Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Last fall we wrote a review that was generally well received on Simply Mepis 6.0. This is a very nice package out of West Virginia that takes KDE to Ubuntu in a more polished and solid way than even Kubuntu can do. Much was made by people, even on Distrowatch about little coming from the Mepis camp over the last couple of months, and then right around Christmas, sure enough here comes a nice little improvement package and much to my suprise a package offering 64 bit support.

Now, some may have seen the listing of my older eMachines m6805 laptop, which I have been struggling to get native 64 bit OS' on for almost 3 years now. Every now and then someone would offer up their version of 64 bit, and I would bite and try, only to fail one of many things, much of which was either DVD players or wireless woes. Now, that machine is now at the bottom of some scrap heap, but my replacement from Worst Buy was still a 64 bit machine from the new owners of eMachines, Gateway, with almost the same exact specs. So my dreams of being free of 32 bit still live on, yet I still cannot get a package that wants to work across the board...until now. More on that later, but let's give this new polished package a review before the Feb 10th expected launch and let people know if they should move over from other KDE systems to the one out of the Mountaineer state.


Download Here
Kernel - Kernel 2.6.15-27 Based on Ubuntu, talked of moving to 2.6.17 here
Desktop - KDE 3.5.3
FAQs -
Cost - FREE!!!
Special Features - Live installer, nice add ons and decent packages in small install, full multimedia support, 64 bit

Nitty Gritty:
Installation ( )

When you first run the Live CD, there are the basic options for running in Normal, Vesa, Minimum, and Small, which is a great idea for people with older machines or no clue on what level of video support they might have. The system is even setup now to let you know if you are installing in VMWare, to use the Vesa driver to get the best results. Since that was where I was installing, I used this for my screen captures, but used the Normal for the full system installation.

NOTE: The screenshots will show 32 bit on the wallpaper due to my installing on VMWare for 32 bit native, therefore the install had to be 32 bit as well. The results and methods for 64 bit was exactly the same, you just have a different wall paper, which is good if you download both versions so you know which one you are using/installing at the time. Of course you can always run 'uname -a' in terminal to check as well.

Once you select the video profile, you will then get into a very nice live environment. The typical user account is 'demo' with password 'demo' while 'root' with password of 'root' can also be used. The install routine works with either login, so stick with 'demo'. My favorite color of blue again, guess everyone but Sabayon is working with this.

This keeps the color flow, and note that now we are on Beta 4, and not Beta 1 as from my screen shots.

So the start up desktop is classic KDE, with the only real change from Mepis 6.0 being the lack of the fish tank. Some people found that anoying I know, but for me it was a nice way to ensure my machine had not hung up, so I miss the little fellas. Oh well. They did change the bar on the bottom to be 85% of the total screen, which you cannot tell from my screen shot, I guess to give the KDE a more "apple" look, such as you would get with Xfce, or Enlightenment. I personally liked that they are getting away from the traditional Windows clone look, which for me is extremely tired.

I have never hated KDE for its look, just that too many times I get the feeling that they are working harder at getting the desktop to be a Windows clone than they are worried about functionality and usability (is that really a word?) There are not too many icons on the desktop and the ones there are nice, clean and funcitonal. Too many icons and I get lost, while I still want to get to my main folder and the internet with only one click.

Interesting the weather is still keyed to West Virginia, just so you know what it is like where Warren lives. It is easy to add your local weather and remove this, but I still like the little local plug. I wonder if the city council gives them a kick back?

Once you select the 'Mepis Install' icon, you get into one of the best installers going today. I know this from ease of taking screen shots. Maybe it is because I have had the last couple of Slackware based systems, which takes over 30 shots to finish, but this was so nice having only 10 for installation.

The first one is just the T&C for use of Mepis, nothing scary here, typical legal ease.

Now, the first real selection process is the disk you wish to install onto, and also a built in tool, QTParted, to modify your partitions. Now, I am not the biggest fan of QTParted, as this tends to hang on wierd occasions. Now you can also select the Auto option, which just goes ahead and makes all the decisions for you. DO NOT USE THIS if you have a windows partition or any other system which you want to install.

Now, I had my only problem with installation here, when I moved along, so we will try and explain. Basically when I installed on my laptop in a real enviroment, I was using my existing paritions. On the 80 Gig hard drive I have 25 Gig for Windows Vista (keepin up with that crap as well, I don't ever use that monster) then 5 Linux partitions of 10 Gig each, a data backup partition of 4 Gig and a 1 Gig swap. So one of the 10 Gig I was using as a Home folder, and when I went with the existing partitions I was given the option of keeping the Home folder intact, which was the option if you were upgrading your system, so it said. Now any time I tried to use the /Home folder option with no formatting (keep data intact), the installer crashed. If you just use the home folder being a part of the /root partition option, then it worked fine. When you do this, you can then modify your fstab later and re-establish your home folder, but just be careful. KDE seems to get confused with some hidden file settings and you can crash your system sometimes, which is why I never try to use the Home folder, even though many tell you that you should. Great for the typical install, bad if you have 4 versions of Linux on one laptop.

