Debian as a desktop system

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Debian is well respected as a stable server distribution, and most of the reviews focus on aspects appropriate to server deployments. This article covers Debian on the desktop. It is not a step by step tutorial, but focuses on the highlights of the recent Etch release.

An important difference between Debian Etch and its previous releases is its ease of use as a desktop operating system. Ubuntu has been in the limelight recently, but it’s important to remember that Ubuntu is based on Debian, and every once in a while it’s important to return to a project’s roots. Debian was the first distribution to have a social contract with its users and its full name is Debian GNU/Linux, a sign of respect and acknowledgment towards the GNU foundation.

I’ve been running Etch on my laptop very successfully and I’m happy to report that previous pain points, such as wireless networking, “just work" on my Dell laptop. In addition to this new polish, a graphical installer and support for the AMD64 architecture are both new to Debian Etch. Also included are many favorite free software Java packages such as Ant and Tomcat into the main package repositories.

Debian has the perception of being a “geek" distribution, but I would make the opposite argument. It is in fact inclusive, taking great pride in the number of hardware architectures it supports.

Debian GNU/Linux was the first distribution to include a social contract

Etch contains reasonably up to date core packages. Here are some of the more notable ones:

  • Xorg 7
  • GNOME 2.14 with bits from 2.16
  • IceWeasel 2.x and IceDove 1.x
  • 2

Iceweasel is Firefox

Iceweasel is a re-branded Mozilla Firefox browser. This was done by Debian in order to comply with a demand from the Mozilla foundation that they either drop the Firefox name and media (icons, etc.) or comply with policies Debian found unacceptable.


I won’t cover every screen of the installation, only a small sample to demonstrate the new installer. I’ll then cover what I consider to be the most important steps of the installation, selecting and configuring the apt mirrors.

The beginning of the installation process is more or less similar to that of Sarge with two main exceptions: the installer (which is new) and the default kernel (now the 2.6 kernel, where you previously had to enter linux26 at the boot prompt to install the newer kernel).

When the boot loader prompts you (figure 1), enter installgui and hit Enter to start the graphical installation. Or, if you prefer to work the older text based installer, simply hit Enter.

Figure 1: Etch Boot ManagerFigure 1: Etch Boot Manager

Here are the installation steps in rough order. Items in parenthesis are actions the installer performs automatically. I have also provided screenshots as indicated in the steps to provide a more detailed view.

  1. Choose Language
  2. Choose Country or Territory
  3. Choose Keymap
  4. (Hardware Auto detection, Network Auto Configuration via DHCP...etc...)
  5. Enter Host name
  6. Enter domain name
  7. (Disk partition auto detection)
  8. Partition Disks, note the only way to setup encrypted LVM it use the GUI
  9. Select Physical Disk
  10. Partitioning Scheme
  11. Partition confirmation
  12. Write to disk
  13. (Writing partitions to disk)
  14. Select Time Zone
  15. Set root password
  16. Setup user account
  17. (Installation of base system)
  18. Configure the package manager, use a network mirror (figure 2)
  19. Select the Debian Archive mirror country (figure 3)
  20. Select the Debian Archive mirror within that country
  21. Configure HTTP proxy information
  22. Configure popularity-contest
  23. Software Select (figure 4)
  24. (Installs selected software packages)
  25. Select Resolution for xserver-xorg configuration (figure 5)
  26. Install GRUB as default boot loader
  27. Installation complete
Figure 2: Etch Network Mirror Confirmation. The first of several screens that configure the package management utility apt is the one confirming whether or not you choose to use a network mirror to download and install packages from. Select “yesFigure 2: Etch Network Mirror Confirmation. The first of several screens that configure the package management utility apt is the one confirming whether or not you choose to use a network mirror to download and install packages from. Select “yes"
Figure 3: Etch Network Mirror Country Selection. This screen prompts you to select the Debian Mirror archive that is closest to you. In my case, I chose “United StatesFigure 3: Etch Network Mirror Country Selection. This screen prompts you to select the Debian Mirror archive that is closest to you. In my case, I chose “United States"
Figure 4: Etch Boot Manager. The software selection screen offers you a selection of packages to choose from. I’m running Etch on a laptop so I elected to install the “DesktopFigure 4: Etch Boot Manager. The software selection screen offers you a selection of packages to choose from. I’m running Etch on a laptop so I elected to install the “Desktop", “Laptop" and “Standard system". This was enough to install a reasonable desktop system, which I could then tweak by installing other packages. Choose whatever you feel is appropriate to your current setup
Figure 5: The Etch installer does a good job of auto-detecting your hardware—simply select your monitor resolution and hit Enter!Figure 5: The Etch installer does a good job of auto-detecting your hardware—simply select your monitor resolution and hit Enter!

