Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

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.

Image gallery (articles continues below)

First boot

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 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., 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 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.

Image gallery


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


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35 thoughts on “Debian Etch: first impressions

  1. milen on said:

    ” The Debian installer is still text-based …”
    Just type at the prompt expertgui and you will see it!!!

  2. Can't wait for Debian to finish downloading! on said:

    You’re the first review to hit DistroWatch. Congrats!

  3. Problem with iMac solved
    The problem with my graphical interface freezing on the iMac (mentioned in the article) has been solved. Searching around I stumbled upon this post in the Ubuntu forums:

    The complete solution is:

    First off get to a prompt (ctrl-alt-F1)

    at the prompt type

    sudo nano /etc/X11/xorg.conf

    look for the modules section in there insert a # before all but

    load “dri”
    load “dbe”
    load “extmod”
    load “freetype”
    load “glx”

    Then find the section about the graphics card in there type

    Option “useFBdev” “false”
    Option “SWCursor” “true”
    Option “ForcePCIMode” “true”

    That should get you a working DRI and GLX.

    And it did work ;-). I now have a fast and responsive desktop

  4. davemc on said:

    I tried out the amd64 version last night and it locked up soon after hit enter at the “boot” prompt. Not a very impressive beginning for such an old distro that has had much more time to work out very simple bugs like these that I never experience on its spinoffs like Ubuntu or Mepis. First impressions = all!

  5. Hi Dave, maybe a quote from the release notes:

    Debian GNU/Linux runs on computers ranging from palmtops and handheld systems to supercomputers, and on nearly everything in between. A total of eleven architectures are supported including: Sun SPARC (sparc), HP Alpha (alpha), Motorola/IBM PowerPC (powerpc), Intel IA-32 (i386) and IA-64 (ia64), HP PA-RISC (hppa), MIPS (mips, mipsel), ARM (arm), IBM S/390 (s390) and – newly introduced with Debian GNU/Linux 4.0 – AMD64 and Intel EM64T (amd64).

    The 64 bits architectures are new on the list, but I am sorry you ran into this snag. Maybe it would be an idea to check the various boot options and use the expertgui option mentioned by Millen above. All the best.

  6. Tolimar on said:


    Small correction to milen’s post: Typing “installgui” runs the “normal” instalaltion; expertgui will run the graphical installer in expert mode which will bombard you with questions.

    Greetings from the bypassing mastodont,
    Alexander “Tolimar” Schmehl

  7. miksuh. on said:

    ” The Debian installer is still text-based …”

    No, that’s not true. Debian etch installer has both graphical and text based mode. Here is screenshpts of graphical installer:

    This screenshot shows how you can start graphical installer:‘,”,’toolbar=no,status=no,resizable=yes,width=660,height=500’

    As you can see you can type option “installgui” in the install-prompt. After that press enter and installer will start in the graphical mode.

  8. miksuh. on said:

    And as milen said abowe, you can also use option “expertgui” instead of “installgui”, expertgui starts graphical installer in the expert mode.

  9. miksuh. on said:

    Tolimar: heh, you were faster than me 🙂

  10. miksuh. on said:

    Tolimar: installgui runs also graphical installer

  11. Darkman on said:

    I enjoyed your review. I’ve used Etch regularly for about a year. For the more experienced user, it’s highly configurable. You can make it what you want. Perhaps not the best distro for a newbie though.

    I also have found it very fast. From power on to the login screen, it takes 20 seconds on my amd64 box. I know that the developers spend a lot of time arguing, but they produce a great distro. I have always found it puzzling that Debian gets so little respect from the Ubuntu and Mepis communities. Debian certainly has my respect.

  12. Blizz on said:

    Well… After installing Etch 4.0 yesterday, I did fired up the terminal server cause I had to connect at my office to do some work. After a while the os wasn’t responsive at all, I couldn’t click on anything on the desktop except the remote os, even ctrl-alt-del didn’t work, I had to power off the computer.

  13. Bruce on said:

    Hi,I’m just using Ubuntu 6.10 .But I came across lots difficult.Is Debian 4.0 make more supports to laptops,and which aspects?
    My nvidia video card and BCM wireless card do bad in ubuntu.

