Updated: March 17, 2011
Writing about Debian is not a simple thing. You know it's the giant that has spawned pretty much every other distro out there. It's almost like a Roman Empire, almost a taboo. Furthermore, it's not a desktop distro per se. It's more sort of a template you use to build your platform. It's also a SOHO server distro, therefore it more fits into the business category, comparable to CentOS and similar.
Apart from RedHat 6, Debian 6 was the most awaited thing since Polio vaccine. It took ages to brew, and when it flowed, it was ... well. You will discover that in today's review. As always, I'll give you a human perspective on what is ultimately the geekdom singularity, the one distro that is holier than anything else.
I was also unsure what installation option to choose, as there are so many. Debian has installer CDs and DVDs, the minimal net install that requires an Internet connection, and there are even live versions, which you let you test before you choose.
I went for the first CD of the unending bunch of Debian packages. This meant no live session. Furthermore, Debian is all about FOSS, so there was a good chance some of my proprietary software might not be available until after the installation, if then. OK, enough excuses, let's make a scene. Tested: Debian 6 Squeeze, stable.
If you take a look at Debian 5 installation and the latest one, there is absolutely no difference. Nothing has changed. The installer has four million steps, it's clunky and too detailed. The installation is virtually impossible if you are not a skilled and patient user. The lack of progress is mind-boggling. Why would you not adapt the installation to modern standards, make it a little more reasonable, a little easier?
If you want to install Debian without a network, you will hit a chain of problems. Without network, you won't be able to configure your repositories, including third-party and proprietary stuff. Without those, there's a good chance some of your hardware won't work, plus you won't have codecs for most of the media out there, including Flash and MP3. Worst of all, if you happen to be using a Wireless card that normally comes with closed-source firmware, you won't be able to get it running without quite a bit of extra effort. On a laptop, this is a showstopper.
Indeed, one of the steps in the installation procedure was the network configuration. Debian informed me it did not have the non-free for some of my hardware and asked me to load them onto an external device.
Ideology aside, this is a big problem. One, my laptop is five years old, so finding firmware for its devices might not be easy. Second, to get Debian to properly configure the network card, I had to prowl about the Web on another computer, hunt for the right firmware, copy it to an external device, plug this thing into my laptop, mount the device manually, then hope for the best. And I did. Supposedly, it worked. But there was no network auto-configuration. I had to do it myself, old school style and annoying.
Debian was not able to identify my routers. I had to manually type one of them in. But then, things only got worse. Debian asked me for the WEP key. That's right. Not WPA, WEP! In the modern age of routers that can massage you while you download pr0n, Debian asks for WEP. Right.
Now, even if you're willing to go to absolutely unjustified extent of manually configuring your network with the same joy and ease that was prevalent in Year 1762, the system won't really let you make progress, because it asks for steam-powered technology. So my network was nyet. OK, let's continue with the installation.
The partition setup was particularly annoying. If you recall my Bayanihan review just a few weeks ago, the two are identical. Not bad, except Kalumbata is based on Debian 5, which was released a century ago. The lack of change may please the veterans, but it is absolutely pointless. The more clicks there are - the more chance for error. The more annoyed you are, the faster you skip menus, paying less attention to critical little details that could potentially ruin your machine.
After seven thousand clicks during the partition setup, the system finally started copying files and took a merry one hour to do that, three to four times more than a typical contemporary distro.
Eventually, Debian completed the installation. The dual-boot configuration with Windows 7 worked fine. Like Ubuntu, Debian now uses GRUB2. Apart from the horrible network setup, there were no other major issues.
This section is terribly short, I'm afraid. Debian booted quickly and presented me with a simple, spartan desktop. As expected, my network devices were dormant, waiting for a magical revival.
As always, I begin with a desktop screenshot. Not a simple deal, when you got no network to easily transfer files, but no matter. I powered up the screenshot utility, expecting it to rise and shine and illuminate happy pixels for me. I got this lovely message:
I had to use a digital camera to capture this stellar fail. No network, no screenshot utility, it's a reality not worth living in. At this point, I just gave up. That was enough pain for one afternoon. Oh wait, sorry, one last picture, the mighty lack of network; I was so utterly annoyed that even my camera images came out ugly. Bye, bye.
Try to follow my train of thought. If any modern distro worth 700MB of data can boot from live CD, make all my hardware work flawlessly, offer a seamless experience full of bright colors and merry tunes as well as enrich my productivity with a wide range of useful programs, why can't Debian, too?
What is the point of having a millennium-long development cycle only to churn out a product that merely has a higher kernel major and little else besides? OK, so now I'm booting 2.6 whatever, big deal, no one cares. It's been a while since Debian 5 came out, and yet, it was rather useful. Now, you expect version 6 to be at least that good. And possibly include some of the technology changes that have happened since. Instead, Debian 6 Squeeze is even less usable than its predecessor, which makes it all the worse.
Now stability ... not having a screenshot utility is NOT stability. Furthermore, stability does not mean freezing in place, either. RedHat 6 is a big change, but it manages to be modern and relevant and stable. Speaking of stability, I had a kernel crash in Debian 5, so this whole idea of rock-solidness is a bit overplayed.
If you ask me, you're better off with the fifth generation of either Debian or CentOS than you're with Squeeze. Sounds weird, but that's how it is. You may also want to try the latest edition of Scientific Linux, which aims to be friendly and supported unto eternity. There's also going to be a new CentOS release sometime soon, so stay tuned. But remember, this is not a competition. Debian 6 simply doesn't work.
Debian 6 is a great disappointment, for me. It's totally out of place in the modern era. It could make sense for purists and ideologists, people who hate proprietary software or have this deep inner need to waste time configuring their machines, but for the absolute majority of ordinary and pragmatic users, who see operating systems as a means and not an end, this is a distro you really don't want.P.S. Another interesting review you may want to read is the DistroWatch Weekly 393 Feature Story by Jesse Smith.