2010-04-07

Review: SimplyMEPIS 8.5

In my quest to find new distributions to add to my multiboot live USB, I came across SimplyMEPIS, part of the MEPIS family (which also includes the lightweight Enlightenment [window manager]-based AntiX). MEPIS is based off of Debian, which is also the source of Ubuntu (and its derivatives). However, while Ubuntu uses the Debian unstable "sid" packages (though that has changed with 10.04 to the testing packages), MEPIS has usually used either the stable or relatively stable testing packages. While both MEPIS and Ubuntu aim to make Linux computing easy for those unfamiliar with Linux, Ubuntu goes for the cutting-edge, while MEPIS goes for rock-solid stability. Follow the jump to see the rest of this review.



SimplyMEPIS (which I will from now on refer to simply as "MEPIS") 8.5 uses KDE 4.3. This is a big change from the previous version (8.0), which was still using the rock-solid but not exactly cutting-edge KDE 3.5. This is because only recently did the head developer of MEPIS determine that KDE 4.x was stable enough to be used in MEPIS - this is a similar attitude (and timeline of development) to PCLinuxOS and its head developer: very conservative with packages.
MEPIS, being based on Debian, of course has the absolutely wonderful Synaptic Package Manager. Unfortunately, Synaptic was not so wonderful as it failed to execute. This also could not be resolved in the terminal, as all of my attempts to type in a root password (or change it to a usable one) failed. That's a pretty big ding against MEPIS, though to be fair, it is the LiveCD (on a USB stick) and can easily be resolved once a full installation is done.



The default look is OK. The bottom panel is pretty standard KDE 4.x, though the main menu is Kicker-style (KDE 3.5) rather than Kickoff-style (KDE 4.x), which is fine with me. However, the desktop icons look a little unprofessional, especially the "Documents" folder which has the word "Documents" split into 2 lines unnecessarily. The wallpaper is standard MEPIS, which isn't bad at all.
Though I do not primarily use KDE, I know a lot of people who say that the default KDE 4.x window decoration is terrible and who change it to either the "Crystal" or "Plastik" window decorations. Well, MEPIS has "Crystal" by default. I have to say that I don't like either window decoration, as they both remind me too much of Windows. By contrast, the default decoration is a perfectly fine, usable, and modern-looking theme.
The fonts also aren't that great. I'm guessing it has to do something with the "aliasing"/"antialiasing" business, but I'm not an expert on this - I guess I'll live with it.
That said, changing the appearances are trivial, so let's move on.
Firefox 3.5 is included and is well integrated with the rest of the system. Going on YouTube and other sites worked without a hitch.



While OpenOffice.org is included, the Calc (spreadsheet) program is not included (but Impress (the presentation program) is), oddly enough. I have to say that OpenOffice.org is not very well integrated - the icons look fine, but the scrollbars and menus look straight out of Windows 9X. I was able to enable compositing, though not completely. Here is a picture of Writer and Impress being set to different transparency levels.



Shifting gears now to compositing, I was happy that some effects worked but disappointed that others didn't. For example, while the desktop grid effect worked, the cube effect did not; similarly, while the "present windows" effect worked, the flip effect did not.














MEPIS has a set of tools similar to the Mint Tools. These are also equally useful. However, there was one exception. I found the Welcome Screen to be pretty useful for newcomers, but I'm puzzled as to why this is not the first screen displayed when one logs in; it is hidden in one section of the main menu, making it pretty useless. This screen also has popular programs to install on the fly (without opening Synaptic), like Calc (there it is!) and Skype among other things.
Overall, MEPIS is a pretty good distribution for beginners. It is based on stable Debian code, uses a modified version of KDE 4.3 more suited to beginners and current MEPIS users alike (especially those used to KDE 3.5), and has a lot of great tools to make system configuration easier (whenever that needs to happen). It also has a lot of useful codecs included.
Some minor nitpicks include the ability to enable only some effects and the weird rendering of fonts, as well as the default themes.
More major issues include the refusal of Synaptic to work.
What this means is that while it's good for beginners who essentially surf the web and use productivity software, there's nothing outstanding about it - with apologies to the writers of a certain song, everything it can do, some other distribution (e.g. Mint, Sabayon) can do better.

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