Now, for the purpose of this install, and to install like a newbie might, I just used the Auto funcitonality, and since I was installing on VMWare, this was not an issue for me. But only do this if you are willing to dump your entire hard drive. Hence the warning message, making sure you want to wipe out your hard drive. BE CAREFUL!!!!!

Simple little dialog lets you know where the install process is, go get a cup of java and wait a few, this doesn't take too long.

The first thing you have to decide once all the files are transfered over is where you want your boot loader to be located. Now, if you have no system, just select MBR. If you have windows, or another Linux system, then I would suggest the MBR as well. If you are an extremely experienced Linux and know what you want, then do that here as well. I do like how they tell you that MEPIS cannot find other Linux systems so you will have to add these to your /boot/grub/menu.lst file once you reboot. Sorry, no Lilo, but I am sure if you want that then you can force it later from a different system. I personally like Grub so I am pretty happy with the options provided and the excellent explainations to boot (get it, boot, my try at pun humor =))

Next there are some options you can enable/disable on runtime. The one option you probably will want if you plan on printing anything is cupsys, while Bluez is the bluetooth option so if your laptop supports it, or if you have an external card, select away. These typically don't hurt anything, just adds to the boot time.

Here is where you set up your local domain and/or windows system if you have one. Now, if you don't have anything like this, or if you have no idea on what to put, just leave it alone. If you do have a windows pc/laptop, then likely you either use WORKGROUP or MSHOME as your Workgroup. To see this, right click on My Computer on the windows machine, and select Properties and then Computer Name, which has a button for rename or join a domain. Whatever is there, then this is what you want setup for your Linux box to use Samba. If this is setup properly, then browsing your linux box to a windows domain is easy. If it isn't then it seems impossible.

The next step sets up your keyboard and locale. If your clock is wrong in the bottom, then likely your machine is setup to UTC time instead of local time, which is the check box saying system clock uses GMT. Windows typically uses this to work on auto daylight savings time adjustments, so know that if you change it here, then your windows time will be wrong next time you boot. I typically set this later, will help you on that down the road.

So the final step here, which is odd to me, is to set your root password and user name and that associated password. I say that this is odd, because most systems do this first, get it over with and then move on to the good stuff. Now, I like that these are on one screen, and that there is no option mentioned for no passwords. Just remember what they are. MEPIS does not use sudo like Ubuntu does, so one needs to use 'su' to change to root level in the system. I am not sure why they didn't implement sudo like most others, but hey, as long as you know that, you are ok.

And that is that folks. Congratulations! If you are really observant, then you would have seen that even with my screenshots, this took me 20 minutes to complete. Now, I only gave this a 4 Pennie score, so why not 5? Well, a couple of silly things I guess.

First, you don't know where you are in the process at any given time. You can go back, but one never knows what step they are on or how many more are to go.

Second, there is not an option to determine what I want to install, I am at the mercy of the MEPIS folks on what gets included. Sure, it is a live system so I know that I like it before I install it, but still let me know that there are some things that doesn't have to be there.

Lastly, I hate QTParted. Not for the look and feel of the tool, just that it doesn't work well. If there is more than one action to perform, I find that often I am stuck and need to reboot in between each step. So if I want to create 5 parititions, that would take me 6 boots. Unacceptable. Just provide options for other tools, even CFDISK, just so I don't get stuck with this below average tool.

Altogether, a very easy to follow, complete installation that gets you from live system working to new distro in less than 20 minutes. Minus my problem with the Home folder I am extremely pleased with the progress of MEPIS on this release and pleased to be running a solid 64 bit system.

Now, how does it work? Let's find out shall we?

Starting ( )

The best part of my new Gateway laptop is one thing: NO MORE BROADCOM!!!! whew. The new laptop runs a Belkin RTL8185, which has a package r8180 built into many kernels. What this means is that there is no more need for ndiswrapper for me with these systems, and I thank my lucky stars for that.