The desktop

The Etch installer does a good job of auto-configuring Xorg and picking sane defaults. After the installation was complete, I was presented with a GNOME login screen. Out of the box, I discovered Etch would recognize an iPod when plugged in, detect my network printer almost automatically and allow me to do pretty much everything I needed to do. There were a few extra packages I needed to install, but Synaptic and apt are a mean pair and make this a breeze.

I really like this zen-like approach to setting up a new system. During the software selection step of the installer I simply checked that I wanted both the “desktop" and “laptop" and voila, I had a fully functioning Debian desktop.

Minutes into my first boot, I hooked up my iPod via a USB cable and Etch detected it, mounted it, made it available under the “Computer" and launched the default application associated with it (figure 6). This is on par with other alleged “plug and play" systems. While going into detail about how to manage iPods on Etch is out of the scope of this article, I highly recommend reading “Managing your iPod without iTunes" by Jon Peck. I will say I ended up using Amarok to manage my iPod after finding Banshee unusable, but that is a problem with Banshee and not Debian specific.

Figure 6: iPod, plug and play, Debian styleFigure 6: iPod, plug and play, Debian style

In my opinion this was a pretty solid start. There were still a few things missing—some applications that I’ve been meaning to play around with. In previous incarnations of Debian I would simply crack open a shell, possibly do an apt-cache search if I didn’t remember the package name, and then apt-get install it. That was until I discovered that beyond simply installing software, Synaptic is a great tool for discovering new software I didn’t know about.

Synaptic & apt

The Synaptic front end to apt has become the de facto standard, included by default in both Debian Etch and Debian derivatives such as Ubuntu.

apt is Debian’s package management tool. There are a number of front ends to it, namely Synaptic which I am about to cover. It is obviously possible to perform a wide number of operations with the apt-* tools such as apt-get and apt-cache search, but Synaptic is really the way to go. I’m only going to cover a few common operations that should be enough to get you on your way installing packages.

The first thing to do is clean up the package resource list. These are the remote software repositories that apt searches for new packages and updates for currently installed packages. By default the installer includes the CDROM used to install Debian in the sources list, something I’ve always found annoying. The second thing to do is add some extra repositories, such as contrib and non-free. These are repositories that are not included in the general release due to licensing restrictions.

Start by launching Synaptic via the “Desktop" drop down in the top GNOME bar, then selecting “Administration" then selecting “Synaptic Package Manager". Once it’s fired up you should see something like what is shown in figure 7. The first thing to do, as mentioned above is configure how apt looks for new packages. Inside Synaptic select the “Settings" drop down, and then select “Repositories".

Figure 7: Synaptic Package ManagerFigure 7: Synaptic Package Manager

This will open the software preferences editor, which is a nice graphical way of configuring the contents of /etc/apt/sources.list. I selected the “CDROM" entry and deleted it, and then selected both “Binary" and “Source" blocks and clicked “Edit" where I added the contrib and non-free repositories. I needed the non-free repository because the Intel driver for my wireless chip set is released under a “non-free" license. After this installing my wireless drivers was a simple apt-get command, though I obviously was connected via a wired connection. That should be all that’s needed for most people.

Figure 8: apt-get/Sources configurationFigure 8: apt-get/Sources configuration

If you do find you need more or simply want to explore apt directly instead, the main apt configuration file is /etc/apt/sources.list. It configures which apt repositories to use, which version (Etch, Sarge... etc.) and which groups (main, contrib, non-free). It should look something like the following:

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

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

Here are some of the common actions you’ll use with apt:

  • apt-cache search python (Searches repositories for packages with python)
  • apt-get install vim (Installs vim)
  • apt-get remove vim (Removes vim)
  • apt-get clean (Deletes downloaded .deb files)
  • apt-get -t unstable apache2-utils (*) (Installs apache2-utils from unstable repository)
  • dpkg -l (Lists all installed packages)
  • dpkg -i foo.deb (Installs .deb package you manually downloaded)
  • dpkg -L apache2-utils (Lists files owned by package, i.e. those installed by apache2-utils)

(*) Requires a line in /etc/apt/sources.list describing unstable target i.e.:

deb unstable contrib non-free

After configuring the repositories I returned to Synaptic to install a few applications. I selected the “Graphics" group and browsed for Blender—an application I’ve been trying to learn to use in my spare time. I simply selected it, and hit the apply button. Synaptic figured out the dependencies and prompted me to mark them for installation as seen below.