  14. Hi Bruce, the problems with Ubuntu and you Broadcom wireless card can be fixed under Ubuntu. For the nVidia driver I would suggest Easyubuntu. Don’t forget to follow the instructions to make the necessary change in your xorg.conf file.
    I have an Acer Aspire laptop with a Broadcom card and I use ndiswrapper along with the original Windows-based drive (bcm5 something). The developers are working around the limitations since Broadcom did not release the specifications. Feisty Fawn handles my card nicely, though I had to fiddle with the settings to make it so. The Ubuntu online resources do have more than sufficient information to get you going:

    For the nvidia driver

    For the Broadcom card

    The two problems you mention, I don’t think they will be solved by exchanging Ubuntu 6.10 for Debian 4.0. If anything, Ubuntu is more open to the use of proprietary drivers and that is really the problem you are looking at.

  15. Melloe on said:

    Good Job


  16. miksuh. on said:

    “Hi Bruce, the problems with Ubuntu and you Broadcom wireless card can be fixed under Ubuntu. ”
    “I don’t think they will be solved by exchanging Ubuntu 6.10 for Debian 4.0”

    Actually those links which you posted contain nothing which can’t be done on Debian Etch too 🙂 Broadcom drivers can be installed using bcm43-fwcutter etc.

  17. Dan Phillips on said:

    Thanks for the review. Last night I installed from CD1 on my old Dell 8500 laptop and was very impressed with the installation. I used the graphical installer (installgui) and it is one of the nicest, and easiest. The install went flawlessly and the systems boots and responds quickly. Suspend to RAM and acpi events (shutdown button and lid swtich) work without any configuration, sound works and network of course. X was setup well, there is a bit of tweaking to do with the screen powersave as it does not black the screen (more like a grey), but so far this is the only thing I can find fault with.

    OK it is not as current as say Archlinux, but it is easier and you can always use testing (Lenny).

    I also installed KDE AMD64 version and this also seems to work well and tried it on a PPC iMac slot which also worked without a hitch. I hope people appreciate the effort that has gone into this distribution. I do. 🙂

  18. @ Miksuh
    LOL. True, of course, whatever you can do under Ubuntu, can be done under Debian (actually, the other way around might be a better wording for it).
    A simple switch from Ubuntu to Debian does not solve the problem however. Using the solutions, either under Debian or Ubuntu, might work (one never knows 😉 ).

    Oh, and thank you for the information about the graphical installer, it is appreciated. I then have a suggestion for the Debian team: I can understand defaulting to the text-based installer and I know I should have checked the alternative boot options, but it would be nice to mention the GUI options in the bootup screen. It is one of the nice innovations, too nice to be hidden this way.

  19. Bruce on said:

    I have tried to install both nvidia and bcm drivers but failed in the end.
    And the system now has been destroied.When lg in the sound disappear and no sound when play mp3.There are three file ‘lib sound swt xml’ which can not be deleted.
    I’d like to experience Debian.There are three .iso .Should I download all of them or just one?

  20. @ Bruce
    Sorry to hear that. If you have a broadband connection I would suggest downloading only the netinstall image (under 200 Mb) and download all other packages during install. This would save you downloading three DVD images, most of which you might never use. The time spend downloading the three ISO files can better be used to install a working system. In my case it took 15 minutes to download the netinstall iso and about an hour to install the default system with graphical interface (2048 down)
    Question: how much experience do you have in working with Linux? It is good for us to know in order to help you along the way.

  21. miksuh. on said:


    “I have tried to install both nvidia and bcm drivers”

    How did you install nvidia drivers? Did you download it from Nvidia webpage or did you install it from Debian Etch non-free repository? It would be best to use packages from non-free repository.

    Just make sure that you have activated the Etch non-free repository. You should have something like this in your /etc/apt/sources.list (what matter is word non-free in the lines)

    deb etch main non-free contrib
    deb-src etch main non-free contrib
    deb etch/updates main non-free contrib
    deb-src etch/updates main non-free contrib

    Now you can install nvidia-drivers using apt-get:

    # apt-get install nvidia-kernel-$(uname -r)
    # apt-get install nvidia-glx nvidia-settings

    Now you need to configure the xorg to use nvidia-drivers. There is two ways to do that: debconf way and manual way. Select second way if you have already manually edited the xorg.conf.

