Updated: July 11, 2011
SimplyMEPIS is quite easy to overlook. A distribution designed to complete with Mandriva and openSUSE back in early 2000s, it has seen little shift in its general strategy, even thought the Linux market has been eclipsed by Ubuntu's rise. That does not mean Mepis has no place in the modern world. And with a new version freshly released, a second look is in order.
Indeed, I tested MEPIS 8.0 about two years back. The distribution was reasonable, neither too good nor bad, comparable to most others, with some noticeable drawbacks, like the convoluted networking setup and the bland live CD session. However, I did say I was looking to see the next release, so here we are. What can MEPIS do for you?
Live session - Balanced
Truth to be told, I struggled getting Mepis downloaded. At first, the site was down, then the download tricked slowly. The torrent had no seeds, so only after three or four attempts did I finally manage to get the ISO. That's a bit disappointing.
MEPIS boots into a KDE4 desktop that has been toned down to look slightly more archaic like a KDE3.5 release, although it resembles Sabayon. Comparing to other well-furnished distros like Kubuntu, openSUSE and Pardus, MEPIS feels a bit older visually, although the functionality is virtually identical. It must be the choice of colors, gradients and the overall theme.
I would like to see bigger fonts and a few small quirks cleaned, like for instance, the Documents folder icon on the desktop not having its text split across two lines as this looks rather bad. However, I like the fact plasma thingie is not used by default.
Wireless, Bluetooth & Samba sharing
Almost boring, but necessary. No problems, and it's nice to see MEPIS become as transparent as the rest when it comes to letting you get onto the Internet.
You get the standard panoply of codecs, so you will enjoy what most people expect of their software, out of the box. I tested a handful, but not all possible choices, but MP3 and Flash work just fine, as well as DVD stuff. Flash worked fine in most cases, but it struggled with the latest Google+ demo, which could be a Google problem, a Flash problem, a weak graphics card, or all of these. However, I suspect it's mostly the implementation in the distro, as we'll see later with desktop effects.
The one surprising thing is that Amarok is installed, however, the MP3 files opened by default in VLC, which is also part of the system application bundle.
Speaking of applications, you get a handful, a rather decent collection, although the 1.5GB DVD download could be easily trimmed down by removing some of the less popular KDE programs that lurk deeper in the menus. Speaking of the distro menu, it's quite underwhelming, with a very old look and no live search.
Your program set includes Firefox, GIMP, Amarok, VLC, digiKam, Kopete, LibreOffice, GwenView, and several more. It's a decent bunch, but not worth the hefty download size.
Installation - Boring and archaic
MEPIS installation feels like a thing from 2007. It's menu driven with locked drop down menus, too many confirmations, too much verbosity, and not a single image to make it even remotely exciting. You end with legacy GRUB, which is commendable, and the dual boot setup works, but to get there, you need to be quite careful.
For example for /, MEPIS wanted to use the NTFS partition. Why? There's an EXT4 partition from some previous test installation waiting for you. Then, swap is marked in a confusing manner as none or existing. Which one it is then? And /home is marked as root, which probably refers to root partition label from a previous installation. This is, for the lack of a better word, quite a mess.
Filesystem is preselected as Ext3. And once you click next, you have to confirm three separate popups about destroying data on partitions. The average user is crapping cubes at this moment.
And then, the installation begins for real:
Using MEPIS - Quite all right, but where's the thrill?
Overall, MEPIS behaved well, but it did show a few rather odd symptoms of retro-old stuff that does not quite belong in a modern KDE4 distribution. For example, helper utilities for configuring your system are a good thing, but not when they ought to be centralized under a single system menu, nor when you get redundant functionality elsewhere. Likewise, the package & update manager is the best there is around, but the presentation layer is rather bland. Synaptic is a good choice, with APT in the backend, but few people desire using its classic interface anymore.
But let's do one thing at a time ...
If you don't feel like staring at your screen helpless, MEPIS comes with a few tools that ought to help you get underway. While the cause is noble, the execution leaves a lot to be desired, as most people would struggle with the wizards.
All right, these did not work. While I could enable them - some of them - the desktop turned sluggish instantly. The CPU throttled up to 100%, the mouse movement would jerk and programs would become un-responsive. I also got a number of notifications that some effects could not be enabled. Not really sure why, but most other distros had no problems with the ATI card on the T60p machine. A shame really.
Fast, but not elegant. Average users need some kind of a unified manager to search and install packages, and unfortunately, Mepis does not quite cut it, especially after you've seen some really nice examples in Mint and Ubuntu, for example.
System resources, stability, suspend & resume
The system was stable - and without any crashes, so we have another champion sharing gold with Pardus. Suspend and resume worked well. And the system memory usage was really low, a tremendous surprise for a KDE4 distro. In this regard, MEPIS wins major points.
I believe KDE 4.6 would have been a better choice than the default 4.5 used in the distro, as it would have surely made it look better and smarter, prevent those desktop effects crashes and Flash stutter, but possibly inflate the memory consumption.
Other than that, MEPIS does offer lots of normal, basic functionality that people expect, however some of it is wrapped in layers of unnecessary complexity that hail back to olden days of KDE. Moreover, desktop effects did not work. The installer is probably the single worst part of this release. On the plus side, it's super stable and light.
At the end of the day, SimplyMEPIS is a suitable system, but it's not remarkable in any way, and it sure does not top alternatives like Kubuntu or openSUSE. You get to do what you want and need, but there's no distinctive killer feature that separates it from the crowd of Debian-based distributions. And before it can marshal the hearts of its users, there must be some more polish and housecleaning; throw out some 15-20 small, odd programs that no one uses, spice up the menus, drive for consistency.
Compared to MEPIS 8.0, the 11th release by number is somewhat better, but I can't say how much of that is technology and how much actual progress in the mindset and the execution. In its current form, MEPIS deserves around 7/10, maybe 8/10, but not more. Its huge potential is still waiting to be unleashed, but it won't happen in this release.