Mepis Linux is a liveCD, debian based distro, with some additional features, which makes it an excellent introduction to debian. A recent review provided a good overview of the background and basis of Mepis, my review aims to focus more on the day to day use for a desktop user.
Having tried a variety of easy to install versions of debian, including Knoppix, Bonzai and Morphix I was keen to give Mepis a try after hearing some excellent reports about it. The test machine was an Athlon 900Mhz, with 256MB ram, onboard AC97 audio, a flyvideo98 TV Card and a TNT2 graphics card (Yes I know its time to upgrade that). Version 2003.10 of Mepis was used. Mepis comes with two cds, only the first is needed though, with the second disk having additional software you can install once you have a hard drive installation.
I’ve been using linux on and off for 3 or 4 years now and so am fairly adept at using linux, but might struggle if left with nothing but a command line. I’ve used linux as my sole home desktop for the last two years, for basic desktop purposes, and that is the perspective that this review is based on.
Having had some dubious experiences with hard drive installs of liveCDs I was interested to see how Mepis would go. The CD booted and provided clear instructions about how to use additional boot arguments if you need to, I just hit enter. The CD booted and detected my graphics card and monitor with no problems. I logged in as demo and conveniently place on the desktop is the hard drive install icon.
This brings up a simple set of install dialogues which allow you to partition your hard drive, setup the boot loader, add users and setup services. Mepis offers qtparted to partition your hard drive, while its good to have a gui partition tool, qtparted is, in my opinion, hideously anti-intuitive and severely lacking in easily accessed documentation. I certainly felt a bit apprehensive using it, and pity anyone less experienced who tries to use it to partition their hard drive, as it comes with virtually no explanation. Alternatively there is an option to automatically install to your entire hard drive.
A second issue with the install is that it only allows installation on one hard drive, so I couldn’t use my already existing swap partition on my second hard drive, but had to create a new swap partition It also only lets you chose your /root, swap and /home partitions, while this didn’t bother me others may find this lack of flexibility in creating partitions annoying. There is an option to automatically preserve your /home if you are upgrading.
Mepis auto detected all of my hardware perfectly, with sound, tv card and graphics working well. One particularly nice feature about Mepis is that it automatically installs the Nvidia driver so that 3D acceleration works out of the box. In my case it was installed but not enabled as Mepis does not automatically enable it for older video cards, including my TNT2 (due to the poorer performance the Nvidia drivers can have with older cards), but a quick edit of my XFree config file and I was playing tuxracer.
Lilo is installed as the bootloader and installed fine, including automatically adding my windows partition. Upon booting from the hard drive the first thing I noticed was the lack of bootsplash, not a major point I’ll admit, but having one does add a touch of professionalism and polish, and is easily disabled by those who get satisfaction seeing the kernel messages zooming by.
Mepis is primarily a KDE based distro (although it does come with IceWM) and booted straight to KDM, the KDE login manager, which was set to an ugly default scheme, which is odd as the desktop uses Keramik, so you’d think that KDM would use the same theme. However there is a special Mepis login splash for KDE, which is a nice touch (even though the actual splash screen is rather ugly).
Upon booting to KDE the first thing that you notice is how ugly the desktop looks, the fonts are ugly and the menus are a terrible mess. As we already know KDE’s menus can be a bit confusing,and Mepis does nothing to improve that, as you can see from the screenshot, in fact it seems to make it even worse. Not only are there so many entries, but they are very confusingly organised with most menus having at least two sub menus, called additional programs and more programs . If you can tell the difference between those menu categories you’re doing better than me.
This lack of care over KDE is even more disappointing when you discover that booting into Icewm you have a lovely clean desktop, with nicely organised menus, with the key programs in clear headings and the less often used items hidden away. The Icewm desktop also includes dfm (the desktop file manager) to provide icons on the desktop, which is another good touch.
Mepis is based on debian unstable and the software included is generally the newest version. As previously mentioned Mepis is primarily KDE based and does
not include Gnome. The Mepis website contains a full list of the included packages. All the expected
KDE programs were installed as was OpenOffice.org (but unfortunately not spellchecking for OpenOffice.org, a strange omission). One potential downside of the liveCD approach is that there is no choice in the software installed so you end up with a lot of software that you will never use being installed.
Mepis has some nice polish around the software installation, Java, Realplayer and Flash work straight out of the box and are setup for Mozilla and Konqueror (unfortunately firebird is not installed). Mepis also comes with Kmail setup for use with spamassassin and an easy tool to manage spamassassin. Having these automatically installed is great for your average user.
Multimedia support is also excellent, with xmms playing mp3s and having some nice plugins already to go. Xine also worked great for my videos, with most codecs already installed, it played my xvid encoded videos without a hitch and played the quicktime Lord of the Rings trailer perfectly. It’s nice to see a distro getting the multimedia right.
Mepis comes with a set of system and user utilities which make system management easier than vanilla debian. The system centre includes localisation tools, which sets up localisations for KDE, Mozilla, OpenOffice.org, ispell and aspell. It also includes tools to change your monitor settings, tweak nvidia video cards, setup your network (including wireless options) and some system tweaks (which allow you to setup your computer and samba domain names).
There is also a user utilities panel which allows you to clean your user space by clearing your browser history and cache (Mozilla and Konqueror only) and clear your bash history. It also allows you to easily set whitelists and blacklists for spamassassin to keep spam at bay. These are very useful tools and a good start to making managing debian easy, but they are still (not surprisingly) very immature compared to SUSE’s YAST or Mandrake’s Control Centre. One particular feature I missed was a service management tool as Mepis
automatically setup a number of services I don’t want to use.
The liveCD also doubles as a repair tool for your hard drive installation. If you break your installation you can boot off the liveCD and access the repair functions. These include reinstalling lilo, reconfiguring Xfree and testing and repairing you partitions. These are very useful tools and a great addition.
There is a package management tool that makes using apt even easier that it already is, all you have to do is tick a box and the second cd is added as an apt source, choose your local area and tick a few more boxes and debian sources including non-US sources are added. This worked perfectly for me a few ticks and I was away apt-getting. Both synaptic and kpackage are installed for easy package management. There is no easy way to add custom sources, but the sources.list file is very clearly set out and tells you where to add any custom sources so they won’t mess with the package management tool. This worked fine; I added some custom sources to install a few KDE themes without any problems. It’s
hard to make software installation easier than Mepis does!
The liveCD also comes with a really cool USB travel disk feature, if you format the USB disk using the system centre it creates two partitions, a fat32 for exchanging files with windows and an ext3 partition that lets you sync your files across two computers. The Mepis website contains a full explanation. This is a really cool feature and worked perfectly for me, I have no doubt there will be a rush of distros following in Mepis’s footsteps.
The support section of the Mepis website is extremely good, with most posts responded to quickly and with useful advice. The main developer of Mepis also seems very responsive to questions and suggestions.
Overall Mepis is an excellent distro, it lacks polish in some areas but shows real potential. In particular it would be good to see some more polish around the KDE desktop, including rearranging the menus and having nicer default fonts. Mepis is undoubtedly the best liveCD installation I’ve used and I would not hesitate to recommend Mepis to anyone looking for an easy introduction to debian. I won’t be using it as my main desktop as I prefer the ease of use provided by the tools of Mandrake and SUSE, but I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on Mepis. Mepis seems to be improving in leaps and bounds and I’m looking
forward to checking out future versions.
About the Author
Andrew is a researcher who uses linux as his sole desktop OS.