    1) debconf way
    # dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg

    2) Manual way
    Edit /etc/X11/xorg.conf. In the “Module” section, be sure that you have a line:

    Load “glx”

    In the “Device” section for your video card, change the driver to nvidia:

    Driver “nvidia”

  22. davemc on said:

    Debian, being the grandfather of the majority of the major binary based distro’s of today, definitely deserved my best efforts to try so I spent a great deal of time with this install and used every dirty trick I had and then some to finally get up and running. Here’s the thing that worked (and is something I usually have to do with most binary distro’s) – noapic nolapic. I find that binary based distro’s do not run well for a plethora of reasons, but the most telling is the fact that they were compiled on someone elses system which invariably is vastly different from your own and so will cause a multitude of issues that do not occur on source based. That being said, I would consider debian to be outdated in all the area’s that truly count these days, and it will always play third string to the up and coming distro’s of tomorrow for the very fact that Debian does not evolve in tune with the rest of the Linux world. It is a wonderful concept of yesteryear, with a solid base behind it that may one day crumble away if it does not seek a new direction.

    Bold statements, I know, but not without good reasons behind them. For one, the distro’s of today, look towards tomorrow. This is evident in both their design and customization. Although flashy artwork only goes so far, it gets the new user through the door and into the coat room at least. Distro’s like Sabayon, Mandriva and PCLos come to mind here. Next comes the area of usability. Debian defaults to the untailored “no frills” GNOME desktop. I personally hate GNOME and would have appreciated a KDE or XFCE install option rather than GNOME and this was not offered. Not that big a deal I guess, if you dont mind spending the time and effort to install and self customize a new KDE install, and then go back and delete out GNOME while being very careful not to break KDE in the process like I would have to do if I were to stick with Debian. Then comes functionality. Debian does not preinstall my NVIDIA binaries and does not offer Beryl/Compiz on install. I have been spoiled by Sabayon and have become hopelessly addicted to Beryl now as it is THE window manager of choice when it comes to multi-tasking and it is the way of the future for Linux (although I have seen some fairly feeble counter arguments). Uh oh, did I bring up “proprietary” in a Debian thread?.. Yes I did, and this is one dog that will no longer hunt anymore in todays Linux world. The simple fact is that users want all the functionality out of their hardware. Particularly, hardware they shelled out a good deal of additional $$ to get special use out of such as Gaming or graphics design work. If non proprietary drivers cant tackle this (and they cannot) then proprietary it must be. Finally, Debian is not user friendly. I really don’t think i’ll get too many disagreements here. This must change if Debian is to survive and thrive. Why? Because there are so many better alternatives out there now that are driven with a mindset to advance Linux in new directions. There is a now growing segment of the Linux world of new people migrating over from M$ because of Vista that are hungering for a Distro that can fit THEIR needs, and Debian comes woefully short here… For no good reason that I can think of… Debian will miss out on what is probably the greatest opportunity in a long while to win over market share.

    Please dont take my post wrong here, as I do think Debian is a solid distro that has tremendous potential, but lacks a direction for the future. To me, this is truly a saddening thing, and it is not the only grandfather that suffers from this ailment. I truly hope Debian can turn the corner for the new millenia and evolve to meet the needs of tomorrows users. It has a rock solid base for now, and could quite easily regain its place at the top, now and forever.

  23. @ Davemc
    You might find yourself in good company, namely the new Debian Project Leader, Sam Hocevar. This is how he descibed himself and his vision for Debian:

    He wants Debian to be sexier, though I wonder whether he will limit it only to the website and bug tracking system or also extend it to the distribution itself. The last option seems likely since he also wants to attract new kind of contributors to the project like documentation writers and graphists. Being more a writer than anything else I do feel inclined to offer my services to the Debian project.

    By the way, the Debian mirrors do have specific install disks for either KDE or Xfce. The team is ahead of you. 😉

  24. miksuh. on said:

    Here is my sources.list. Note that it uses Finnish Debian-mirror, you might want to use something else 🙂

    deb etch main non-free contrib
    deb-src etch main non-free contrib
    deb etch/updates main non-free contrib
    deb-src etch/updates main non-free contrib

    # Lots of proprietary multimedia codecs etc.
    deb etch main

    # Skype
    deb stable non-free

    # Beryl
    deb etch main
    deb-src etch main

  25. @ Miksuh
    Great! With all the information you have provided it is time for a follow up article. It will have to wait for a few days, but I appreciate all the additional information and instruction.

