Revisited: SimplyMEPIS 11.0

Before I start, there are two things I would like to say. The first is that this was meant to be posted in the middle of last week. However, that got thrown off with the Blogger outage, and after that I got really busy with studying for finals, and yesterday I was traveling back home from college, so today is the earliest that I've been able to post this at my leisure. The second is that I meant to write reviews of Ubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal" based on opinions of one of my friends in college who is new to Linux but willing to try it out. However, we both got really busy and it never worked out. I managed to put most of my opinions of the new Unity interface in my review of Edubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal", so please refer to that if you want to get a quick idea of what I think of it.
Main Screen
A couple weeks ago, I tried out SimplyMEPIS 11.0. It didn't exactly work; Plymouth failed to load, and X/11 refused to start when I aborted Plymouth and logged in through the CLI. I went through the forums looking for similar issues and/or fixes and found nothing. I tried going on the MEPIS IRC channel but found myself the only person there. So I gave up and posted a rather negative review. Boy, did I get a lot of feedback on that review — in fact, that review has gotten the most comments out of any of my posts ever. Wow! But then, a lot of it was negative, saying that "it shouldn't be called a review", et cetera. There were a few helpful suggestions here and there, and one of them (which is apparently a tip suggested on the MEPIS forums, and somehow I missed that) was to add the line "xdrvr=intel confx" to the end of the first GRUB line for MEPIS.

Well, I tried that, and it worked! So I owe readers of this blog an apology for testing too late, getting frustrated too easily, and getting cranky and whiny too easily. I'll try not to do that again. With that in mind, follow the jump to read the review that I should have written the first time around.

One of the frequent suggestions was to use a real live DVD. However, I figured I should at least give the solution a shot with the live USB I had already created. So after putting that phrase into the GRUB boot command for SimplyMEPIS in my live USB setup, I continued on. Just as one of the commenters said, there was no Plymouth boot splash in the live session, but that was OK because the boot process was quite quick, and I was quickly taken to the desktop.

Mozilla Firefox + LibreOffice Writer
From the moment the cursor appeared on the screen, it became clear to me (as if it wasn't already) that SimplyMEPIS is decidedly a KDE distribution. Many KDE distributions use the stock KDE 4 loading screen or a variant with the proper logo or corresponding color scheme, but SimplyMEPIS's KDE 4 loading screen is totally different and much cooler to look at, in my opinion. That gave way to the desktop. The desktop has a standard KDE 4 panel on the bottom, and some desktop icons going down from the top-left corner of the screen. Unfortunately, the "Documents" folder icon label is still split into two lines, and it still takes away from the otherwise professional feel of the distribution as it did in SimplyMEPIS 8.5. Another somewhat odd thing is the "MEPIS QuickStart": its icon label is the only one to fade to the right. Other icons include "Trash", "MEPIS site", "MEPIS Manual", and "MEPIS Install", the last icon probably only present in the live session. Clearly, the emphasis here is on the new user. The panel has, from left to right, a button for a classic KDE menu, workspace switcher buttons, shortcuts to KDE System Settings, Dolphin, Mozilla Firefox, and KMail, a task switcher, a system tray, and a clock. All in all, it's a fairly standard setup for KDE 4.

There are two very small issues I had here. One is that one of the icons in the system tray looked like an orange version of the Dropbox, so I thought Dropbox might be included out-of-the-box; the icon is actually for updates through APT (and, for the record, Dropbox is not included). The other is that for the main menu, there are categories of applications which have entries called "More Applications". I now understand that these contain applications that are used less frequently (e.g. LibreOffice Draw under the "Graphics" category) or should be hidden away to not confuse new users (e.g. KRDC). The only minor nit I have to pick with this is that initially, the placement of some applications under "More Applications" subcategories seemed totally arbitrary. In short, ignore what I just said about all that.

