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Hands-on with MX Linux: A pleasant, easy-to-install Linux distribution

MX Linux is a descendant/spin-off from Antix and MEPIS Linux. I want to see what it is like to install and run on both UEFI and MBR laptops.

When I first started blogging about Linux, MEPIS was one of the first distributions that I wrote about. I always liked it, and enjoyed using it, so I was disappointed when it quietly died a few years ago.

When I first saw MX Linux, I was naturally anxious to try it -- but there were some problems with UEFI firmware and GPT partition tables, and in the method of creating bootable USB sticks. I didn't try it at that time.

After some prodding here (thanks!), I recently went back and had a good look at the latest release notes, and I was pleased to see that there is no longer any problem with UEFI and GPT, and USB media can be created very simply with dd, so it is time to take a fresh look.

First, what is MX Linux? It is a product of the combined efforts of a group of dedicated users from the MEPIS and antiX communities. The objective is to combine the best parts of both distributions, to produce a mid-weight easy-to-use Linux distribution.

The latest release (MX 17.1) can be obtained from the MX Download Links page, for either 64-bit or 32-bit architecture. There is some good news already here -- in addition to the original release ISO images, there are monthly updates available. These are fresh ISO images with all the updates installed, so you don't have to spend so much time updating after making a fresh installation. Nice.

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There are MD5 sums given on the download page for all of the ISO images, so be sure to check this -- don't get lazy.

If you already have a running Linux system of any kind, you can just dump the ISO image to a USB stick with this command:

dd if=MX-17.1_x64.iso bs=4M of=/dev/sdX iflag=fullblock oflag=direct status=progress

If you don't have Linux handy, there are instructions on the download page for using the Rufus to create a USB stick; otherwise, you can always burn the ISO image to a DVD and install from that.

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MX 17.1 Live Desktop

Image: J.A. Watson

If you are installing on a system with UEFI firmware, you have to disable Secure Boot first. Once you have done that, the USB stick boots and brings you to the MX Live screen shown here.

Of course, if you are installing on a Legacy Boot (MBR) system, there is nothing special to do, just plug in the stick and boot it up.

Note that there is a link on the Welcome screen which will show you the default accounts and passwords for the Live system. This is a nice idea, but it seems to me that if you end up in a position where you would need to know the passwords, you would not be able to get to the welcome screen anyway, no?

MX Linux still uses their own installer, rather than the more common calamares or Mint (LMDE) installers. For this reason, I will walk through all of the installation steps/screens. If you are only interested in the results of the installation, skip to the end of this post.

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Image: J.A. Watson

The MX installer can be started from the Live desktop. The initial screen just shows the Terms of Use (sort of), and I assume that by clicking Next to get into the installation process you are implicitly accepting those terms. Or whatever.

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Image: J.A. Watson

The first "real" installer screen lets you select the disk for the installation. There are two interesting bits here -- first, clicking Run partition tool will start the gparted utility so you can check the available disks and partitions. Second, note that you can select between doing an auto-install, which will use the entire disk (Note: This will destroy ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING currently stored on the disk), or doing a custom install in existing partitions.

The one thing that is missing here is an "auto-install" alongside whatever is already on the disk. Very inexperienced users might benefit from such an option, but the truth is that I have never trusted that kind of installation anyway, so you're probably better off having to use gparted to make space on the disk as necessary and then doing a custom install.

partitions.png
Image: J.A. Watson

Assuming that you choose a custom install, the next screen allows you to specify the partitions to be used for the installation. The one thing that you have to select here is the partition for the root filesystem. The input field will give you a drop-down list of all partitions on the target disk to select from.

If you already have a Linux Swap partition defined (presumably from some other Linux installation), you can leave that on "existing".

