Updated: February 28, 2010
Debian is one of the more important Linux distributions. Without Debian, we would probably not have Ubuntu or APT and Linux desktop would still be a dream. And it just happens that I never gave it a proper review, until now.
Time to do that. Naturally, I will not be reviewing Debian as any old distro. It has its special place alongside RedHat (CentOS). In other words, it's not a toy, it's a serious, somber tool for power users who cherish uttermost stability as the main feature in their operating system, with usability taking the humble second place. Plus, there's the free software idea, which might also complicate things a little. Don't expect Debian to run after you like a favorite canine. It's the other way around.
But I'm rushing ahead of myself. Whether Debian works or not, it's something we will yet have to discover in this review. It will definitely not be Ubuntu. But it won't be Gentoo either. Maybe something in between. And how well does it compare to CentOS? Follow me, and discover my adventures with Debian. Oh, you must praise me for the splendid choice of a title. Only a true genius could choose something like that.
Debian comes in many shapes and forms. You can download the entire repo, worth several DVDs and a small library of CDs. You can also download a much smaller netinst image, which will install only the base system and then grab the rest from the Web. Then, you have the choice of all kinds of protocols, HTTP, FTP, Torrents, Jigdo.
Then, you have the different branches. There's stable, unstable and testing. Stable means well-tested software. Unstable means continuously updated and developed software with potentially many bugs and glitches. Testing is somewhere in between.
For example, Ubuntu normally build their releases off the Unstable (sid) tree. However, for the upcoming 10.04 Lynx Long Term Support (LTS) release, they decided to get a little more conservative and try the Testing branch (squeeze). In this review, I chose the Stable release, called Debian 5.03 Lenny. I tried both the net install and the CD image. Apart from the package installation, which takes longer when using the net option and requires an Internet connection, it's all the same.
Unfortunately, Debian does not have a live CD. This means you will discover what it can do only after the system has been committed to the hard disk. Prompted by a rather simple, non-presumptuous and yet elegant GRUB menu, I chose the Graphical Install.
You will be guided through a fairly simple, somewhat tedious installation, answering all kinds of questions. Compared to Ubuntu, Debian does ask more, but it also gives you more freedom when it comes to installing different software.
This is an interesting bit. Debian offers you quite a bit of flexibility here, including LVM and encrypted LVM, akin to CentOS.
What I liked about it, the partitioning wizard recommended several partitioning options, including a simple setup for beginners, an intermediate choice with a separate /home partition or a combination of separate /home, /usr, /var, and /tmp for power users.
Final layout that I chose:
Debian separates root from user, in the classic Linux style.
Before you install your system, you can setup the package manager, including the country mirror and the proxy, if needed.
After the base packages are installed, you will be able to select what kind of system you want to configure, including desktop, laptop and most common services. Again, this is very similar to what RedHat family offers.
If you're installing from the CD, the system will ask you to confirm your installation choice and then start copying the packages onto the disk.
If you're using netinst, you will begin downloading from the repository. I've noticed the download process is rather delicate; it failed twice, both times after retrieving a corrupt package.
Oh yes, any time you change your mind about any one of the steps you've just done, you can go back and reconfigure them. For example, you can choose what kind of packages you want installed. You can select non-free software and ask for both security and functionality updates.
The last step is to install the bootloader and reboot.
Installation on a laptop
The installation on T42 was slightly different than the experience above. First, I could not go for netinst, because I was not sure if I were going to have networking enabled. Indeed, after scanning the hardware, Debian notified me that it did not have a driver for my Wireless card and asked for ip2200-bss.fw file to be loaded from an external device.
I downloaded the firmware from the official site, placed it on a FAT32-formatted USB stick and tried to get it installed. Debian scanned the device, but it was unable to locate the firmware and automatically initiate the Wireless card. I left this for after the installation.
Now comes the real test. Debian GRUB menu after the installation is much uglier than the pre-install choice. You have the simplest white-blue thingie. But no matter.
The login menu, however, is soft, round and inviting.
Debian pulled a nasty trick and suffered from an oops when loading, similar to what Fedora occasionally does. This was a big surprise, since stability is the hallmark of Debian stable releases, and a stable release this was! Well, I submitted the crash and went on with the exploration.
Debian desktop is simple, spartan, functional, a classic Gnome through and through that you can pimpify in the matter of minutes. Like Fedora, it hides away the Shutdown button in the System menu and the Nautilus opens in the silly single-window mode.
Other than that, it's a decent package and looks quite inviting. The fonts and colors are soft. It's a sensible visual experience, although the young and furious might find it a little boring. But we'll talk about Debian beautification soon.
Debian prides itself in being well aligned with the FOSS philosophy, so you should expect mostly free software. For instance, there's no Firefox; instead, you get Iceweasel.
