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Why the ProMEPIS Buzz? New Linux Distro Is Increasingly Popular

Many Linux distributions have created a lot of buzz, exciting Linux fans that Microsoft Windows now had a rival

MEPIS has released two versions of Linux. SimplyMEPIS is designed for non-technical end users. ProMEPIS is designed for more technical users, administrators, IT professionals and web developers. SimplyMEPIS has become the sixth most popular desktop Linux distribution on www.distrowatch.org and recently MEPIS was number three in the monthly rankings. This is an amazing feat when you consider that MEPIS was founded in November 2002 and is mostly the work of one person, who like Madonna, only identifies himself by his first name, Warren.

Many Linux distributions have created a lot of buzz, exciting Linux fans that Microsoft Windows now had a rival. Lycoris created a stir because of its artistic Windows-like look-and-feel. Lindows, now Linspire, got a lot of press for telling future customers and potential investors that it was developing a Linux that would run Microsoft Windows applications. Xandros was actually able to run some Windows apps by bundling in CodeWeavers' CrossOver Office. Sun Microsystems claimed its Java Desktop System (JDS) would challenge Microsoft Windows for the corporate user.

While those Linux distributions were getting ink, a grassroots hum started around a newcomer, MEPIS Linux, which began with three major differences from those other distributions.

The first difference is that MEPIS is free. Anyone can download and distribute SimplyMEPIS at no charge. Not only is the software free, upgrades are free. MEPIS Linux does offer a subscription service and customization for resellers, as well as commercial support for MEPIS.

The second difference is that MEPIS is distributed as a live CD. This gives people a chance to test the distribution without having to install it on their hard drive. Users can make sure that MEPIS will work with their hardware before committing. For the newbie fleeing the Microsoft world, this is essential.

The third is that MEPIS has attracted a community around it to provide support and advice to MEPIS users. There are multiple web sites set up by the MEPIS community such as:

www.MEPISLovers.com
faq.mepis.net
eyecandy.MEPISlovers.com

According to Warren, SimplyMEPIS emphasizes ease of use, removes the fluff, and provides only the basic applications.

ProMEPIS is SimplyMEPIS with additional tools and applications for the enthusiast or professional. ProMEPIS is also a bit "edgy" in offering the latest application versions. SimplyMEPIS lags a few months behind in offering more mature versions of the core applications.

International users should note that the space for the extra apps on the ProMEPIS CD was gained by removing part of the built-in support for French, German, Spanish, Italian and Swedish. That support and the support for many other languages will be on a supplementary ProMEPIS CD.

I installed ProMEPIS on a NorhTec MultiClient with a 1GHz Via MiniITX board. Previously, I had been running SimplyMEPIS. I first booted the CD to see if ProMEPIS supported my hardware. I had been running the 2.4.26 kernel with SimplyMEPIS, which is not an option with ProMEPIS. ProMEPIS currently only provides kernel 2.6.7. Warren says that MEPIS will offer 2.6.10 or perhaps 2.6.11 later as an upgrade, but the project encountered some hardware-compatibility problems with 2.6.8 and 2.6.9.

Booting up the live CD, I tested to make sure that all my hardware worked. One note of caution: before you install, you will want to boot or restart X in the graphics resolution that you want as your default. The install will use the same resolution that you are running from your live CD. A separate Install X Config function can be used so you can experiment with X configurations and then update or repair a hard drive X configuration from the CD at any time.

ProMEPIS running on a 1GHz processor was fast and responsive with no hint of sluggishness whatsoever. To test how good ProMEPIS performance is on older computers, I installed it on a 300MHz Pentium II laptop. ProMEPIS recognized all the hardware and ran amazingly well. It's possible to watch DVDs on this ancient laptop without any hardware DVD acceleration.

It only took 20 minutes and I had a fully functional copy of ProMEPIS running on my system. All of my hardware was recognized. The overall look of ProMEPIS is slicker than SimplyMEPIS. MEPIS distributions are looking a lot more like commercial distributions with each new release.

The ProMEPIS Tool integration is a bit tighter than SimplyMEPIS. The three icons that represented Utilities, System and Installation have been integrated into a single tool under the icon labeled OS Control Center. I appreciate this change. I would make one suggestion. I think there should be a shortcut to the KDE Control Center in case the user is looking for a function not found in the OS Control Center.