  26. miksuh. on said:

    One more thing. Secure Apt wants that you add repository signing keys to APT trusted keys ring, if keys are available. There is signing keys for the and beryl repository. You can install those this way:

    # gpg –keyserver –recv-key 1F41B907
    # gpg –armor –export 1F41B907 | apt-key add –

    # gpg –keyserver –recv-key 6A7476EA
    # gpg –armor –export 6A7476EA | apt-key add –

    After that give command:
    # apt-get update

    You should also install this package, because it makes sure key will always be uptodate:
    # apt-get install debian-multimedia-keyring

    Now you should be ready to use and beryl repositories. Skype repository does not have any signing key, so you just need to accept it untrusted.

  27. Andrew Malcolmson on said:

    Re the tips in the previous comment: aptitude is now the preferred front end for software management in Debian as it is under Ubuntu. It can be run in a useful ncurses gui and helps avoid a build-up of ‘cruft’ by removing the automatically installed dependencies of uninstalled programs. I suggest using this instead of apt-get.

  28. miksuh. on said:

    Yep, Eg. this:
    # apt-get install foo

    can be replaced with this:
    # aptitude install foo

  29. I have been using debian for many years. Switched over shortly after Sofrware Landing System and Slackware in that order.

    Davemc made a good point about binary installation distributions being compiled on somebody elses system and not optimized for the particular box you are installing it on.

    Unfortanely, davemc did not make any mention of gentoo which can be completely customized in all respects. Gentoo may be difficult to install but it is still all about choice.

  30. Jan Stedehouder on said:

    @ JimR

    LOL. You didn’t read my “But I use..” post in this weblog yet? But I am most willing to give my opinion on Gentoo.

    Personally I don’t really see the overall speed gain when it first takes a lot more time to install a completely optimized system on my box (provided I get it right the first time and set all the flags properly) versus the time I gain by starting up my box and using the applications. Especially since most distributions have a short lifespan on my box anyway. The exception is my production box that is still running Dapper Drake.

    SabayonLinux is a step in the right direction as far as Gentoo-based distributions are concerned. The complete install procedure takes somewhat more time than other distributions, but not too much longer. One thing that does bother me is the first sync of the portage tree. It has taken me more time to do that than to install SabayonLinux in the first place. From that point on you do get applications that compile against your system (again taking more time than for instance downloading and installing via Synaptic).

    Gentoo is nice when you want to learn the various parts of Linux and make most of the choices yourself. In that sense it steps in the legacy of Linux from Scratch. There is a place for that kind of distributions, but in the end it is not about installing and managing your distribution. It is about using a computer from day to day with the best software packages available. And from that perspective other factors play their part. The fact that someone’s distributions is binary installed or compiled from source…. let’s say it doesn’t keep me awake at night ;-). But thank you for the suggestion, Linux is about choice.

  31. I have been using Etch/4.0 for the last year,It is much faster than Feisty,I have installed Mplayer,vlc player,skype,FrostWire,opera 9.2,I feel Debian is well on the way to being a great “end user’ desktop enviroment,The slower release cycle=stability,Is that so bad??If I want to run sid I simply install Sidux,Fast rock solid and up to the minute,Why settle for a spin off “Ubuntu” when the original is just so easy (*_*)

  32. davemc on said:

    @JimR and Jan.

    Just thought you both might be interested to know that Sabayon also has a binary package installer called “binmerge”, used in the same way as “emerge” which uses a different type of mirror… So you have the choice to either compile from source or binary.

    Btw, I am going to give Debian as honest a try as I can so it will remain on my system for some time yet while I try to get it configured to my liking… And then well see! But for me now, after using Sabayon for the last few months, everything else just seems to be a step in the wrong direction. 🙂

  33. Pingback: » Debian 4.0 (Etch) ute nu

  34. John Pilfer on said:

    Quick run-down on how to use aptitude’s interface (of course, you’re also able to use it like apt-get, all the commands match, like “aptitude install XYZ”, etc.):

  35. bal0 on said:

    davemc and Jimr: Did you ever heard about chroot building?! … “binary based not as good as”… omg, please stop whining about things where you dont have a clue about.

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