Figure 9: Installing Blender via Synaptic, as easy as clicking yesFigure 9: Installing Blender via Synaptic, as easy as clicking yes

That’s about as simple as it gets, and from there the sky is the limit. My next step was to install the driver for my wireless card, which I briefly cover next.

Wireless networking done right

Though not specifically a Debian innovation, the inclusion, support and integration of the GNOME NetworkManager, along with HAL and Dbus, are part of what makes Debian Etch suitable for the desktop. The GNOME Network Manager describes itself as “pain free" networking, which I’ve found to be very true.

The GNOME NetworkManager makes networking pain free

The Dell laptop I run Etch on comes with the common ipw3945 wireless chipset. The first time I tried getting wireless going it was a huge mess. I had to compile the kernel module, install the daemon, download the firmware separately and place it in the correct location—all this just to recognize the device.

I then had to go about configuring it for use. The two wireless networks I used the most, one at home and the other at work, both used WPA encryption, which means I then had to install wpa-supplicant, and configure it an a variety of ways. I opted to stick everything in /etc/network/interfaces since that’s what I knew best.

This meant I was commenting and uncommenting different blocks depending on which network I was currently supposed to be on. There probably was an easier way that I was just ignorant of, but still...

GNOME’s Network Manager saved me from all of that. On top of that, I find my wireless connection never drops, as it frequently does when I’m running Windows.

The trick, and one that initially caught me off guard, was to remove all the previous wireless configuration from /etc/network/interfaces, and let the NetworkManager auto-detect the wireless networks. I had become so accustomed to tweaking the interfaces file, that I actually messed up the network manager by continuing to tweak it. This really takes the “desktop" aspects of Debian to the next level, something as simple as wireless network, which has plagued me for so long, is now resolved.

Once the driver was installed, I simply selected my wireless network from the GNOME Network Manager in figure 10.

Figure 10: Wireless network selection with the GNOME Network ManagerFigure 10: Wireless network selection with the GNOME Network Manager

It then prompted me for the WPA passphrase that I configured to access the network (figure 11). I entered it and—voila!—wireless networking done right.

Figure 11: Wireless passphraseFigure 11: Wireless passphrase

Printing also done right

I have an HP Photosmart 2610 and getting it to work was, well painless. Another FSM article, Printing with Ubuntu, by Mark Rais, applies directly to Etch as well and is pretty much all that was required. I used Synaptic to install hpoj (the HP drivers), which prompted me for various settings during the installation and were easy enough. Then I simply clicked on “Desktop→Administration→Printing→New Printer" there was an option to use a pre-detected printer and my network printer was indeed listed. I selected it and hit “Yes" a couple of times, and voila, I was printing from Etch. The ease of this setup may be an artifact of the printer model I have being well supported so your mileage may vary. So far so good for a desktop experience.


Automatix is a package that gained popularity by providing post-installation polish to Ubuntu by installing applications that weren’t included in the repositories. It can be used to install many proprietary applications users from other operating systems may be used to having such as Macromedia Flash, and Real Player, as well as codecs for Windows media files. As of April 2007, it also runs on Debian Etch, and as such I’m going to briefly cover some of the packages Automatix can install that will spruce up your Debian Desktop.

Automatix can be downloaded from the website.

Automatix works by using Debian’s own package manager, apt, to download packages from either the official Debian repositories, or other third party repositories and when applicable configures the system appropriately.

After the installation you should be able to start “Automatix via Applications→System Tools→Automatix". It will prompt you with a warning stating that it is against the law to install the DVD decryption codecs in certain countries. Obviously readers should obey their local laws. After hitting “Yes" you should be presented with the following screen.

Figure 12: Automatix landingFigure 12: Automatix landing

The options most relevant to any desktop system are under “Codecs and Plugins" and “Media Players and Editors". In the codecs section, I would recommend installing everything you are legally able to, and under players the most interesting applications I would recommend are: Songbird, Democracy Player, and Real Player.

Songbird is a particularly interesting application, based on XulRunner the runtime environment that powers Firefox and Thunderbird.

Some people make take offense to proprietary applications on a GNU/Linux desktop system—but I’m a pragmatist, and I like my media.

Things to look forward to in Debian

Etch is the first Debian release to natively support the AMD64 platform and take a more inclusive stance towards free software Java packages. It will be interesting to see how this evolves.