If you leave the Home partition on root, the entire installation will be made in one partition; if you want a separate home partition, you can choose it here as well.

formatok.png
Image: J.A. Watson

After choosing the partitions and options, the next screen simply confirms that it is ok to format the partition you have selected for root. If that's not ok, well, then you need to rethink your installation choices...

inprogress.png
Image: J.A: Watson

After confirming the format, the MX installer actually starts copying the image to the root partition. I have good/bad feelings about this -- it's good, because they don't bother to try to fork off the actual installation into the background and carry on with the installation dialog while it runs; I've always considered that to be a bogus time saver. But it's not all good, because I don't care for installers which get part of the input, and then go away and ignore you while they do part of the installation, then eventually come back and ask more questions. Sigh.

It should be a simple process -- get all the information, then start the installation so the user can go away if they want, and when they come back the installation is done -- not just sitting there waiting to ask more questions. Oh well, at least the copy didn't take long on my laptop, certainly less than 5 minutes before it resumed interrogating me.

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Image: J.A. Watson

After the copy is complete, the next screen asks if you want to install a boot image, and if so what/where to install. If you are installing on a UEFI firmware system, the ESP option will be selected by default. If you are on a legacy boot system, you can either install to the MBR, or to the root filesystem (assuming you chose a filesystem type which supports this, such as ext4).

It is a bit unfortunate that if you choose ESP (UEFI) installation, you don't get to choose the specific ESP partition. The bootloader will be installed in a directory called MX17 on the first ESP partition found on the disk. Ah, well, at least the directory name does not conflict with any other Linux installation (I'm looking at you, Linux Mint...).

bootok.png
Image: J.A. Watson

The next screen simply confirms that the partition (or device) selected for the bootloader is OK.

bootinstall.png
J.A. Watson

The bootloader will then be installed and configured as necessary. Clicking Yes will start the bootloader installation, which takes a few minutes. Unfortunately (Sigh!), you are still not done with all of the input, it will come back and ask a few more questions after the bootloader installation is complete.

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Image: J.A. Watson

The next screen is concerned with the system name and network domain, and whether or not you want the SaMBa server installed. If you don't plan to use samba, I would recommend un-checking it so that it doesn't get installed. You can always add it later if you find that you need it.

localization.png
Image: J.A. Watson

Next comes what should be a critical input screen for someone in my position, the Localization selections.

The first thing in this screen is selecting the keyboard layout -- this should be easy, right? We've been doing it for a long, long time now, and as far as I can recall every other Linux distribution that I currently install gets this right, and makes it easy. But not here. This is one of the few things in the MX installer that still looks like it is a straight carry-over from the old MEPIS installer, and it's pretty pitiful.

First, the drop-down selection list looks like it is still the old Debian list from some time long ago. It's confusing to read -- just a bunch of locale abbreviations -- and it is incomplete. At the very least, I can say for sure that there is no Swiss German in this list -- Swiss French is there, but not Swiss German. That is the way it was the very, very first time I installed MEPIS!!! However, even worse, what I later discovered is that whatever you choose, it doesn't work very well. I decided to settle for Swiss French initially (at least the Y and Z would be in the right place. When I was done, and booted the installed system... it was using a U.S. keyboard definition, both in Xfce and for the text console. This is really disappointing -- is it that hard to get right?

The (partial) solution for this, which I illustrate below, is to set the appropriate keyboard layout in the Xfce Settings after booting the installed system. But that still doesn't solve the console problem, of course.

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Clock configuration is also in this screen; the general rule is that if you are dual-booting Linux and Windows, you want to select System Clock uses LOCAL, but if you have a Linux.only system you don't need to do this. Oh, and at least the 12/24 hour time format selection works properly here.

The last bit of this screen is the Timezone selection. In this case, at least, the list is complete and the selection works correctly in setting up the installed system.

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Image: J.A. Watson

The final step in the installation process is the User Account screen. Here you enter the login name and password of the first user account (but not the full name). You also have to enter the root password, and there is no "same as user password" option. I think this is a good idea, by not encouraging questionable password use.

There is a check-box to show the passwords you have entered (sort of an odd way to do this, but OK), another to enable automatic login on boot (another questionable idea in most situations), and one to encrypt your home directory.

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Image: J.A. Watson

Once you have completed the input screens, the installation is done -- no more waiting, because the actual filesystem and bootloader installation have already been done.

