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SimplyMEPIS 3.4-3

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,, 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.

First Impressions

Time for MEPIS to scoop another award... this time for the worst bug I have ever encountered. I found this bug quite by accident, but, considering it affects password authentication, I think it is rather serious.

Let's say our password is foobarbaz123. As you might expect, if I enter the password as foobarbaz123, it is authenticated. However, if I simply enter foobar, the password is still authenticated. It seems that MEPIS does not care about the digits on the end of any password. I repeated this several times on more than one account, with different passwords, and yet the problem persisted. I just find it remarkable that 1) somebody broke the password authentication in the first place, and 2) nobody noticed.

Naughty edit: It seems MEPIS only cares about the first eight characters. I am told this is common to many *nix distributions, although I've never really looked into it. However, this limitation can be gotten around - indeed, the distribution that MEPIS is built upon, Debian, checks for the full password (so far as I can tell), so why doesn't MEPIS? Perhaps this isn't a huge bug, but it does still seem to me to be a security flaw.

Moving on from that, another problem is the resolution. I cannot get it any higher than 1024x768, yet my monitor and graphics card are more than capable of 1280x1024. This appears to stem from the problem that MEPIS cannot identify my monitor, which is odd since every other 'easy' distribution didn't have a problem with it. Also, there is no option to override the settings to allow me to change the resolution to 1280x1024. While I could dive into the X.Org configuration files, somehow I don't think the average user would be inclined to. There should be a simple alternative, which MEPIS fails to provide. [Please see the first page of comments for more on changing the resolution.]

Having said that, MEPIS does provide simplicity in other areas, specifically the proprietary packages that come preinstalled - namely, Java, Macromedia Flash and the nVidia display driver. This is a boon for users that don't want the hassle of having to install them, especially when some distributions make it hard to install these. Nevertheless, many people want their distribution to be free, similar to Debian and Ubuntu. Also, on many easy distributions, while not installed by default, adding in these packages is not especially hard - indeed, it often remains easier than the process on Windows.

If you glance down towards the bottom of the screen on a fresh installation, you see a few interesting things: some fishes swimming around; a clock; the KStartMenu; the weather; and so on. Of particular interest is KwikDisk. This handy little... thing provides a menu, from which you can mount the various partitions of your hard drive just by clicking on the relevant part. Once again, this makes life that little bit easier for the user.

The menu of Kwikdisk. Within the menu is /, /mnt/hda1, /mnt/hda6, /dev and other commands for Kwikdisk
The menu of Kwikdisk.

One area where I wish MEPIS did make life easier is in the settings. There is a MEPIS OS Center, yet it contains little - the only parts I found useful were the networking, mouse and display settings. I feel that it should really bring together more of the settings, so that you can access and change them from a central point. Also, if you change screen within the OS Center, the settings you changed are lost unless you hit 'Apply'. A little warning would be nice! If the settings are not kept from screen to screen, you should at least be given the option to save the settings, as the KDE Control Center does.

One area where MEPIS does fair a bit better in terms of settings is in the Firewall department. The defaults did allow me to share files, which is better than some of the other firewall experiences I've had. However, it was a bit overprotective when it came to browsing the network servers - initially, I could not access pages hosted locally. This is what brought me to Guard Dog, which sits perfectly with the simplicity ethos. There are dozens of protocols already defined, which you can allow or disallow with a couple of clicks. It is similarly easy to add your own, making security a much less streneous task than usual.


The packages that are installed with MEPIS cover the areas that most users are likely to want - you can browse the Internet with Firefox, check e-mails with Thunderbird, go instant messaging with GAIM, do work on, and so on. One negative point is the absence (so far as I can tell) of any sort of automatic updates. As I have said many times before, there is a world of exploits and security holes out there, which is why keeping up to date is so important. Without automatic updates, some users will likely be left vulnerable - indeed, on the default installation, Firefox 1.5 is installed, yet there is already a security update in the form of Firefox At no point was I prompted to install this new version; nor did it seem to exist in any of the repositories.

[Tiny edit: Since this article was written, there has been a security update, including Firefox This makes me much more satisfied about security updates, although I have still yet to see any automatic updates.]

There are some additional packages that often don't get a mention, such as a synchroniser. Perhaps not all that useful to some people, but synchronisers are incredibly helpful when you're trying to work from two or more computers. The menu editor is nicely made, and works well; I found it easy to use and powerful to boot.

Adding packages is, as you might expect from a Debian derivative, as easy as a few clicks. With apt working behind Synaptic, you have a fast, powerful tool for finding, installing and updating applications. You get the wide range of repositories from Debian since MEPIS, by default, uses Debian Testing/Etch's packages. The one thing I would say is that MEPIS might want to consider using a simpler package manager alongside Synaptic.

Synaptic is an excellent tool, but the huge range of options might be a bit too much for the beginner - consider the various packages just for a normal installation. By using a simpler package manager, the user would be less overwhelmed with choices - for example, by just having the one option. Using two such programs in conjunction would allow you to use the power of Apt with far more efficiency and, in some case, confidence.


To summarise the good points: the usual things you'd expect from a mainstream distribution, such as stability and working network access, along with the proprietary additions that mean you don't need to spend time setting them up. The installation is fairly simple, and the average user shouldn't really struggle to get to grips with MEPIS.

The bad points? Well, proprietary equals bad for many people, MEPIS also has a password bug, which, to me, is a huge bug, while GRUB isn't as easy to modify as any other distribution I've tested. The lack of updates, both automatic and security, is also slightly unsatisfactory.

In the end, MEPIS failed to really impress me. On the one hand, it does succeed in creating an environment comfortable to work in, that Windows users should be happy to transition to, and it generally adheres to the principle of Keep It Simple, Stupid. Despite this, many other distributions can provide a similarly painless setup for the 'average user', and, especially in the case of SUSE, beat MEPIS in terms of user friendliness. SUSE is also more accessible to the more experienced user, while other alternatives, such as Ubuntu, are at least as straightforward and share the strength of Debian and Apt, without some of the problems of MEPIS.

The only way in which I can strongly recommend SimplyMEPIS 3.4-3 is if you really do not want to have to install support for Java, Flash, MP3s, etc. yourself, even taking into consideration the relative ease with which this can be achieved in other distributions. MEPIS is a very good, solid distribution, but it does have its flaws without putting any other major distributions to shame in any areas. It is definately a consideration when choosing a distribution, yet I'd still prefer Ubuntu or SUSE.

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