Another interesting development is Ian Murdock, joining Sun Microsystems, and the announcement of project “Indiana". I think it’s highly likely we are going to see Debian’s package management system included in the next Solaris release (Solaris 11).


I feel that Debian Etch is as good on the desktop as it is on the server. It has a long rich history, a strong community, is amazingly stable and is a great fit for both my servers and my laptop. I urge everyone to give it a go on the desktop.


The installer

Printing in Ubuntu—published in Free Software Magazine

Ian Murdock joins Sun—article

Interview with Murdock



diego1116's picture

Telling new users to add any "unstable" repository (even just contrib and non-free sections) without teaching them the differences of stable/testing/unstable and how to set the default release is very dangerous.

Mixing Debian releases is quite tricky and doing it without proper knowledge will lead to system breakage very soon.

For a better understanding of this issue, visit the howto section of Debian Forums:

Besides that, your review is very positive and I liked it a lot.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

"Telling new users to add any "unstable" repository (even just contrib and non-free sections)"

I'm not sure if you mean something like this:
deb etch main non-free contrib

Those contrib and non-free sections are not any more unstable than main section. Those are perfectly stable and tested. There is not any problem using those.

Anders Jackson's picture

Bottom page two and top page three recommends (or at least not recommends against) using unstable for installing Blender, which is not needed.

If to recommend and use contrib and non-free is another issue. Could at least have a short introduction (two, three sentences) about why that could be a concern to some.

mohamed_hagag's picture

i believe that debian is the best specially if you don't have a fast internet connection because you can download the 3 DVDs or 20 CDs and use them, i'm a gentoo user for 4 yrs now & i have a distro. based on it & localized/customized to server the arabic users needs, and i like debian very much & i'm using it in the production time critical projects & work.

thanx for your nice article you really said what i want to say ubuntu & debian are the same thing.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

I agree that Debian is a great distro and is my distro of choice in all cases, but if you don't have a fast internet connection, downloading 3 DVDs or 20 CDs is not really a viable option. In any case pretyy much all distros worthy of the name have downloadable CD images so Debian is nothing special there.

If your 'net connection is "slow" then you are better off buying the CDs from one of the usual CD-shops or from Debian themselves.


Anders Jackson's picture

No, you do not need 3 DVD or 20 CD's.

First half (or so) is binary packages, the rest has sources to packages. You don't need them if you not going to recompile packages from scratch.

Of the first half, you only need the first 1-4 CD's and a slow Internet connection (for installing the few not so popular packages and security updates of packages). That is becouse the packages are added to the CD:s on a decreasing popularity order. Most popular packages are first (with their dependencies).

So if you don't recompile packages and don't install lots of not so often used software packages, you will only need 1-4 CD (or first DVD).

Debian don't sell CD's or DVD's. They let others do that, as that is what Debian was desinged for in the beginning (others selling and changing Debian (like all Debian based distributions does).

hottyson's picture
Submitted by hottyson (not verified) on

You know this information on what to download is not readily available as it should be. I will download the dvd now.
Thank you from a noob. :)

Laika's picture
Submitted by Laika (not verified) on

>>contrib and non-free. These are repositories that are not included in the general release due to licensing restrictions.>>

Those repositories are not included because debian aims to be an operating system that is made entirely of free software. I wish more reviewers acknowledged and respected this goal even if they don't personally agree with it. There are just a handful of distros out there that share this goal of 100% software freedom.

pvdg's picture
Submitted by pvdg on

While it is understandable that a review should mention the possibility of installing proprietary sofware (the non-free repository, in Debian's case, but also Automatix), I think it is not a good idea to recommend its installation, at least in the pages of FSM!

Stephan's picture
Submitted by Stephan (not verified) on

Why the heck not??? Linux is problematic enough in relation to hardware, without crippling it by not using the vendor written drivers... We live in mixed world, with many colors... an ecosystem of IP, closed source, open source, free ware... all of it. It is a practical approach to use all of it to achieve whatever it is that you want to achieve.

Anders Jackson's picture

It's not only drivers. There are other software that comes in contrib and non-free that isn't that nice either.
But when it comes to using non free drivers (like nVidia and ATI binary 3D-drivers or Wlan drivers with ndisdriver), it IS a huge problem when upgrading kernel, with broken graphics or no network as a result.
Upgrading with free drivers is no-brainer. That is as easy as upgrading any other software.

kristizz's picture
Submitted by kristizz (not verified) on

This is an interesting thread.