However, Iceweasel, combined with quite a few non-free plugins does a really outstanding job at being a great, Jack-o'-All-Trades browser, which you will soon discover.
The basic collection of programs included with the one CD installation is a very interesting. Rich, varied, well balanced, and quite useful. For example, you get GIMP, Totem, Cheese, Rhythmbox, and the full OpenOffice suite, albeit at an older version 2.4.
Then, there's Ekiga telephony and Pidgin multi-protocol IM, Liferea RSS feeder, and a handful of system tools and utilities that make Debian a well-equipped Swiss knife. Combined with the power and speed of Synaptic/APT, you will be enjoying yourself.
Now, what about the fancy stuff for normal people, like music, Flash, all kinds of proprietary tricks? Not worry, Debian does not disappoint here. Magic words: non-free software.
Yes, believe it or not, Flash is included, if you choose to use the non-free repos, too. It is an outdated, Flash 9 version, but it's there, nonetheless.
MP3 and Windows video worked quite well. What more, Iceweasel comes with a handful of multimedia plugins, which let you play all sorts of media formats inside your browser. For instance, you have plugins for RealPlayer, Flash, iTunes, and Totem. Very handy.
And here's my usual audio video repertoire in action:
There's not much to say, except praise the magic powers of APT.
Look & feel
Making Debian look posh and modern is very simple. You merely need to fiddle a little with icons, fonts size, some windows decorations, and choose a smart, elegant, crisp wallpaper. Here's what I did, after a few short minutes of experimentation:
Proxy worked as expected, even during the installation, which is nice. Samba sharing works well, although you have to manually configure the sharing. It's clearly evident where Ubuntu gets its inspiration from and then builds on it.
Performance was also very good. Debian is very fast and nimble. Memory consumption was incredibly low, at only about 90MB idle. This is the lowest figure I've encountered yet for any Linux distribution.
On my T42, not all was perfect. The one big woe was the networking. Not only was my Wireless card out of action, so was the wired one. I could not get it up and running, no matter what. This was a real disappointment, as I was hoping to get the firmware installed and then enjoyed a Debian-powered laptop. Alas, this was not meant to be.
I could probably sort the problem with a bit more of hacking, but that's not the point. Out of the box, laptop usage can be improved. Even though this is somewhat of a disappointment, since Lenny comes with a fairly new kernel.
Laptop modes (suspend & hibernate)
On the other hand, laptop modes worked great. This only shows that Ubuntu releases are too frequent and not validated well enough, considering the suspend & hibernate problems I've seen in the last several editions, all of which are running a kernel newer than one in Debian Lenny.
Comparison to CentOS
Not sure if this is fair or called for, but why not. Both these distributions are mainly intended for patient, serious power users, who do not wish to fiddle with hacks and bugs and want their system to work.
When it comes to functionality out of the box, Debian has an edge in desktop features. Plus, it's faster and the package management is superior. Debian is also more forgiving for NTFS users and proxy works without any glitches.
However, CentOS offers a better networking experience and is more stable, even though it uses an older kernel. While Debian hiccuped with a kernel oops, CentOS has always run for me without a single flaw. And then, there's the live CD, which is a real boon. CentOS also has a better long-term support.
If I had to choose one, CentOS remains the server box, Debian would be a desktop choice, sans any Wireless. But then, grab a distro like Scientific Linux, which adds all the little missing bits into operating system, and the battle turns fierce once more.
March 1, small update: Several readers emailed me regarding Debian live CD functionality. I did indeed miss this one, so here's a correction. You can find Debian live images at the link below, including Gnome, KDE, Xfce, and LXDE desktops.
Another, unofficial source is live.debian.net. I'm not sure about this website as I have never used it, but it may come handy. However, the download links at the site point back to the above source, so it's pretty much the same thing. Thanks to all who emailed me about this. I appreciate it.
Debian is a very decent choice. It's a little conservative, but it works well and compensates the would-be bad stuff with a sense of old, acquired quality. If not for the network issues on my laptop, it would really have been great.
Enabling non-free repositories really opens up the palette of choices, adding color and spice to the Debian experience and turning a spartan Server-oriented distribution into a fairly adequate desktop system. The kernel oops is somewhat surprising, but it was a one-time error that did not come back since.
I like Debian. It's not for everyone, especially not new users, who will benefit more from the mainstream releases like Ubuntu or Mandriva. For power users, Debian makes quite a bit of sense. It's robust, fast, fairly stable, you don't get any surprises in between releases, and you can focus on productivity. If you want the little perks, there are there, too, including instant messaging, VoIP, web camera, multimedia support, and other stuff you would normally get from any desktop-oriented system. In a way, it's the best of both worlds. That would be all for today. Dedo did Debian. Now, it's your turn to start using Debian or send me emails, either praising me or berating my findings.