I have been looking forward to the release of SimplyMepis 8.5 for at least six months. I used SimplyMepis 8.0 the first half of last year with its KDE 3.5 desktop and was very content. I was late to the KDE 4 bandwagon, but I became interested last summer when reports pegged it as stable and usable. Reports were already circulating that the next release of Mepis would have KDE 4 as the desktop. It was a long hard wait, but the opportunity finally arrived on March 30 with the release of SimplyMepis 8.5.
Under the Hood
This release of MEPIS is an update to version 8.0 released last year.
Although many bugfixes, enhancements, and features have been added, much of
the underlying code has remained the same. For example this release was
compiled with GCC 4.3.2 like 8.0 and still uses Glibc 2.7, Perl 5.10.0,
Python 2.5.2, and Xorg X Server 1.4.2. That doesn't mean significant
updates haven't been applied. Qt was updated to 4.5.3, GTK+ updated to
2.18.3, and the kernel updated to 2.6.32. Basically, SimplyMepis 8.5 was
updated as much as possible without breaking compatibility with Debian 5.0
A newer kernel was implemented in order to support some of the newer
hardware that may have come into use since 2.6.27 was released. MEPIS uses
the kernel from the Debian developmental branch and Debian is known to patch
its kernels for features, security and bug fixes. A
few fixes found in recent patch sets include code to repair breakage in
Dosemu and Wine, expand some bug reporting information, and fix a
Debian-specific bug in modules.dep generation by module-init-tools. Linux
2.6.32 brought support for goodies such as ATI R600/R700 3D graphic cards,
Micrel KS8851 Ethernet chips, ACPI 4.0, and CX25821 and Hauppauge HVR TV
On the Surface
As with each new SimplyMepis release, the boot and login images have been redesigned for beauty. But what's most striking at first look of the desktop is how SimplyMepis it truly is. Yes, the desktop has been upgraded to KDE 4.3.4 this release, but yet it's still very SimplyMepis.
The background is in the tradition of typical SimplyMepis in shades of
blue and featuring the newest Pyramid logo. The panel is small and
unobtrusive with a very few applets and several application launchers. A
few icons populate the desktop. The trademark KDE Widget Curls give away
the desktop version underneath. SimplyMepis uses the Oxygen Widget style
and Crystal Window decorations with Kubuntu Feisty buttons; and OxywinM Panel background, dialogs and tooltip color scheme. On the desktop are icons for Trash, Documents folder, MEPIS Website, and the MEPIS manual. SimplyMepis 8.5 arrives with no window effects enabled.
In the Menu
SimplyMepis features a classic hierarchical menu familiar in KDE 3 and many other desktop environments. It, as with other KDE 4 desktops, can be changed to the Kickoff menu with a right-click of the mouse. Lancelot is also available in the Add Widgets dialog.
The GIMP was removed from SimplyMepis' default install in 8.0, but Gwenview is provided for image viewing and browsing. OpenOffice.org 3.1.1 is available for office tasks and Firefox 3.5.6 is added for Web browsing. Video enjoyment can be had with KMPlayer and Google Gadgets customize and tweak your desktop. If your partition gets a bit tight, then perhaps Sweeper can assist with clearing some space. Of course, APT and Synaptic can fill in the gaps. As expected, lots of applications were updated with bug fixes this cycle.
MEPIS includes a number of configuration tools for the SimplyMepis distribution. Most are uncomplicated, yet provide essential functionality. Several received some code updates but few if any changes appear in the GUI. Those we've seen before include the Network Assistant that will set up wired and wireless connections and a System Assistant that can set up hostname, a bootable USB key, install GRUB, or check a partition. The User Assistant adds or deletes users and the X-Window Assistant sets up mice, keyboards, and graphics.
This release did receive two new assistants. One is the NDisWrapper Manager. It can either load one of the commonly bundled wireless Ethernet drivers or can install one from a file. It can even be used to blacklist any that may be loaded at boot during auto-detection.
The second new tool is the MEPIS Welcome Center, which seems aimed at new users in particular. Divided into two sections, the first provides information and the second allows certain package management functions. Under Recommended First Steps one can search for particular keywords or just peruse the MEPIS Manual, Wiki, or Forums. Under the Optional Extras, one can install language packs, quickly install popular applications, or activate community software repositories. Some of these popular applications available are Amarok, GIMP, and Wine. The Welcome Center can be found both stand-alone in the menu and bundled in the KDE Control Center.
My experience with SimplyMepis so far has been smooth and pretty much uneventful. The install process completed with no issues.
I did experience some quirks with KDE. The infamous random Akregator crashes have occurred a few times, sometimes losing the latest feeds. One time the whole Kwin window manager crashed and prompted a ctrl+alt+backspace. A couple of times some Konqueror windows just disappeared. After a fresh login, the wallpaper on my second monitor isn't displayed, instead reverting to a solid color background. Finally, Nspluginviewer still consumes all the CPU resources even if plugins are disabled.
I'm afraid I can't really comment accurately on performance. I upgraded my computer hardware just prior to the release of SimplyMepis 8.5, and unfortunately, this erased my frame of reference. All I can really say is that on my new computer SimplyMepis with KDE 4.3.4 is very responsive even with window effects enabled.
In conclusion, while technically this was a minor version update, SimplyMepis 8.5 represents a big change for developers and users. As the last official KDE 3 holdout moves on, it signals the true beginnings of a new era. I still get emails every once in a while from users complaining about being forced to migrate to KDE 4 and for that body of users, SimplyMepis 8.5 is a wonderful transitional release. It presents KDE 4 in an environment that remains very similar in appearance to its previous KDE 3 desktop. For SimplyMepis users, it still very much like home. For new users, it could be a gentle introduction to KDE 4.
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