When I started on linux I only understood the "free as in beer" element; suse 9.0 was better than windows 98, and free, so I was happy. I could even easily install proprietary drivers/codecs etc without really knowing what was happening under the bonnet. Problem was, when it didn't work, I still had no idea what was going on under the bonnet. Luckily, because the software was free (as in really free) there was a knowledge base which was freely accessible (in both senses) on linux forums. I became empowered to fix my own problems with the help of others. I also grew to understand the ethics of free software. The novell/microsoft agreement caused me to ditch "open"suse and use Debian.

Lets take a step back though. Lets imagine that Linux is a proprietary system. I would never have been able to get "under the hood", as the the owners of the intellectual property concerned would prevent that. Lawful access to Linux code would presumably depend on purchasing the right to do it, if it was allowed at all. Widespread development of Linux code would cease, security flaws would be concealed from the end user (save on the circumstances where market forces could compel the owners of linux to release them) and the knowledge base which I tapped into to would simply evaporate, meaning that I would have very limited control over my system. We can safely assume that a proprietary linux system would support less hardware than Vista (unless a corporation with a development budget comparable to redmond took it on). We can also assume that DRM would be a central feature of any modern linux distro (if the os is proprietary, why not everything else?). In other words, all we would have is a unix based clone of windows. Incidently, this would mean that any public body/school/hospital in any of the non-trillion dollar economies (meaning nearly all of them) would find the costs of implementing IT prohibitive, unless they wanted to divert ridiculous proportions of their GNP to US/European based software houses.

I can understand that many users want 3d graphics on their pcs; I would like 3d on my pc. However, I don't want linux to get to a point where it will only function in the command line without proprietary software. I hope that Debian et al will continue to resist "property creep" into linux.

Automatix is an anathema to free software. For reasons related to the above, and the fact the it does something which any user with the ability to google "debian libdvdvcss" can do themselves. It is a profoundly disempowering piece of software which has the effect of giving the new user a system full of proprietary code before they have even attempted to live without it.

My advice to anyone who is new to linux is to spend some time living with a free system. I did it, and it's worth it. By all means stuff your pc with proprietary code if you really can't wait for gnash to work with youtube (which it now does), just don't come crying to me when 10 years from now you have to pay a $100 per year to prevent virus from wiping your hard drive and your all of your freinds, colleagues etc have to all spend $300 on "microsoftlinux-ultimate edition" so that they can read the spreadsheet that you sent them.

Morten Juhl Johansen's picture

I am wondering how that hideous "This will make an excellent desktop system if only you grease it with some proprietary crap" article tendency made its way into Free Software Magazine?
In my opinion, the article is automatically piped to /dev/null with statements like these. It is like saying "This car is really fast! Provided you put a Ferrari engine into it, of course". Not that I would wish to compare proprietary software to a Ferrari, it is simply to note that reviewing a system and assessing its merits on non-native components hardly makes sense.

Yousef Ourabi's picture

There will always be tension between religious and pragmatic camps. I'm strongly on the pragmatic side, it sounds like you are on the other side of the fence.

What I'm understanding is you would rather have desktop users use Windows because they can't view the media they have become accustomed to -- than have an automated package that installs some non-free software....?

I'd rather have one more Debian desktop user (newbie, to intermediate) happy with their experience, and not go back to windows in disgust after a week because they can't watch the DVD's they are used to watching, or the Flash Video's on youtube.

Thanks for your feedback Morten, I'll keep it in mind.

Laika's picture
Submitted by Laika (not verified) on

I tend to disagree with these terms that describe the supporters of proprietary software for Linux as reasonable "pragmatists" while the supporters of free software are labeled as mentally disturbed "religious fanatics".

There's also another way of looking at the issue. The logic of the marketplace insists that Linux distros should offer various "value-added" proprietary components and proprietary applications if they want to successfully compete with the other distros for popularity. But the same logic also suggests that when the other distros also add proprietary bits, your distro should add even *more* proprietary stuff to remain competitive. This approach effectively creates an evil circle where all proprietary software is considered good while all free software is considered bad.

But free software has several advantages when compared to proprietary software. Some say that free software is a very effective way to develop software because the developers get a lot of feedback from users and they also receive improvement patches made by other software developers. And the developers of Linux distros can fix "bugs" in free software but their hands are tied when there are problems in proprietary software because they have no access to the source code. And if some free software developers suddenly decide to stop developing their programs, other developers can continue developing those programs because the source code is available. This is not possible with proprietary software.

