Linux Desktop Distro Shootout Part III: Mepis Review

This is the third in my series of reviews for Debian-based commercial distros that might be appropriate for SOHO use. The first article covered my exploration of Lindows, the second one focused on Libranet, and this article covers a recently released distro called MEPIS.

MEPIS Linux (MEPIS = Managerial Education and Personal Information Systems) is the brainchild of Warren Woodford, who operates out of Morgantown, WV. Morgantown is a very small city in northern West Virginia (state motto, “Mountaineers are always free”).

Readers of my two previous articles will notice that I have temporarily dropped the use of my plus/minus rating system. I will explain the reason for this later on. This review is atypical in another respect, in that it includes several quotes from Warren himself. Ultimately this turned into a sort of half review – half interview. I think this is appropriate considering the dual nature of MEPIS itself. Anyway, it’s my article and this is how I wrote it.

Next Victim…MEPIS – Software With Attitude.

(Hardware note: Main system = P3 1 gig, 384 meg RAM, 56K USR internal faxmodem, onboard i810 video disabled in BIOS, 32 meg Radeon 7200 PCI video card. The cover to the case is around here somewhere. Secondary system = P3 450, 128 meg RAM, 4 meg ATI Rage agp, Lucent winmodem.)

Let me get something out of the way up front. I am biased in favor of MEPIS. Reason being, I feel obligated to cheer for the home team. My family’s ancestral farm is located in that area, so I totally applaud Warren’s intent to expand the software industry in the region. Pure geographic ethnocentrism.

On the other hand, I am not obligated to be foolish about it. If it works, it works. If not, then oh well….

I was first directed to MEPIS by a reader of this series (thanks!). I checked out the web site ( and then sent Warren an email explaining what I was doing. He promptly mailed me the CDs and I started running them on both systems.

You can run MEPIS from the CD, or you can install it to your hard drive and keep the CD as an emergency rescue disk. The nicest thing about this approach is that MEPIS comes with a variety of utilities set out in plain view on the desktop, with a sweet little menu system that even an ignorant end user can understand and use. This is an idea whose time is long since overdue in my opinion.

I have already decided one thing for certain. I am definitely going to keep a copy of MEPIS on hand at all times for emergency use.

MEPIS took the concept behind Knoppix and went one better. Instead of focusing on a bootable CD with installation to hard drive as a grudging afterthought, MEPIS is designed from the ground up to operate in both modes. Sometimes simultaneously. For other bootable CDs that I have personally tried (Knoppix, Morphix, LindowsCD) once you have the system installed that’s it. The CD becomes a shiny toy.

With MEPIS, the installation CD can also double as a repair kit specifically designed to diagnose and repair issues related to ITS OWN INSTALLATION. In other words, don’t put that CD into storage after you install MEPIS. Keep it handy, just in case your boot loader goes bad.

Boot loader going bad…Why does that remind me of something?

MEPIS includes several different utilities for reinstalling LILO, analyzing your hard disc and fixing file systems. This is in addition to package management and disk cleaning utilities, etc. And they all work too, I tried them. I also deliberately wiped out my MBR, then booted into MEPIS on CD and used the LILO utility to restore the boot manager without a hitch.

MEPIS is a work in progress, very much in progress. New versions and tweaks are issuing in a steady stream, and the distro is evolving quite rapidly. In the time since I began writing this review Warren has already released a new version containing some minor installation tweaks (he also sent me the second set of disks), and he is working on the next incarnation already.

MEPIS is distributed under the GPL with full freedom of unlimited reproduction. You can also order the CDs for a nominal fee if, like me, you are stuck with dialup. I got mine free, but I am considering sending him some cash anyway, just to encourage things. For $10 it seems dirt cheap.

The default desktop is KDE 3.1.4. Supplemental packages are included on a second CD and include bleeding edge versions of, Mozilla, etc. The system is based on Debian unstable and most of the included software is the newest version. For those who are interested a complete list of the included packages is available on the MEPIS website, the list is too long to put here. At minimum, MEPIS provides a no-brainer way to install Debian unstable and keep it running.

