I've worked with a handful of the Debian developers fixing or updating packages and have found them to be great, helpful people. (Yes, I'm leading up to a "but".) But, up to this point, I've never managed to get a stable release of Debian GNU/Linux to install and run on my hardware. When each new stable release ships, I grab a copy and give it a whirl and, each time, I run into an installer cash, failure to boot or some key component isn't recognized. It's a condition I've found puzzling as several other distros have worked successfully on the same equipment, including Debian-based projects, such as KNOPPIX and Ubuntu. With the release of Debian 6.0 I went into my trial hoping this would be the release to break my streak of bad luck.
Debian GNU/Linux 6.0 "Squeeze" contains approximately 29,000 software packages and fills several CDs/DVDs. To install Debian we don't need all of the discs; typically we just need the first disc of the set. Users with fast and reliable Internet connections have the option of grabbing smaller net-install CDs. Additionally the project maintains a list of disc vendors for people who have slow connections or who wish to contribute funds to the Debian project. I opted to download Debian on a DVD, a heavy ISO of 4.4 GB. While waiting for my download to complete I took the opportunity to look over the project's new website. Debian has, in the past, taken some flak for having a website which looks like it was developed with the Lynx web browser in mind. While the new design does still largely favour columns of black text on a plain white background, the layout has been greatly improved. I found navigation much more intuitive and the site map at the bottom of the screen makes accessing information faster. The site is still geared toward developers and Linux enthusiasts and the documentation assumes we already have a level of comfort with Linux.
Looking through the release notes we find that, aside from including a lot of new packages, there have been some important changes behind the scenes since the project's last stable release. For instance, support has been dropped for the HP PA-RISC, Alpha and ARM architectures. The sub-project of porting GNU's tools onto the FreeBSD kernel is now officially a part of the release. As we read a few weeks back the Debian team has removed firmware blobs from their Linux kernel and moved those pieces of firmware to their non-free repository. This means once Debian is installed we can later install the firmware, but it won't be available out of the box. "Squeeze" also includes support for LDAP authentication.
Installation and first boot
Enough background information, let's see how Debian "Squeeze", "the universal operating system," works. The install DVD begins by presenting us with a boot menu which allows us to launch either a text installer or graphical installer, perform an expert install, run an automated install or enter into rescue mode. Given that I was reviewing Debian from desktop perspective I opted for the graphical installer. The Debian GUI installer uses a simple layout where we are typically asked for one small piece of information per page. The appearance is a bit crude, similar to the Red Hat installer of a decade ago. We're walked through selecting our preferred language, choosing our global location and a keyboard layout. We provide a hostname for the machine and enter a network name. We're prompted for a root password and then we're walked through screens to create a regular user account.
The installer asks us to provide our time zone, which is helpfully narrowed down for us based on the location we picked earlier. Next up is disk partitioning and here the Debian installer stands out with its own style. We're given the chance to manually partition the disk or have the installer guide us through plain partitions, a LVM layout or an encrypted LVM layout. I tried both guided and manual options and found both to be functional, but quite awkward. Where installers for Fedora and Ubuntu use one main partition layout screen and a pop-up to configure a specific partition, Debian uses multiple screens to walk the user through options for each partition. This especially makes manual partitioning a longer process than it would usually be. However, as I mentioned, it does work and there are a wide variety of Linux partition types from which to choose.
After we're done partitioning the disk, the installer copies over the base system from the DVD. We're then asked if we'd like to make use of additional discs, which I did not. We're asked if we'd like to use the online repositories during the install to make sure we're up to date. I chose "no", yet still had to wait while the installer tried to connect to various Debian repositories and, finally, displayed an error message saying the Volatile repository wasn't available. Next up the installer asks if we'd be willing to submit package popularity information to Debian. Here, again, I selected "no" and had to wait while the installer told me it was installing the popularity software. (I checked post-install and found the popularity software had not really been installed.) The last two steps are selecting which package groups we would like to install, most of which are for servers. I stuck with the graphical desktop environment package and, on my laptop, a package group plainly called "Laptop". The last step is to confirm we want to install GRUB. To install the desktop software took about half an hour on my test machines and then I was asked to remove the DVD and reboot.
Firing up "Squeeze" for the first time I was briefly presented with a GRUB 2 boot menu and then Debian loads. The boot process was fairly short and concluded by leaving me at a graphical login screen. GNOME (version 2.30) was the only desktop environment installed and I logged in to find a screen populated with a few navigation icons and a menu bar across the top of the screen. The GNOME task switcher sat at the bottom of the display and the wallpaper was a dark sky populated with stars. The theme for menus and icons is plain and make the desktop look older than the software really is. Upon logging in one of the first things I did was to open the Synaptic package manager (more on package management later) and tried to refresh the package list. Synaptic popped up an error message telling me it couldn't update my package list and requested I provide it with DVD 1. Apparently the installer leaves the installation disc as a package source and APT won't work around it when the disc is removed. After I manually removed my disc drive from the source list, Synaptic was able to connect to Debian's mirrors and update my list of available software.
Software and package management
Debian has a huge selection of software in its repositories, but the default install is fairly standard. Epiphany is the distro's default web browser and Iceweasel 3.5.16 (Debian's de-branded Firefox) is also available. We're given the Evolution e-mail client, the Empathy instant messaging client and the Ekiga phone software. OpenOffice 3.2 is installed for us, as is the GIMP and the Transmission BitTorrent client. The Shotwell photo manager is included in the application menu, as is Tomboy Notes and a standard grouping of GNOME games. There is a CD ripper, the Rhythmbox music player, a video player and the Cheese webcam application. Debian includes some accessibility tools, including an on-screen keyboard and screen reader. To go along with the GNOME environment, Debian includes the GConf configuration editor and makes it easy to find. There's the usual set of GNOME configuration tools to adjust the look & feel of the desktop, a user manager, a utility for handling system services and a printer manager. In the background Debian provides codecs for playing popular media formats, including MP3 audio files.