In other words, free software offers users many long-term benefits that proprietary software lacks. Yes, I agree that sometimes proprietary software can offer some short-term convenience that is not yet available in the similar free software programs. But is choosing shot-term convenience instead of long-term benefits really pragmatism? Or is it just shortsightedness and opportunism? Personally, I tend to think that valuing long-term benefits over shot-term convenience should actually be called pragmatism.

You mention the flash videos on youtube as an example where proprietary software works better than free software. Happily, there's good news on that front: the next version of gnash (a free software replacement of the proprietary flash player) should support youtube. And sun's java is planned to be open-sourced. And when Linux becomes more popular as a desktop OS, there will be more pressure for hardware manufacturers to provide open source drivers -- at least, there would be if Linux users prefer the manufacturers that provide free software drivers whenever they buy new hardware.

As a conclusion, I'd say that supporting free software is not religious zealotry -- it's very rational pragmatism!

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

"And when Linux becomes more popular as a desktop OS, there will be more pressure for hardware manufacturers to provide open source drivers -- at least, there would be if Linux users prefer the manufacturers that provide free software drivers whenever they buy new hardware."

For me this begs the question how is Linux to become more popular as a desktop OS? By providing users with a way to still watch DVD's, listen to mp3's, use 3D graphics cards (gaming, yes alot of cool games exist for Linux) or by providing only open-source/free software, which does not necessarily provide these capabilities?

I started out as a Windows guy and made the jump over to Linux and I love it! I believe Linux is better than Windows. But I also have the patience to keep working with Linux when I run into a challenge getting it to do what I want. I don't think the average desktop user while go for that. How do you persuade a person using Windows to switch to Linux when they are used to watching DVD's, listening to mp3 tracks, gaming, etc with no problems on Windows, but have to sacrifice some of those capabilities buy using Linux with no proprietary/non-free software?

Anders Jackson's picture

Well, as Dell and other large computer makers starts to deliver, you will get drivers for lots of hardware in Linux kernel. Which do happen, please have a look at ADM's (ATI's owner) promice to release specs on their new graphical 3D cards.

This will give them an economical advantage to makers like nVidia, whith their secret hardware design. So this will happen, we will get better support on hardware than Microsoft Windows, which we have today. Install MS Windows XP on new hardware, and you will have to install new drivers on all new hardware. In Linux, where it is some support from chip maker, you do have good support from the Linux kernel direct. No need for extra installer CD with sent with the hardware.

And we are slowly getting there with 3D cards to. Intel is already supporting Linux with their 3D cards, and AMD is getting there with ATI cards.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

There'll always be those who don't understand the difference between Free and open source software. You appear to be one of those people.

Fritz's picture
Submitted by Fritz (not verified) on

Just broke from Sarge (3.1) and graduated to Etch (4.0). This is a great distribution and even though some of the older apps have disappeared to make room for new ones, it still has the Debian flavor many of us appreciate. Even if the apps aren't present, downloading and installing is the same as it has always been.

I have it on a desktop IBM NetVista and now on my new Toshiba Satellite Centrino Duo laptop. Where 3.1 didn't care for the processor, screen size, or network pcmcia functions, everything works well out of the box with the exception of changes for personal preferences.

The Debian Team has definitely made this release simple for user's of all skills. I say this as a Debian follower with at least eight years experience. Great job to all involved in the development process!

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

One of the reasons I came back to Debian was the disk encryption option that was available from the installer. It even encrypts the root partition (although not /boot).

Especially as the owner of a laptop, I'm conscious of data loss through theft.

With other distros, I had to install a temporary system, use it to encrypt the future root partition, copy over the temporary system to the future root partition, and make configuration changes to boot from the newly encrypted root partition.

Then the distro owners would make changes that made my system not boot. Sigh!

Darkman's picture
Submitted by Darkman (not verified) on

I enjoyed your review and thought it fair and even-handed. The complaints about Debian usually fall into two categories-- slow release cycle and multimedia stuff. I doubt that Debian will ever release new versions fast because that isn't a priority. Debian wants to get it right and the developers will take as much time as they need to do that. The proprietary multimedia stuff is a matter of principle. If you are quick to criticize politicians and public officials who do not stick to their principles, then I think it's hypocritical to criticize Debian for sticking to theirs. Regardless, if you want non-free/proprietary codecs and the other software, it's an easy work around. IMHO, Debian and RMS deserve a lot more respect than they receive.

Terry Hancock's picture

All in all, I've been very happy with Debian on the desktop (which is the main place I use it -- I've always been a bit surprised at the server-bias for Linux users).

