Debian Etch: first impressions
Debian deserves some extra attention. The latest release is being distributed and I have no doubt that it will be installed on quite a few machines over the coming days and weeks. Personally I want to try it on the iMac Indigo and on a virtual machine under VMware. The netinstal images were a breeze to download and that was enough for now. I did not feel like downloading three DVD images or 22 CD images at the moment.
Who should give Debian a try? Besides all the geeks and nerds I think it would be a good idea for the Ubuntu, Mepis, Linspire, Xandros, Knoppix crowds to at least take a good look at the distribution that makes their userfriendly distributions possible. Without the enormous work done by the Debian project their favorite distro’s might not have existed. You might compare it to various large see and land animals that swim or move around very lowly with little fish or birds picking the scraps from their skins or teeth. Debian is moving slowly (though it did have five or six intermediate updates of Debian Sarge), but the best pieces are picked away by the fast moving smaller distributions. Anyway, when such a hue animal crosses your path it is a grand and beautiful sight to behold. Maybe there is talk of extinction, but for now it still moves with grace and power and it deserves some quiet attention.
The install on the iMac went well, but I ran into the same problem as a few months ago: a completely frozen graphical user interface. To it’s credit, Debian did have all the settings for xorg.conf as they should be (in contrast to Yellowdog and almost every other Linux distribution for the PPC I tried). For now, I will have to ask some questions here and there to see whether there is a solution (though last time I asked the solution should have been implemented by now). This article will only deal with my first impressions under VMware then.
Installing Debian Etch
I still remember the first time I installed Debian on a computer. I knew it had a reputation of being difficult, but I was confident enough to think I could beat the odds. Remember, back then -must be about five years ago- I was using Windows98 as my main operating system and was barely scratching the surface of Linux. The installer asked all kinds of questions I had absolutely no clue as to what they meant. Various distributions have improved the way Linux is installed and for most W2L migrators there shouldn’t be any problem anymore. The Debian installer is still text-based with no new shiny live desktop to get you going. This isn’t a bad thing, because it the Debian installer is fast and responsive (even on the old iMac). The questions speak for themselves: language, territory, keyboard layout (where I do miss American English International). Then it is on to the network. You give your box it’s own name and tell it which domain it belongs to. In my case I left it blank.
The next step is to partition your harddrives. For me, it wasn’t really a big problem, having created a new virtual machine specifically for this tasks. The user can choose between three guided options (use entire disk, with LVM and LVM encrypted) or the manual option. I choose the first option, just use the whole disk. You can select the proper disk (if you have multiple disks that is) after which you are asked to select a partitioning scheme. There are three options: one partition, a separate /home partition of separate partitions for /home, /usr, /var and /temp. The first one is recommended for new users, but a separate /home partition might have been better especially if you want to change distributions later on. However, this a matter of taste. The installer then gives you a summary of the partition scheme and you have to confirm your decision. The confirmation questions default to “No”, a wise precaution.
The next step sets up the first two accounts (root and user) and their respective passwords. Since this is a netbased install you can select a network mirror in order to have more than a basic system. The installer gives you a choice of countries and servers in those countries. If you are behind a proxyserver, now is the time to enter the appropriate data.
Debian likes to know which packages you like and the next question is whether to participate in the popularity-contest, where each week statistics about the use of packages is send to the distribution developers. Why not, especially since it can only benefit you. The final step before the installer starts pulling down the packages is to select the predefined softwarecollections. The standard system and desktop environment are ticked by default. When you want to add a Web, Print, DNS, File, Mail server of a SQL database it is a matter of ticking the other boxes. The last selection is for laptop users. Then, you can sit back and wait until everything has been downloaded and installed. No questions will bother you during the next hour. Almost, because you do get a question about the resolutions the x server can use and about Grub.
Conclusion. The Debian installer is simple and straight forward. It might seem a bit more than the six step process under Ubuntu, but it is almost the same. I can imagine that old style Debian users miss an expert option, where you may have more control on what software to install. I guess experienced users will select to install only the standard system and proceed from there on. The current installer looks like a good balance and I like it.
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If you are waiting for a great looking desktop, Debian is not really the place to be. With Debian Etch you do get a major update as far as Gnome , KDE and Xfce are concerned. The netinstall gives you the Gnome desktop. But, the developers at Debian did put some work in the bells and whistles. GDM actually looks like something to show off with and the default Gnome desktop is no longer plain and boring vanilla, but almost appears bright. The mirrors also have KDE and Xfce disks for those who don’t want to boot into Gnome first. Still, I would recommend a visit to the gnome-look.org website to add some more shine to the desktop (personal preference, I know).
When you are used to Ubuntu this desktop shouldn’t pose too many difficulties. Applications from the Mozilla family had an identity change (Iceweasel instead of Firefox, Icedove instead of Thunderbird and Iceape instead of Seamonkey). You will also miss the Install/Remove… menu item for easy access to install new software. Synaptic is the tool for that (or apt-get of course), where adding new repositories is a bit more of a challenge. One interesting thing I did find was a small window selector in the upper left corner. Very small, but nice as an alternative to ALT-TAB. The default webbrowser is Epiphany and Evolution is the center for your email. The rest of the usual suspects are present as well. OpenOffice.org, GIMP, GAIM, Rythmbox and Totem. GnomeBaker for your burning needs.
Synaptic is there to expand your desktop. When you start up Synaptic during a session it asks your root password. Logical, but when you start it later again in the same session it remembers you already gave the password. Again, a small thing to make life and use a bit more enjoyable.
Overall, the default Debian install ‘feels’ fast. Firing up OpenOffice.org took only seconds and Abiword came up almost instantly. Synaptic, GIMP and Scribus also ‘felt’ faster than I am used to under Ubuntu. The only downside was that it didn’t add Scribus to the menustructure. Feelings are not a good measure of performance, I know, but the impression stuck that the desktop is really fast.
It is too early to draw major conclusions about this new release of Debian. I like the installer and -having used Ubuntu and Gnome since August 2006- the default Debian Gnome desktop provides a familiar environment with well-known tools. No doubt there will again be discussions on how to reduce the time between the various releases. The good thing about the long cycles is that you have automatic long term support. Stability isn’t necessarily a bad thing then. The way Debian is developed does make it possible for young and shiny (like Ubuntu, Mepis and Linspire) to run ahead and push the unstable to the mainstream and on the desks of a growing number of users.
For now, I will just stand aside and admire the old mastodont passing by.
Tags: Linux, Debian, Ubuntu