The wallpaper is all-new and much fresher than the really dull one from version 8.5. The Oxygen theme Elegance is all-new for version 11 and goes well with the rest of the desktop. The Crystal KWin window decoration style, QtCurve KDE theme, and Oxygen icon theme are all carried over from version 8.5 essentially unchanged. The Crystal and QtCurve themes were included in version 8.5 because version 8.5 was the parallel KDE 4 counterpart to version 8.0, which used KDE 3; hence, the developers wanted to retain visual familiarity, as MEPIS was one of the last holdouts against KDE 4. That said, now that version 11.0 has replaced both version 8.0 and 8.5 and there is no current version of SimplyMEPIS with KDE 3, although I do think that the Crystal theme gives SimplyMEPIS its own visual identity to set it apart from other KDE distributions which too often look almost identical, I think it's time that the Crystal theme got replaced by something more modern-looking. Furthermore, when the Crystal theme is used, windows that are not maximized have an ugly thin gray blocky border reminiscent of Microsoft Windows 95, which should definitely not be a goal theme-wise.

Moving on to applications, Mozilla Firefox, at version 4.0.1 (the very latest, which is somewhat surprising for the usually conservative MEPIS developers), is the default browser, though for some reason Konqueror is also present. Most codecs seem to be present out-of-the-box in true MEPIS style, as YouTube and other sites with multimedia content worked fine for me. I suppose the presence of Konqueror will placate the KDE users who prefer to browse files and the web with Konqueror as was required in KDE 3, but considering that Konqueror is no longer a huge part of KDE and some other KDE distributions have done away with it altogether, I think the MEPIS developers should do the same, if only to make the live ISO file smaller.

Speaking of file browsing, Dolphin is the default file manager. This is not a surprise, but the reason I mention this is because when Dolphin opens to the home folder, instead of just showing the home folder icon and a '>', the breadcrumbs bar shows the full path, though each folder along the way is clickable. The default KDE behavior is to just show the home folder and a '>' when Dolphin is at the home folder, and I feel this is more user-friendly and I feel like new users would get confused and/or intimidated upon seeing "/ > home > [name] >", so I'm not sure why the MEPIS developers changed this behavior. 

LibreOffice is the default productivity suite, which is again a surprise given the conservative (i.e. release only when ready) nature of the MEPIS developers. Furthermore, LibreOffice is well-integrated with KDE in terms of theming. This is certainly an improvement from SimplyMEPIS 8.5, where OpenOffice.org looked sorely out of place.

Some other applications present include digiKam, Amarok, a few KDE games, Kdenlive, VLC, and the GIMP. That makes for a pretty nice set of default applications.

MEPIS was originally famous for making Debian easy to use; part of that came from the MEPIS configuration tools, which consists of the MEPIS Network Assistant, the MEPIS System Assistant, and the MEPIS User Assistant.

The MEPIS Network Assistant's purpose should be self-explanatory. It's a handy tool to do some more in-depth network configuration. However, for my purposes, I found the KDE Network Management system tray applet to be much easier to use and much less complicated; furthermore, it was much easier in that than in the MEPIS Network Assistant to find and connect to a wireless network (which, incidentally, I don't use anyway).

The MEPIS System Assistant has options for configuring the computer's name, locale, and some other cache-related stuff, as well as options for creating a MEPIS USB device, repairing or updating GRUB, and repairing a partition. I could see most of these things being quite useful, though I have a feeling that the new users MEPIS is trying to court would shy away from such things and ask a more technically-experienced friend to help them. With that in mind, the MEPIS USB device creation tool seems a little odd, because it says it can only create USB devices with SimplyMEPIS 8.0 or 8.5. Why would I want to do that when I'm using the latest SimplyMEPIS 11.0? It seems a little silly to me. Also, how could I repair GRUB from within MEPIS? I suppose it would make sense in live mode, but on an installed system, if GRUB needed to be repaired, wouldn't MEPIS be unbootable anyway? I'm not sure I fully understand why that tool is there.