On the other hand, it's never looked the same from version to version -- or it's hard to get it to, anyway. This tends to be because Debian provides so many different GUI and application options, and with each distribution it seems that different ones win out in the task selections. So, I usually wind up with a quite different system every time I install it.

Lately, I've learned to just do the minimal install, and then use apt-get to install the packages I already know I depend on. This works, but it requires a very fine level of management, so it's not really easy.

I think this may be one reason why commercial distributions are often favored for new users -- there's a lot more consistency and so you really know what you mean when you say an "Ubuntu system", whereas a generic "Debian desktop system" could mean any of a large number of different combinations. That probably contributes to the "geek" reputation. After all, as a techie, I quite like the variety of choices, but it's not hard for me to see how it could be daunting to a newbie.

Anders Jackson's picture

The big difference could be attributed to that it happens so much on the desktop side (Gnome, KDE, Xfce etc) that if you don't follow Debian/Testing, you will have large difference. Jump one version in those are large.

tinker's picture
Submitted by tinker on

I am severely disappointed with Etch and will be ditching it at the first opportunity, I will of course not be going to M$ but some other *nix distro, when I have evaluated the choices further.

I really wanted etch to work for me and waited until the stable version was released for 64 bit boxes but the problems started with install, after 20 attempts to get an install that worked to first boot, as it did with opensuse or fedora, I ended up having to rebuild my hardware to suit the distro, it did not like my mixture of ide and sata disks and the bios list order.

Next problem was the KDE install step, I had added KDE to the task list for install and then get some devs idiotic choice of KDE components, adding the necessary basics to the KDE group is simple to do after install but removing the total waste of space KDE games and toys and the unneeded wifi and bluetooth apps is another matter the removal of any of these tags KDE for uninstall as well. On the plus side the KDE desktop is not branded and I could setup panel apps etc. completely as I wanted them.

The next problem I had was the paranoia about free in the Debian definition, which is not the same as most peoples idea of free. Iceweasel for example is hawked as being the same as firefox, but it isn't, for me it is totally unusable as none of the extensions I use work and of course flash doesn't work on 64 bit and the easy option of installing a 32 bit firefox for the occasion when flash is needed is not an option as Debian have not yet worked out how to do a multiarch install without using chroot which just complicates things. Also I cannot easily use 32 bit Adobe Acrobat Reader, mscorefonts and many other apps that I need to, there are Debian free versions of some of these but none that do everything I need.

In short I do not like the way Debian is restricting my choice of what software to run, I appreciate their ideals but not the implementation. I need a computer that just works, so I can do what I get pleasure/reward from, it has taken me 4 weeks to get to the point where half of my requirements work and I am now fed up with jumping through hoops for Debian, I know I can get 90% of a working box in 2 hours with other distros and 100% in about 2 more hours after I have built new binaries for the stuff that has no prebuilt ones.

Yousef Ourabi's picture

Well first of all I'm sorry to hear that Etch isn't working out for you -- this is the first release that has amd64 support, and though I can't speak from experience, I'm sure there are some rough edges.

It's likely that Automatix will release an installer for Etch-AMD64 -- but it will probably be a drag waiting. Automatix does currently support Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty Fawn) on AMD64 so that might be another option if you want to stick with a native 64-bit distro.

On the other hand Etch i386 works like a charm for me...if you don't have any strict 64-bit requirements, you might want to consider sticking with the i386 build until all the kinks are hammered out, and/or other post-install polish options become available (like Automatix on Etch-amd64)

Good luck with getting your system the way you want it.


Anders Jackson's picture

It's always saddening to here someone who don't like Debian/Etch, but it is not for every one, as is also tru for other distributions. First, you should prob. have i386 and not amd64 installed, as the amd64 is mostly usfull when you have applications which uses lots of memory. But as someone wrote, it looks like you are not compatible with Debian basic rules which Debian HAS to live by. Free is more than just free beer. This is why others can base there distributions on Debian subsets (like Ubuntu and Mepsi etc).

I would sugest that you don't complain on Debian that Adobe, nVidia et all don't give specifications that we can use to program free alternatives, or distribute 64-bit versions of their software. Complain at the source of the problem. Especially when you don't give any examples and you already made your choise up. Critics is usefull, but bashing is not.

About initial software selections, like in KDE, there as many "good" or "bad" selections as it is permutations of softwares. So that is up to you to adjust it to your liking or go for a distributions that you can agree on. This is no way Debian or any other distribution can do anything about.

