I’ve been using Ubuntu for years now. However, having worked with both Fedora and SUSE as well, I’ve always been very open to the idea of trying out other distributions. I recently stumbled upon MEPIS Linux (pronounced ‘meh-pis’ — similar to “memphis”), and was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to pick up and use. I’ve decided to share my experiences with the latest beta of the upcoming MEPIS 8.
The installation of MEPIS was very easy. Since I was using a fresh hard drive, I started with the ‘automated’ installation, which set up separate partitions for MEPIS, swap, and my home directory. This is a particularly exciting default partitioning scheme, since it gives me the ability to reinstall MEPIS (or to install a new flavor of Linux) without losing my documents and configurations. I also went back and experimented with the manual installations settings. The options were very easy to understand, and after only one setup screen I was able to reach the installation phase. I’m confident that setting up a double or triple-boot system would be quite easy.
At the end of the installation process, MEPIS prompted me to install GRUB, and gave me the option to install it on the boot sector of a partition instead of on the MBR. While most users will use the default settings for this, I tend to prefer the Windows bootloader, and was happy to see this option available. This is especially important for anyone wishing to run Vista alongside Linux, as Vista requires the use of Microsoft’s bootloader.
Except for one large roadblock, getting MEPIS set up they way I wanted was very easy. MEPIS comes with KDE 3.5, which has a host of useful applications. Since this is a beta release of the next MEPIS, I expected to see the latest version of KDE. However, KDE 4 had a very rocky release, and since KDE 3 is still a very highly regarded windows manager, I understand why it would be worth keeping around for a while.
For the most part, I’m happy to use the default software KDE offers. While I am used to instant messaging with Pidgin, I found Kopete to be more than adequate for my needs. I also found Amarok and Akgregator very useful, and I was pleased to see that MEPIS provides the new OpenOffice.org 3, which makes word processing in Linux very easy.
Other programs like Kontact and KOrganizer are useful as well, although since I tend to organize my life in Google Calendar and Gmail, all I really need is a working installation of Firefox, which MEPIS provides. However, before I could get really started, I had to get my internet connectivity working, which is when the trouble began.
When MEPIS first booted up, it was unable to detect any network devices. I did some research, and found that my Intel wireless card should be supported, so I went into the “MEPIS Network Assistant” and manually entered the credentials for my wireless network. After fiddling for a while without any luck, I plugged in an ethernet connection. After I restarted my computer, I suddenly saw KNemo connect to my wireless network.
Thinking I had somehow fixed the problem, I unplugged the ethernet and went to work on my couch. However, the next time I restarted, wireless was gone. I eventually gathered that my wireless only works when I boot up with ethernet plugged in. This is made even stranger by the fact that my ethernet does not work in either case. I’m not sure if this is a bug or if my hardware simply isn’t well supported.
While I worked on getting my Internet to work, I started playing around with the themes. In general, I found the defaults provided by MEPIS to be somewhat unappealing. I quickly swapped the default MEPIS background for a classier KDE one, and I changed the panel configuration to be wider and slimmer. I also switched to the “Plastik” window decoration style, which I find slightly more pleasing to look at.
As soon as I was able to connect to the internet, I loaded my favorite package manager, ‘synaptic,’ and downloaded all of the latest updates, which installed flawlessly.
Graphics and Gaming
I then went ahead and grabbed the package ‘nvidia-xconfig,’ which I’ve used in the past to get my nvidia card working, and the game Planet Penguin Racer, which I use to test that my card works. After restarting X, I was immediately able to race down some stellar 3D slopes. I’m impressed that it only took me a couple steps to get my graphics working. While it’d be great if this sort of thing would work right away, setting up my NVIDIA graphics used to take hours on older releases of Ubuntu.
Finally, I installed ‘wine’ from the repositories so that I could run Steam, which I’m finding works very well in MEPIS. Compiz Fusion is also working, for the most part. I’m certain I could get it working fully if I wanted to take the time, but there are still a few glitches I haven’t bothered to iron out.
With MEPIS Linux, there seems to be an expectation of quality. Because of its unique relationship with Debian and Ubuntu, it has a rich library of packages, which see pretty regular updates. I am impressed with how readily-available the software is, and how easy it is to download and configure.
To clarify, however, I’ll point out that MEPIS is definitely not just another Ubuntu derivative. As of version 7, MEPIS no longer relies on Ubuntu, instead relying on Debian 5 sourcecode. Because Ubuntu is essentially rebuilt from the bottom-up with each release, Debian provides a more stable foundation for continual development. MEPIS maintains its own kernel, and has its own software repository. Since Debian 5 (Lenny) has yet to be released, MEPIS 8 is still a cutting-edge beta.
While it may not have the same kind of community support as, say, Ubuntu, MEPIS definitely has a large community and has been gradually gaining attention.
Why I Hesitate
Someone who is not an experienced Linux user will definitely take a lot of time getting things up and running. The KDE 3 menu system seems cluttered to me. Within each menu category exist many submenus, some with the name “More Applications,” leaving the user exploring for the right program. Each program is listed using both its description (i.e. “CD Player”) and its name (i.e. “KsCD”), an unnecessary addition to the clutter. The assistant software provided by MEPIS only complicates the menus further, making it hard to know where to look, since there already exist a KDE control center, a “System” menu, and a “Utilities” menu.
Furthermore, features I enjoyed seeing in MEPIS have existed in Ubuntu/Kubuntu for a while now. While MEPIS can definitly hold its own as a desktop operating system, I didn’t find it to be a definite improvement over many of the other major distributions. It’s only mostly user friendly and, while KDE is great, there are still plenty of Linux alternatives that are slightly easier to pick up and use.
Small details certainly don’t make or break an operating system (take Windows as an example), but until MEPIS can stand out from the masses, I’m not convinced I’ll be tempted to use it as a primary OS anytime soon. That being said, MEPIS is still quite impressive, and since this is still a beta release, things are definitely subject to change.