All that is left is to decide if you want to reboot right away, or continue using the Live system.

So far I have installed MX17 Linux on four of my systems -- my Acer All-In-One desktop and Acer Aspire V laptop, both of which are UEFI firmware systems, and my Lenovo T-400 laptop and Samsung N150+ netbook, both of which are Legacy Boot (MBR) systems. I had no real issues with either installing or running MX17 on any of them (except for the irritating problem with the keyboard layout selection). Installation time ranged from a total of less than 10 minutes on the two Acer systems, to a bit more than 20 minutes on the older (slower) Lenovo and Samsung systems.

Using MX17 Linux is very pleasant. It reminds me a lot of MEPIS, in that it just all works, and everything fits together nicely.

mxlinux.png
Image: J.A. Watson

The desktop is Xfce 4.12, but with a pleasant and well thought-out configuration. The panel is on the left side of the screen, which is my personal preference. I think this makes the best use of available screen space. The panel is not configured to auto-hide, which I definitely want on my smaller-screened laptops. No worries, just right-click the panel, choose Panel -> Preferences from the menu, and select intelligent auto-hide.

It has conky running to provide day/date/load information on the background, but if you don't care for that there is a Conky Toggle option in the favorites menu.

Oh, before I forget to mention it, if you have the keyboard layout irritation that I mentioned during the installation, you can fix it by going to Settings (the red button at the top of the Xfce menu window), then to Hardware / Keyboard, select Layout, turn off "Use System Defaults", and then Edit the current layout definition.

settings.png
Image: J.A. Watson

While I'm on the subject of configuration changes, there is an MX Tools utility included in the menu favorites. Once again this reminds me of MEPIS, it's a nice, comfortable utility which allows you to manage a wide variety of settings on your system.

There are a number of interesting things here, which are not common on other systems. The Tweak utility and the Conky configuration utility are particularly nice for fine-tuning your desktop.

You can also install non-free drivers (Nvidia) and codecs from here, and there is an MX-specific package manager for those who do not want to deal with the Synaptic package manager (which is included in the Xfce menus).

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Image: J.A. Watson

I thought at first that the MX package manager might be just another simplified GUI built on top of Synaptic, but it is actually more than that. It has an improved (simplified) tab structure, where the first tab lists the "Popular Applications", and the subsequent tabs let you choose from a more complete list of the MX Stable, MX Testing or Debian Backports repositories. In case it is not obvious how nice this really is, here are a few examples:

  • Suppose that you prefer some desktop other than Xfce. In the MX package manager Popular Applications, under Desktop Environments you will find Budgie, Gnome, KDE, LXDE and MATE.
  • Suppose that you use a Logitech keyboard, mouse and/or trackball, with a Unifying receiver. In the Stable Repo, you will find the solaar package.
  • Suppose that you need a newer Linux kernel than is included in the standard MX distribution. In the MX Test Repo you will find kernels all the way up to 4.18 (the latest released kernel version).

If you can't get what you need from any of the MX repositories, you can go to Debian Backports and get packages from the Debian Testing distribution which have been backported to Debian Stable (which is the base for MX).

That is by far the best flexibility and widest variety I have seen, combined with a utility that makes it easy to find and install packages. Good stuff.

Although MX17 is nominally based on Debian Stable, it does contain significant and useful updates in some areas. The most obvious example was mentioned above, it is running Linux kernal 4.15 by default, whereas Debian Stabe is still at 4.9. Some of the other major applications included are Firefox (62.0), LibreOffice(6.0.1.1), GIMP (2.8.22), VLC (3.0.3) and much more.

I also happened to notice a few less-common things in the MX menus, such as a number of games (a lot of Linux distributions are neglecting these now), and PDF-Shuffler (if you work with PDF documents, this is a blessing), and ImageMagick.

In summary, I would say that this is a very nice distribution, and I now wish that I had taken the time to look at it sooner. It installs easily on a wide range of hardware, and it is very pleasant to use. I'm glad to see that the MEPIS and antiX users have kept this distribution alive, and are doing a very good job developing and maintaining it.

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