Debian tries to provide users with strictly free software solutions and that choice shows up in some of the available software. For instance, "Squeeze" comes with Gnash in place of Flash. I've found that it works on some sites, but the version included in Debian 6.0 won't play YouTube videos. GNU's Java is included in place of Sun's/Oracle's Java. For users who prefer non-libre Flash and Sun's flavour of Java, those packages are available in Debian's repositories. Considering Debian's strong focus on developers I was a bit surprised not to find the GNU Compiler Collection pre-installed on the system. All of this software sits on top of the 2.6.32 version of the Linux kernel. Or, more specifically, a libre variant of the Linux kernel as some firmware has been moved to Debian's non-free repository. These pieces of firmware can be added to the system via the project's firmware-linux package. One of the few items I felt was missing from the default install was a graphical firewall application. Debian runs a mail transfer agent service out of the box which I suspect most desktop users will not require.
In addition to the APT family of command-line tools, Debian has two graphical package managers, Synaptic and Software Centre. Synaptic will probably be familiar to anyone who uses the Debian family of distributions. It's a powerful, responsive program and works very well. Synaptic's appearance and options may put off novice users and, for them, there's the Software Centre. This second GUI package manager takes a simplified approach, presenting software in easy-to-understand categories and boiling down the options to essentially "Install" and "Remove". I found Software Centre also works quite well and had no serious problems with it. I did run into an odd quirk where if I closed Software Centre it would leave an icon in the system tray letting me know the application was continuing to work. When I clicked on the icon to restore the Software Centre window, the Synaptic application was launched instead. It's an approach I think likely to confuse people. Aside from the main package managers there is also a small update tool. At the time of writing no updated packages have appeared in Debian's repositories and I've been unable to test the update tool.
I began my experiment with "Squeeze" on my HP laptop (dual-core 2 GHz CPU, 3 GB of RAM, Intel video card). The operating system performed well on my laptop, setting my screen to a suitable resolution, audio worked without any trouble and my touchpad was properly picked up. My Intel wireless card was not handled out of the box. Moving to my desktop machine (2.5 GHz CPU, 2 GB of RAM, NVIDIA video card) I felt the desktop was slightly more responsive. Again, my desktop was set to the appropriate resolution, though I did have to fiddle with the audio controls a bit to get sound from my speakers. On both machines boot up times were short and the desktop was snappy. When run in a virtual environment I found Debian could login and perform basic functions with 128 MB of RAM, though with those limited resources the desktop lagged a lot. For common tasks, such as web browsing, listening to music and document writing I found 512 MB was typically enough memory. A fresh install of Debian from the DVD used about 3 GB of disk space, making Debian unusual in that the default install actually required less space than the ISO I downloaded.
When talking about Debian and what the project brings to the table I think it's important to separate the Debian infrastructure from the released distribution. With "Squeeze" now out in the wild a lot of talk has been going on debating whether Debian is relevant, whether it's still useful in the face of more recent distributions, such as Ubuntu and Linux Mint. Of course projects like Ubuntu, Knoppix, MEPIS and many others are based on Debian packages. Debian is the parent (and grandparent) of dozens of active distros and without the Debian infrastructure those projects wouldn't exist or would, at least, be a lot poorer. I'm of the opinion Debian has one of the best bug trackers in the open source ecosystem, their repositories are treasure troves of software and they have good documentation to back up the whole thing. Debian has an open approach and their team is committed to free and open source software.
But how does their 6.0 release measure up? My first reaction to Debian's latest was one of disappointment. The graphical installer feels like it's about ten years behind the other big-name distributions, the issue with the package manager giving up when it couldn't find the installation DVD struck me as something which shouldn't have made it through testing. Most of my first day was a series of these sorts of little issues which I'd expect from beta software, not from a distro that had been in feature freeze for months. And that's why this review is appearing two weeks after the official release, because after such a poor start I wanted to give the distro a chance to win me over. After a few days Debian's virtues did shine through. For instance, the project's implementation of GNOME is very light, putting the usually heavy desktop environment about on par with the mid-weight Xfce. The system is fast and responsive, boot times are quick and the presented software is stable without being terribly out of date. Apart from the early quirks with the package managers, adding and removing software went smoothly.
Of course there's a wealth of software available and, with the non-free repository added, I found everything I wanted. I did come to appreciate Debian "Squeeze", but not to the point where I'd recommend it to people. This may sound a bit odd, but I'm of the opinion Debian isn't one of the better Debian-based distributions. People looking for a libre distribution with Debian's strengths can find what they're looking for in Trisquel, users who want a polished Debian where everything works out of the box might try Mint (which comes in a Debian flavour). People who want to benefit from Debian's low-resource nature can get up and running easier and faster with Saline. Administrators looking for a server distro can get up and running quickly with Ubuntu's server edition, enjoy five years of updates, have better ISV support and have the option of buying commercial support from the vendor. Each of these projects stand on the shoulders of the Debian giant, but in doing so they are able to give a more specialized, more polished experience to the user. I found that, once it was up and running, Debian was all very satisfactory -- stable, useful, fast, accessible -- but by being so general, so universal, I felt Squeeze didn't excel at anything.
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