In short You should select a distribution that you like, sorry you don't like Debian's desicions, but that is life. Could I sugest Kubuntu or Mepsi?

tinker's picture
Submitted by tinker on

Yes you are probably correct, I am not compatible with Debian rules. The fault is mine, I want to have the freedom to install what I want on my box and Debian does not want to let me break its rules.

All I intended here was to highlight the fact that not everything is perfect with Etch, as some earlier posters have implied, and it may not be the distro for people like me. I am also saddened by the poor 64 bit implimentation, the restrictions on my freedom and the general poor setup procedures. It is even worse as there are many fine points with the distro that I will miss, but as I said using the box is more important to me than tinkering with the setup.

For information, I have been using 64 bit for 4 years, I see it as a backward set to go back to i386, and I regularly contact Adobe and other sources of software to ask for 64 bit versions, I also contact content providers who use non 64 bit compatible software (e.g. BBC) to get them to ask for compatibility from their side. If other users and content providers did this more often perhaps there would be some improvements.

Whatever happens Etch is going from my desktop, whether it is replaced by Fedora 7, Gentoo or Freespire is not yet decided. Fedora just works, Gentoo will need some setup but will end up as I want it and Freespire have not yet confirmed the 64 bit version.

Anders Jackson's picture

Sorry if I sounded harsh in my answer port to your post.

The fault is not yours or Debians. Just different priorities, that's all. But what I got disturbed about what that I read your post as you demanded that Debian it was Debians fault and Debian should change to suit your needs (exactly). Prob. me who didn't understood you right (English is not my first language).

Good that you complains to Adobe et all for not deliver software as they should (64-bit has been here for many years now, as you said). Actually, that is more than I do (but then I don't use that kind of software, as I find other that is good enough for me and will not give me problems when upgradeing). By the way, I do run my laptop with Debian/stable amd64. Only problem(?) I have so far is to view flash movies. But that is not to important for me.

But you do more then what I do to make Linux to show up on commercial companies radar, which is good. Keep up the good work!

I haven't tried Ubuntu or Mepis, so I don't know there quality when it comes to be a good amd64 distribution. But you will get the other good parts from Debian.

About running 32- and 64-bit software at the same time in a OS, Debian is working on it to be solved right(tm) and not by quick hacks in the distribution (but users can of course do that). That is why it's easy(well...) to have crypted disks when you install in Debian, and many other distributions don't have that now. But again, that is priorities each distribution should and have to do.

Bottom line: If there is a distribution that doesn't suit your needs and priorities, get involved and help out, or change distribution. But don't bash it about not doing it your way.

tinker's picture
Submitted by tinker on

These few posts have helped me clarify things.

Having tried most of the major distro's and found them all to be more or less unsatisfactory for me, though all are better than the borg from Redmonds, I have decided the only sure way to get a distro that works as I want it, that contains all and only the apps I want is to build my own.

I have started at and will record all the process, possibly a blog, so others can follow my steps.If that doesn"t work to my requirements then I have only myself to blame :D

Anders Jackson's picture

First, I wish you success with this. It is a bold and big task, and be a big learning experiance for all parts involved in the expedition. But prob. a good solution if you know exactly what you want installed on your computer.

To put your success and failures in a blog is good for you to remeber what you done. I could also get others like you interested to help each others with problems that whows up.
Heck, even I would be interested in following your development with this. :)

But I am to lazy to do this myself, becouse I have been there, as I have been system administrator on Sun machines and had to install all software from source. I do like that others do the legwork for me, and I only have to report bugs ;)

I wish you to have a fun time and good luck with your project!

BSDuser's picture
Submitted by BSDuser (not verified) on

Been there done that, IMHO it's a waste of time, and in the future when you look back you will probably agree. If Linux is so unsatisfactory install XP Pro SP2 and be done with it. Life is short, get out and live instead of working on yet another Linux distro.

Robert Pogson's picture

I disagree with the title. This is an excellent and valuable article but Debian is more than an alternative. It is the most flexible distro and the mother of a lot of distros including *buntu. The *buntus are more specialized for some roles but those roles can be met by a single distro in Debian with a little configuration/installation. Perhaps these titles would be better:

Debian, The Distro.

Debian, for when you want a solid, reliable operating system.

Debian, just Debian


Debian, a cooperative project of the world to make a really great OS.
A problem is an opportunity.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Debian is not a good alternative to Ubuntu. Ubuntu is derivate of Debian and it is possible that is an alternative to Debian but not vice versa.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Debian is an alternative OS and Linux flavor.
I just switched from Ubuntu to Debian due to several reasons.
Have no idea why anyone would say it is not an alternative, unless they haven't actually used both.