The MEPIS User Assistant does things like restoring default configuration settings, syncing files and configurations among computers, and managing users on the computer. It seems handy, though the user management thing seems redundant as that is also present in the KDE System Settings dialog.

SimplyMEPIS is no longer the only distribution to have such GUI configuration tools for new users, but it was one of the first, and it still has them, which is good. That said, I feel like some of the options may confuse rather than help new users, so the MEPIS developers can't just keep the same programs going without making improvements.

Moving to hardware, despite the fact that I had to force SimplyMEPIS 11.0 to use the Intel graphics driver, SimplyMEPIS correctly detected my laptop's optimal resolution, and it looks great on my laptop. Unfortunately, some desktop effects like the cube did not work, though most did. Furthermore, though KDE is at version 4.5 on SimplyMEPIS 11.0, dragging windows to screen edges and corners did not resize them in a tiling fashion; I'm not sure why this is, as it's a useful effect. SimplyMEPIS, unlike some other distributions, correctly recognized my laptop's FN key combinations (especially to modify the volume), though there was a slight lag when I tried changing the volume with the FN keyboard shortcuts. Next, Kopete recognized my webcam and mic just fine. Finally, my wireless card was recognized fine, though that's no surprise as it is an Intel card and is among the better-supported cards in Linux.

The GUI package manager present is Synaptic Package Manager. Unfortunately, it gave me an error about the package cache being cleaned out. Just to be sure, I tried using the CLI Apt-get to install packages, but I got the same error. I happened to open the MEPIS System Assistant again and saw that the box was checked to clean the package cache with every boot. This meant that I could not install packages at all within the live system, because unchecking the box would require a reboot to take effect, but this live USB was not made to be persistent across boots. That meant that I could not try installing Skype or anything like that. (On another note, Skype failed to install because the live USB is a "read-only file system" and was thus unable to be accessed by Dpkg, or something like that.)

As I couldn't install anything in the SimplyMEPIS live session, I had to switch to a different live system to install VirtualBox so that I could try installing SimplyMEPIS. The VirtualBox testing was done within a Lubuntu 11.04 "Natty Narwhal" live USB session with 1024 MB of RAM, 12 MB of video memory, and a 10 GB virtual hard drive available for the guest OS.
The MEPIS installer doesn't seem to have changed much in the last few years. First comes the unusual EULA, then partitioning, then GRUB setup, and then user and locale setup. Compared to newer installers like Ubiquity and Anaconda, it does seem a little old, so a new user will need a helping hand to install SimplyMEPIS, but it does the job well.

After I installed SimplyMEPIS 11.0 and restarted the virtual machine, I was greeted by a session almost identical to the live session, which is only to be expected. The big thing that I wanted to make sure here was whether installing packages would work given that it didn't in the live session due to weird settings, and thankfully, it did work. And that's where my time with SimplyMEPIS 11.0 ended.

Once again, I apologize for not being more patient, thoughtful, and willing to seek out answers in the previous review. Thanks to the commenters on that article who made various suggestions on how to fix issues that I had. In conclusion, after I got SimplyMEPIS 11.0 to work, it seemed like a pleasant enough distribution that's quite stable and is relatively user-friendly. That said, though I have tried to evaluate this distribution only on its own merits, I can't help but subconsciously compare this to things like #! and Debian-based Linux Mint, which just seem more polished and well put-together. Maybe it's just my pro-Linux Mint bias, but I feel like there's nothing to set SimplyMEPIS apart from the rest anymore. Plus, regarding things like the APT caching issue and the login name, I think SimplyMEPIS could use some saner defaults. But above all, I simply cannot deny that initially, SimplyMEPIS refused to play well with my computer's hardware, and the solutions posted in the manual and wiki didn't work; in that sense, I don't think SimplyMEPIS is a good distribution for users who are new to Linux, though that is its target audience.