Just a few years ago, I watched as a growing number of new Linux distributions were being built around Debian. It made sense at the time, as Debian does have a lot going for it, both with its available packages and the option of choosing from a stable code base down to the code that's still considered "testing."
During this time, a new distribution came about, backed by a founder with more money than most of us will ever see in our lifetimes. The result of this was a new distribution known as Ubuntu.
But where does this leave those distributions that chose to embrace a pure Debian base instead? In this article, I will explore two very different distributions that decided to look to Debian for the future and did so with immense style.
Not too many years ago, I came across a new distribution called Simply Mepis. It provided extra functionality for handling wi-fi devices, video drivers and other issues that tend to confuse newer Linux users. Back then, this was a big deal since most distributions didn't really address the needs of newer users all that effectively.
Today, I thought it might be interesting to explore how the distribution has progressed and whether it might offer a good alternative to those looking to get away from distros based on Ubuntu. After all, Simply Mepis had a brief fling with the Ubuntu codebase, only to return home to its true Debian roots.
The reason for Simply Mepis to push back to a Debian base was a simple one – stability. And by stability, I mean that Simply Mepis offers its users an operating system based on Debian stable.
Those looking to jump ship away from Ubuntu could find success with Simply Mepis. Its stability has a lot going for it. Then again, there are some things I found that you will want to be aware of, both good and bad.
Networking is dated - One thing that bothered me about the current release of Simply Mepis is that using the LiveCD doesn't mean wi-fi will work. What I mean by that is using USB wi-fi dongles that work with any modern distribution won't work with the Mepis LiveCD.
Worse, getting networking setup is dated. The same tool needed with Simply Mepis 3.1 is still being used today, years later.
I literally need to go to Menu>Settings>Mepis Network Assistant. Until I visit this section, there is no network manager to work with. Worse yet, I find I might as well stay here and use the Wireless tab to connect to the network for the first time. Not a huge deal, but painfully dated by today's standards.
After fighting with three known-to-work, natively supported wi-fi adapters, pushing past KDE error reports, etc, I gave up. While wireless networking is a mess for the LiveCD, once installed I imagine the problem is easily fixed from the networking assistant.
Yes, I realize that KDE has a network manager, too. Unfortunately, it does no one any good until the Mepis Network Assistant has been setup first.
Mepis assistants are generally fantastic - Despite my minor gripe with the reliance on a "Mepis assistant" for networking, Simply Mepis "assistants" allow the user to repair a problematic boot issue, fix a troubled partition or even overcome problematic network settings. In my view, in the area of repairing a broken installation of Linux on the desktop, Simply Mepis can't be beat.
Repair options for a broken KDE or Firefox - Another Simply Mepis exclusive feature that I love is its ability to repair Firefox and KDE. Because Simply Mepis is targeting new users with its stable code base, it's great to see its developer hasn't forgotten just how overwhelming it can be when you're trying to recover a Firefox profile or KDE configuration file gone rogue. Kudos on this feature.
USB storage mounting gone wild - I really dislike how Simply Mepis handles external storage devices. I have to plug in the device, then go to the applet in the lower right corner, mount the device by clicking it and then find the mounted drive in the file manager. This isn't the fastest approach, but it works fine otherwise I suppose. For users such as myself, it's not a big deal.
For a newbie however, it's not going to be seen as convenient. Worse, most people would never know to look for this mount point in the applet or the file manager. Remember, they're used to it just "appearing" both on Ubuntu and Windows.
NVIDIA/ATI proprietary driver bliss - I love how Simply Mepis just handles NVIDIA and ATI drivers "automagically" for their newer users. It's functionality like this that makes using Simply Mepis attractive to its loyal following and newbies alike.
Linux Mint Debian Edition
Since the early days of this distribution, it has been called "Ubuntu with restricted extras and a green-theme." Perhaps there was some limited truth to this in the beginning, however these days there are some very distinct differences that make Mint stand out for many people looking to try something new.
In Linux Mint 11, based on Ubuntu Natty, you would find the following things offered with this distro that is missing in Ubuntu.
mintMenu – It's more than a funny name, it's the way a menu system should work. In Mint 11, a user can easily find the software they're looking for.
Even more importantly, if it's not installed the menu will offer to install it on the spot. It's smooth, easy to navigate and doesn't feel like the older Gnome menu found with Gnome 2 installations.
mintUpdate – Unlike Ubuntu's update manager, this update manager gives you a clear view as to whether a package is maintained and safe for Mint users, or if it's an "install at your own risk" sort of circumstance.
It even provides you with the ability to filter out package levels based on how "system safe" they are. This may not be ideal for everyone, however if you are tired of breaking something because of an update that went south, this feature presents some merit.
mintBackup – This last tool is really more of a front-end than a solution, yet for the new user wanting to backup their software and Home directory, it's a must-have utility.
These three items above are why Linux Mint is different from Ubuntu. Any benefit from "restricted extras" are merely frosting on the cake for newbies.
Now unlike Linux Mint based on Ubuntu, Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) is a brand new concept that is still very much under development. Be that as it may, I was impressed with what LMDE had to offer despite its "newness" to the world.
Networking just works – Using my trusty rtusb73-based wi-fi dongle, I was able to connect to my wi-fi router with the utmost of ease using the LiveCD.
I just pulled down network manager, selected my network, and I was done. It was that simple. It literally took me three seconds to get connected. LMDE easily wins in this area.
System update headaches – Excusing the youthfulness and the disclaimer that explains that LMDE is going to have some bugs, LMDE updates had dpkg errors from the moment it was installed onto my hard drive. The only way around them was to literally hash-tag out any of the Debian repositories enabled by default. This left only the enabled Mint repos.
This was easy for me to overcome, but it’s a complete deal-breaker for the average user. Simply Mepis on its worst day never gave me the number of errors I experienced. I'm currently running LMDE on my netbook and after some work, I managed to get it fixed. Still, it's unfortunate that newer users might become overwhelmed by this.
USB storage devices just work – No applets to find and click. I simply plug-in a Flash drive or external hard drive, and it mounts itself on my desktop without any help from me. This is a big win in my opinion.
NVIDIA/ATI proprietary driver how-to needed – If you plan on using proprietary video drivers, you'll need to dig up a forum post for the best method of installing them. Like with the Simply Mepis wi-fi hassles, it's not a big deal for regular Linux users. But for newbies, it'll make them yearn for Ubuntu's proprietary driver installer.
Can Debian based derivatives compete for new users?
Considering Ubuntu is only in existence thanks to its own Debian base, yes, newbie-friendly Debian distros are still very much worthwhile. Ubuntu may boast about long-term releases while also offering up bleeding edge release cycles, however non-Ubuntu releases are still attracting new users.
At the end of the day, the real question to ask yourself is: what do you want from a Debian based derivative?
If you want to stick with dpkg/apt without the Ubuntu tie-in, Simply Mepis and LMDE are something to consider. If you want to rely on Debian testing, LMDE has a lot to offer as it matures. On the other hand, if you would rather stick with Debian stable, Simply Mepis is tough to beat.