Sunday, November 23, 2008

SimplyMEPIS: The best desktop Linux you haven't tried

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Nowadays, everyone uses Ubuntu, most people have used Fedora, and many folks have tried openSUSE. SimplyMEPIS ... not so many. That's a shame, because this relatively obscure Debian-based desktop distribution from Morgantown, WV, is an outstanding desktop operating system. With SimplyMEPIS 8 at beta 5 and closing in on release, I tested the distribution and found it to be a keeper.

I downloaded SimplyMEPIS from one of its mirror sites and burned the ISO file to a CD, then installed it on a Dell Inspiron 530s, powered by a 2.2GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800MHz front side bus, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB SATA drive, and an Integrated Intel 3100 Graphics Media Accelerator.

On this system, I started by running SimplyMEPIS from its live CD. It ran without a hitch, so I moved on to installing the distribution. The SimplyMEPIS installation took approximately 15 minutes. I opted to use ext3 for my filesystem, rather than ext2 and ReiserFS; it's not the fastest or most up-to-date journaled file system, but it's about as stable as they come.

Like most modern Linuxes, SimplyMEPIS can use the entire hard dark for the distribution, or you can modify an existing partition table with GParted. I opted to shrink down the existing Windows NTFS partition, delete the factory-installed recovery partition, and create a main primary partition and a separate primary swap partition. GParted made it easy to do, and reminded me that not so long ago changing and configuring hard drive partitions required equal parts magic and hope.

A single CD distribution, MEPIS offers a limited selection of KDE 3.5.* packages out of the box. To get other software choices, you'll need to download them from the Debian and MEPIS software repositories. SimplyMEPIS boots into a KDE 3.5.9 desktop. SimplyMEPIS's developer, Warren Woodford doesn't care for KDE 4.x, so he's elected to stick with classic KDE. The older software works just fine.

The distribution itself is built on top of Debian 5 (Lenny), which hasn't yet been released. Even so, Woodford isn't waiting on Lenny's release to include newer software. For example, SimplyMEPIS uses the kernel.

You'll also find the newest software among SimplyMEPIS's applications. The distribution includes the newest version of Sun's VirtualBox virtual machine, virtualbox-ose 2.0.4; the latest office suite, 3.0.0-4; and Firefox 3.0.3-3. Curiously, SimplyMEPIS 8 doesn't include Firefox's email sibling, Thunderbird, in its basic package. Instead, its default email program is KMail.

Of course, since SimplyMEPIS comes with the Synaptic package manager and the Debian Lenny and SimplyMEPIS repositories ready to go, installing Thunderbird, or in my case, the GNOME Evolution mail client, is no trouble at all.

While working with the applications, I found one odd error. While the distribution came with the new Adobe Flash Player 10 browser plugin installed, it would not display Flash video in Firefox. I finally solved the problem by reinstalling Flash Player from the repository.

For all other purposes, over days of use, SimplyMEPIS worked flawlessly. I used my usual applications -- Firefox, Evolution,, Pidgin for IM, Banshee for music, and Konqueror for file management -- and everything went as smooth as silk.

Of course, I could have used any other KDE-based distribution and gotten pretty much the same results, but SimplyMEPIS's greatest charm is that it works so well as a seamless whole.

While you might get similar results from any KDE-based distribution, SimplyMEPIS offers something extra in its collection of four system tuning tools: MEPIS Network Assistant, MEPIS System Assistant, MEPIS User Assistant, and MEPIS X-Windows Assistant. You can get to these from the main KDE menu's System option.

Each of these brings together important Linux controls in a logical, easy-to-use way. For example, the Network Assistant gives you control over all your network interfaces, both Ethernet and Wi-Fi, as well as DHCP and DNS settings, and lets you stop and restart network interfaces. Sure, you can do that with other Linux distributions, but SimplyMEPIS puts all the network controls you need in one place so you don't need to search for them.

Two of the other assistants add even more functionality. The System Assistant, besides enabling you to change your computer's name, domain, and Samba/Windows workgroup/domain and repair your boot or partitions, also lets you clone your existing desktop to a bootable USB drive. Lots of distributions, including Fedora 9, let you set up a Linux desktop on a USB drive, but, to the best of my knowledge, SimplyMEPIS is the only one to make it duplicate the one you're already using to take with you on the road.

The MEPIS User Assistant enables you to copy or sync between desktops. Your choices include copying or syncing your entire home directory or just your mail, Mozilla, documents, or configuration directories. It's a pretty darn handy tool both for backups and for moving from one PC to another.

The overall impact of SimplyMEPIS's smooth integration and its user-friendly utilities is to make it a truly outstanding Linux desktop. I've been using desktop Linux for more than a decade, and I keep coming back to SimplyMEPIS. Version 8 is good enough that I'm not taking it off my test machine. Instead, I've migrated all my files to the SimplyMEPIS PC and made it my main desktop system. That's how good it is: good enough that SimplyMEPIS is now my number one desktop.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was the operating system of choice for PCs and 2BSD Unix was what the cool kids used on their computers.

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