For the people still using broadcom (sorry for you my friends) I am leaving the following from my previous review on getting this to work. Please note that you will need to use the 64 bit windows driver, which can be found on the ndiswrapper lists and is generally called 'bcmwl5a.inf'

First, my wireless was not working, even though the light was on. It seems that the kernel with the BCM43xx module compiled runs the hardware and it will respond to an 'iwlist' command, but for some unknown reason just won't lock on when you try to get an IP address with 'dhclient'. So there are a couple of steps to remedy this for us laptop people with Broadcom (which is by far the most common PCI card out there it seems. Here are the steps

  • Blacklist bcm43xx in the /etc/modprobe.d/blacklist file
  • rmmod bcm43xx
  • ndiswrapper -l to see what cards are already installed
  • for me 'ndiswrapper -e bcmwl5' to remove the existing driver
  • copy the drivers from my windows partition (can be googled pretty easily if you don't have them)
  • from the directory with the windows drivers 'ndiswrapper -i bcmwl5.inf'
  • 'depmod -a'
  • 'modprobe ndiswrapper'
  • 'ndiswrapper -m'
  • reboot (don't know why, but it is required)
and my wireless came to life.

For my video woes, which seems to happen all too often, all I had to do was search mepislovers and found that to add ATI card support all I had to do was use synaptic and install the package 'xorg-driver-fglrx' and restart the KDE with a ctrl-alt-backspace. Very nice there.

My new look once I changed the wallpaper and moved some icons.

So, is this better than Kubuntu? What sets MEPIS apart from the Ubuntu KDE camp, or other KDE systems similar? Well, one just needs to head to to see that the MEPIS community rivals Ubuntu in many ways. It doesn't have the amount of people around the world, that is no doubt, but what it might lack in quantity it makes up for in Quality. Fast and friendly support is there to be had.

Bonus Stuff ( )

Some features that are added to MEPIS and not available to typical Ubuntu builds include some nice utilities called Assistants, which can be found by clicking the Mepis icon/System/Mepis as show below.

Each one of this adds a nice little functionality to typical items that newbies find challenging. First is network.

This gives you two methods of controlling your network, Manual or Automatic. If you select Auto, then the other tabs are grayed out. If you do use Automatic, you typically have to reboot and then go to Mepis icon/Internet/Connection/Network Manager (Knetworkmanager) in order to see the difference. This is basically going from you setting the parameters to the system trying to do this for you. If you are new to Linux, Automatic might be your best option. Once this is there, in the icon tray in the bottom right, you will see the Knetworkmanager icon, you left click it, and then you can select to find a wireless network or connect wired. Nice stuff here, good to have instead of knowing both methods by themselves.

The next one that really helps is Graphics XConfig. Graphics is by far one of the most complex items to work yourself into and shouldn't be taken lightly. You either know what you are doing here, or you are going to break your system and end up and a command line prompt, banging your head against your keyboard. The really nice things is that here you can configure up your NVIDIA or ATI cards without knowing what package to select in Synaptic or where to download these. Now, again, if this doesn't work you might end up with command line hell, where you can't do anything, so unless you know what you are doing, don't break the system. In other words, unless you can backup your xorg.conf file, move data files around in command line, or vi/nano edit a file from command line, stay away. It is working, so leave it alone for now.

I applaud the tool, just wish there was more of a tutorial on its use and how to recover if something goes wrong, which typically happens with proprietary drivers on video.

The last one and most often overlooked is user configurations. Most people only use a computer with one log in, which makes user folders messy and people can delete your stuff on accident (or on purpose). By taking advantage of one of the strengths of Linux, in having groups and users seperated in permissions and folders, one has a computer that can easily be shared and no one can hurt the other.

This makes this process easier and pretty well laid out, if you ask me. If you don't have this need, it does offer some nice copy/sync functions and repair if you accidentally bomb out your home directory or if you just want a nice backup of your data somewhere. Again, very nice addition and well done!!!!

Overall ()

To quote myself, something I never do, "I will be back for the 64 bit when available however, as I am still waiting on a distro that will uncork my boat anchor." Well, guess what folks? I am happy to say that MEPIS is now my default system and I am happy to be running 64 bit on my not so much of a boat anchor laptop. I haven't really given up much now, as one can add win32codecs if they go here and libdvdcss is installed into the repository. Flash is working with Firefox 2.0, so that seems to have been taken care of by the people at Mepis, which is usually something one loses with 64 bit.

So MEPIS is the real deal now, and has brought a big smile to this users face for a while to come. I also just for fun installed GNOME and Xfce from the repositories, and while the look isn't that clean the systems work. Here is a big thanks out to the West Virginia folks, who even though they didn't respond to us with an interview request, gave us a system that we are happy to support in time and financially as well. We will be handing over some cash when we can because we truly feel that this is a well deserving project and hope it lasts for a very long time.

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed my opinions. Good luck with your personal Linux quests and I just hope I have shed some light on this package for you. Cheers!!!!