Saturday 18th February 2006
So, here it is again - the traditional spiel about this particular distribution. Like so many others, SimplyMEPIS is based on Debian, and remains consistently in the top ten on Distrowatch. That makes it pretty popular - but can it stand up against SUSE, Fedora and Ubuntu?
It all starts off with a single CD, which is fairly interesting. Why? Because this CD doubles up as both a LiveCD and the installation CD. This allows you to test the distribution before installing it, and saves you having to download another CD for installation. Personally, I think this is an excellent idea - you could show your friends MEPIS using the CD, and then start installing it within a few clicks. Here's to hoping that some other distributions pick up on the idea.
So, you stick the CD in the drive, and you are presented with a menu, consisting of the different ways to boot MEPIS - essentially to account for different displays. The default option worked fine for me, although it booted up in 1024x768 rather than 1280x1024 (more on that later). After a fair bit of CD accessing, I get to a desktop. The programs are fully functional, and presumably identical to what you'd get on a fresh installation (or at least, I couldn't tell the difference). This means you already have a wide selection of programs - the GIMP, gFTP, Firefox, OpenOffice.org, GAIM and Thunderbird to name a few. Since the desktop of the LiveCD is seemingly identical to the desktop of a fresh installation, I'll cover it in more detail later.
Of course, one small difference is that the LiveCD has an extra icon on the desktop called 'INSTALL ME'. Oddly enough, clicking that icon allows you to start the installation. After selecting the option 'Install MEPIS on Hard Drive', I found the first screen of the installation - partitioning and formatting.
Sadly, the screen brought up is not particularly fantastic. Instead of the usual diagram, showing how the hard drive is split up, you are simply presented with a few drop down lists - one each for the Root, Swap and Home partition. In each drop down list, you can choose what partition to use - the list shows the labels for the drives e.g. hda1, and the size of the drive. Personally, I would prefer a graphical representation of the hard drive(s), similar to that in, say, Fedora, or even just a complete list of all the partitions, a la Debian. Less experienced users may be more comfortable tearing apart their hard drive if they can see exactly what they're doing, while more experienced users might want to put other parts of the filesystem, e.g. /boot, on separate partitions.
Next, we have a screen about GRUB. There is nothing particularly remarkable here, except that we are told MEPIS will not add entries for other Linux distributions into GRUB, only Windows. That means I'll have to add in my Debian installation manually. Hooray.
Fortunately, a more positive note was on the next screen. I find I have to enter both a root password and an ordinary username and password, meaning that the more secure arrangement of a separate root account is kept. The installation continues much as you'd expect - choices that follow include the computer name, domain, workgroup, keyboard, locale, clock, and services. I'll just point out two things. Firstly, this distribution does have some proprietary components - indeed, that is part of the appeal for some people. This shows itself first when choosing a display driver - you can choose vesa, or the drivers from nVidia or ATi themselves. This makes display driver installation a fair bit easier, and gets a nod of approval from me. Secondly, MEPIS includes a firewall, which should help with security.
After that, it is a reboot! Overall, it was a relatively short installation with few menus. The main criticism I have of MEPIS' installation is that, while generally suitable for the 'average user', I'd prefer some more options. In particular, I'd like to be able to choose what packages to install, as well as being able to set up the network settings myself. The reason for this is that the default settings, using DHCP, never work, so I always need to set them up manually - life is made easier when a distribution lets me do this in the installation, rather than searching through menus of settings. The perfect example of this is SUSE - the average user is not overwhelmed with options, while you can still quite easily access the extra options if you want. Overall though, the installation is solid, if not spectacular. The MEPIS team has made a capable installation, but there is certainly room for improvement.
I spent so much time playing around with GRUB, it now has its own little heading. MEPIS takes the award for being the most annoying distribution with regards to setting up GRUB. Why? Well, it isn't the first distribution not to add Debian to the GRUB menu automatically. However, with every single other distribution, I could add Debian back by copying the Debian entries into the new GRUB menu list. Not with MEPIS.
If I did just copy and paste the entries, they would appear without a problem. However, when selecting them, I would just get thrown back to the GRUB screen, which wasn't particularly helpful. Trying to edit the entries resulted in either the exact same process, or a kernel panic.
My final solution was just to overwrite the boot directory with the boot directory from my Debian installation, and then add the contents of the MEPIS boot directory. After a quick edit of the GRUB menu list, I finally managed to get into MEPIS and Debian from the same GRUB menu. Although it worked in the end, this was the longest, by far, it has taken me to edit GRUB just to boot Debian as well.