Bleeding edge means occasional bugs. Not only is MEPIS using Debian unstable, but it also uses a custom kernel. This fact allowed me a golden opportunity to try out the technical support options. I had wondered how a one man operation would possibly cope with the technical support requirements of a customized distro. The answer is simple. The man never sleeps. I sent an email describing some minor hardware recognition issues on my hard drive installations, and the next thing I knew I was drawn into an in-depth email exchange. I found myself sending configuration files and running diagnostics to send him the results, etc. This guy is obsessed with doing it right. I honestly suspect that he stays awake at night worrying that someone’s installation might not be operating perfectly.

Warren told me that:

“I care a lot about support. I think it’s very important for users and therefore important to MEPIS and Linux as well. I have ideas and plans for using technology to make support easier for MEPIS. I hope that we have the beginnings of an infrastructure in place within a month or so.”

Given the current pace of things with MEPIS, I would not be at all surprised if he actually does get something going within a month or so.

I also like the way that MEPIS takes current the KDE applications and puts them to practical use. Some distros seem determined to write their own customized version of various applications, while ignoring the fact that KDE already has many items that duplicate those functions. MEPIS tries to integrate existing functions into a coherent whole, without spending a lot of effort on re-inventing the wheel. I like that approach.

Another aspect of MEPIS that I did not get a chance to try is the USB keyring disk. Warren calls this a Traveler Disk and describes it thus:

“The MEPIS Traveler Disk seems to be misunderstood. It is a USB keyring disk that enables what I think is cool functionality. In (version) 2003.10.01, if you format the disk with the MEPIS System Center, then it contains two partitions. The first partition is fat32 and shows up in “Removable Disks.” It can be used to exchange files with a machine running MS-Windows. This has been tested only with XP. The second partition is ext3 and it can be used in a number of different ways. This is experimental but it seems to work ok.

The MEPIS System Center can be used to synchronize part of your desktop to and from the disk. The speed of the sync varies depending on the firmware in the USB keyring disk. For example, you can sync between home and office. It contains a shared directory with global permissions and there is a corresponding shared directory in your regular home, so you can include arbitrary files when you do a sync or copy. But also, it is a working home directory. You can go to any machine running MEPIS, plugin the Traveler Disk, and then login to your desktop, via the guest account. This means, if you have access to MEPIS, you can travel and not carry a laptop, if all you need to have with you is your email account and some space for some files to edit or for a presentation.

Imagine going on vacation, carrying your Traveler Disk, and being able to use it in a cybercafe. It also means that you can simply keep a Traveler Disk around as an insurance policy. If your system crashes, and you have access to a second system that runs MEPIS, you can remain in email contact with people while your system is being repaired, and later you can merge that activity back into your main system.

I was flattered that Mandrake appears to have rushed a USB keyring app to market in their live CD, but I think they have missed the point.”

Now perhaps it is becoming clear why I am not assigning values on this one. How can I rate something that is in startup mode and in a constant state of upgrade?

I am really torn here. I am having fun playing with MEPIS. In fact, I haven’t had this much pure fun tinkering with a distro in a long time. I also think that MEPIS is rapidly evolving into a force to be reckoned with. At the moment the MEPIS community is small but fierce, and growing fast. Warren is obsessed with quality and constantly hammering on the latest version of Debian to turn out a solid bleeding edge product. On the other hand, I can’t afford to trust my day-to-day operation to a bleeding edge system. I just don’t dare.

So I am going to compromise. I will keep MEPIS close at hand for use as a bootable CD and emergency repair kit. And I am going to watch this one very closely. For instance, Warren tells me that he intends to incorporate a standardized update option for MEPIS, as well as other additions. I can’t use it for my daily desktop operations, testing (Sarge) is as close to the edge as I dare let my data get.

But I can’t hold back from playing with it either. This thing is fun! And if you are not having fun, what’s the point?

I intend to write another review of MEPIS down the road, just to check out how much has changed. I am certain a lot will have changed. And improved.

Next Victim…Xandros 2.0. Stay tuned.

(If any reader wishes to suggest another commercially released, Debian based distro for review feel free to send me an email. I will be glad to include it.)


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