ProMEPIS uses KDE 3.3.2 and offers the Gnome 2.8 core for those who prefer it. KDE 3.3 is a very significant improvement over KDE 3.2, which is the de facto window manager for SimplyMEPIS 2004. I particularly like the significant improvements made in Kmail, including integrated spam and virus filtering. Kmail has become my default e-mail program.

ProMEPIS has tools that the casual user doesn't need, but some non-technical users might prefer ProMEPIS until SimplyMEPIS upgrades to KDE 3.3.2. I think most users will appreciate the improvement in the KDE 3.3.2 tools, Firefox over Mozilla, and the cosmetics.

Because both SimplyMEPIS and ProMEPIS are contained on a single CD-ROM, Warren must be careful about what applications he includes in a given distribution. Many of his application picks are made by polling users or by carefully testing applications to see which work best. For example, ProMEPIS originally installed Nvu as its default web editor but since it took up 30MB on the compressed CD, it was relegated to a second supplementary CD that will ship with ProMEPIS.

ProMEPIS, like Simply MEPIS, includes Skype for peer-to-peer Voice-Over-IP (VOIP). It also includes Kphone, which is a SIP phone client compatible with several free and commercial VOIP networks. For instance, I had no trouble setting up Kphone to work with Free World Dialup (FWD).

ProMEPIS includes various terminal emulation programs, development tools, languages and utilities that the casual user isn't likely to need. Although these applications are there, non-technical users can just ignore them.

ProMEPIS installs WINE, the software that lets some Microsoft Windows applications run on Linux. It's still alpha-grade and there's a significant learning curve so, although that curve's been eased by MEPIS integration, non-technical users who rely on a Windows program will be better served by buying CodeWeavers' WINE-based CrossOver Office.

When asked why WINE was included in ProMEPIS, Warren emplained that it may be a poor solution for running newer Microsoft apps, but it's good at running many legacy custom programs and gives knowledgeable users the ability to download and run many of the .exe packages distributed by hardware vendors for BIOS updates, CD-ROM firmware and such.

ProMEPIS has more sophisticated wireless capabilities than SimplyMEPIS. ProMEPIS includes integrated support for NdisWrapper. Combined with native Linux wireless drivers, this lets MEPIS support most wireless cards and chips out-of-the-box. NdisWrapper is a utility that supports many wireless devices on Linux through Windows drivers. Some Linux advocates are critical of NdisWrapper because they believe it discourages wireless card vendors from supporting Linux directly. I think that if the card vendors really wanted to support Linux, they would label their box with the chipset they are using.

ProMEPIS doesn't skimp on productivity tools. There are plenty of utilities and applications for graphics, multimedia, editing and sophisticated word processing.

When I was writing this review, ProMEPIS was still in beta, which means it can only improve. ProMEPIS is designed to give technical users the tools they need without alienating the non-technical user. Both technical and non-technical users will find all the tools they need to get most tasks done. Like SimplyMEPIS, ProMEPIS is easy to install, easy to use and easy to upgrade. And like SimplyMEPIS it is available for free but users are encouraged to buy CDs and download subscriptions from MEPIS.

MEPIS also has a commercial web site, www.mepis.com, which offers customization and commercial services. A recent success story for MEPIS was the release of a co-branded commercial version of SimplyMEPIS called SphinxOS for the German-speaking market. Warren assures me that while MEPIS is developing reseller sales channels for MEPIS Linux, the basic distro will always be available as a free download.

And what does the future hold for MEPIS? Warren says don't be surprised if you can buy a new PC with MEPIS pre-installed soon. Or if you're on a tight budget, how about an off-lease Optiplex?

ProMEPIS, like SimplyMEPIS, ranks at the top of free Linux distributions. I am running MEPIS on three of my personal computers. While I have purchased copies of most of the popular desktop distributions, I prefer to use MEPIS Linux. ProMEPIS is my current installation of choice. My wife is using Simply-MEPIS. Note: Mepis is following an aggressive upgrade schedule so the differences mentioned between Simply Mepis and Professional Mepis are narrowing.

More Stories By Michael C. Barnes

Michael C. Barnes is founder and president of NorhTec, a company that builds small, fanless, energy efficient computers for standalone embedded and mobile applications. He has twenty five years of experience with computers and related technologies. Mr. Barnes frequently writes about computers, technology and audio. During his career, he invented the inverted horn loudspeaker and coined the term Microserver for a new class of small servers. Mr. Barnes' was an early adopter of Linux. His first distribution was Slackware. At the time, Mr. Barnes was with Sun Microsystems and used Linux as a learning tool for Unix as he could not justify buying a Sun Microsystems server for his home.

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