPIS 6.5 is the desktop for you. It certainly was for me!

Mepis has always include a few handy little utility programs, and 6.5 makes them easier to use then ever. Here, for example, is a utility to put entire directories, or your own Mepis desktop for that matter, on a USB drive. No fuss, no muss.

Since I completed this review, the final of MEPIS has appeared. The major changes include placing the SimplyMEPIS Assitant for Mactel on the CD; Amarok has been updated to support the MagnaTune music store; and Firefox and OpenOffice have been updated with their latest security patches.

The final of SimplyMEPIS 6.5 is now out. You can either buy a subscription to the distribution from the SimplyMEPIS store or download a copy from one of the MEPIS mirrors. If you elect to just download it, MEPIS, which could use your support, asks for contributions to keep building this outstanding desktop Linux distribution.

A version of this story first appeared in DesktopLinux,

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