Another Day Another Distro – Part 5 – Debian 4.0 Etch

After a short delay I continued my tour and made it onto Debian Etch. One slight problem though, I managed to accidentally install the 64bit version of Etch which gave me the usual problems with Flash and other things. These were all the same problems I had on 64bit Ubuntu so it’s not Debian specific in any way. It took me a few days to download the 32bit Etch and it slowed my progress a little but not for long. I’d heard a lot of stories about Debian only being for hardcore hackers and real purists but I wanted to see for myself. So without further ado here’s how I got on with Debian Etch…

The installation went pretty smoothly but took a long time to complete. I found I had the same problems with APIC incompatibility and my motherboard as with other distros. I had to specify the “noapic” option in the boot command. It was easy to do though and the documentation available from the boot screen was very comprehensive I must say. I used the command “installgui noapic” and the installer went to work without a complaint. I proceeded through all the usual screens setting localization and other such things. After setting up my partitioning I reached a screen asking me if I wanted to download the latest packages from a remote server, this seemed like a good idea so I went for it. I chose a local mirror here in the UK and was then informed that 677 packages needed to be downloaded, “that seems a lot” I thought as I carried on clicking through the screens. At first the download went quickly and the first 600 packages were retrieved in 2mins but then it started to really drag. I timed the download and in total it took 28mins fetching packages which is not a massive amount of time I suppose but it did bloat the install time to an hour in total. Once I got through the install the system booted up and I was able to log in fine. It was a painless install, if a little slow.


Configuring the system:

Going into this I was a little worried that Debian would be impossible to configure and use, I’d heard all the stories that Debian was only for hardcore terminal commandos and kernel developers but I have to say it wasn’t like that at all. I think maybe having knowledge of Ubuntu with it’s Debian base helped my to overcome some problems but it really wasn’t to much of an effort. This is the screen which greeted me upon my first login:

The default screen resolution was set to 1280×1024 which looked a little funny on my 19” widescreen display but was perfectly usable. My first task was to install the Nvidia drivers I needed to get the right resolution and enable 3D effects. To do this I used a wonderful tool written by Alberto Malone called Envy. I knew of Envy from Ubuntu as I used it on Edgy to install my drivers, the restricted driver manager only came in with Feisty. There were some good instructions on the website and I found it very easy to use in the end. I did have to pay special attention to Article D of the Debian FAQ on the site. I modified my sources file through the terminal with Nano adding the necessary repositories, installed Envy from the .deb and then grabbed the dependencies using apt-get. This was all documented in the FAQ on the site. Not a task for a beginner obviously but good fun for anyone who enjoys solving puzzles as I do.

I was then able to run the Envy GUI and install the Nvidia driver with a few clicks, it worked perfectly and updated my xorg.conf in the process, finally it prompted me to reboot and I had the driver working when the system came back up. It still showed the display at 1280×1024 but I was able to fix this by using the Nvidia settings tool which appeared on the System Tools menu.

I had to run this in root mode to get write access to the xorg.conf file and modify the settings. I did this by opening a terminal and switching to the root user then running the tool from there. Again not exactly easy as pie but also not the kernel compiling nightmare I had been led to expect by others. Envy also supports ATI cards but I’ve never tried it with one of those so I can’t comment. With my display sorted it was time to install Compiz Fusion. I did a quick search in Google for help on this and found a great site entertainingly called The Repository Of Shame 🙂 I followed the instructions for Etch stable version and it worked fine. I added a source to my settings and installed all the Compiz Fusion tools with one command: “apt-get install compiz-fusion-gnome”

I was then able to fire up the Compiz Fusion desktop by typing the command “compiz-manager” and everything worked, I was spinning the cube in no time. I also set this to start at login by using the Sessions applet under the Preferences tab on the menu, I just added it as you can see below:

After that I opened up the Synaptic package manager and was able to install almost all of the software I’ve become used to on my Linux desktop just by searching and marking the packages. I added the following without having to enable any extra repos: ktorrent, bluefish, comix, putty, vlc player, gobby and checkgmail. I also installed IcePodder which is my favourite podcast aggregator from the Deb package on their website and I also did the same with Skype. The package from the Skype site installed perfectly which was great.

Almost everything else I needed was already there in the base install,, Evolution, GIMP, Rhythmbox, Gnomebaker and so on. One of the things I did find strange at first is the default browser in Debian is IceWeasel and not Firefox. IceWeasel is basically a Firefox clone using the same Mozilla platform but containing only open source components by default. I always thought Firefox was completely free and open source anyway but it seems not, it contains some proprietary components which do not fit with the philosophy of Debian and it was decided it couldn’t be used. It seems Mozilla didn’t like the Debian version of Firefox carrying the same name and enforced their naming rights, so it was dubbed IceWeasel and apparently it is due to be changed to IceCat in the future. You can read more about IceWeasel in Wikipedia if you’re interested. So forgetting all the political stuff what’s IceWeasel like? The short answer is exactly the same as Firefox despite the logo as far as I can see. I really couldn’t tell the difference at all. I installed all my third party extensions exactly the same way and I was prompted to install the Adobe Flash plugin directly when I visited a Flash site.

I just clicked through the few screens, within seconds the plugin was installed and the page reloaded with all the Flash content. Extremely painless and easy. I was also able to play all my videos and music straight out of the box with Etch, the required plugins seemed to just be there and I was most impressed. At this point I thought to myself “isn’t Debian supposed to be hard?” it didn’t seem so.

The only thing I had left to do was enable NTFS write support for which I knew I would have to install NTFS-3G in a similar way as I had done under Edgy. I searched and found a very useful guide quickly, I did this plenty of times with Debian and the support seemed to be very easy to find on the net which was great. I followed the guide and was done in no time but it did involve some work in the terminal and a little Linux knowledge, nothing too scary for any reasonably savy Linux user though.

Overall I really enjoyed using Debian I have to say and I suppose that may have been influenced by my own political leanings but it really wasn’t as hard as I’d expected at all. I’m a reasonably experienced Linux user but I’m certainly no expert, if I could get it working then I reckon most people who’ve used Linux for more than a few months could do so too. There was some work involved in the set up I can’t lie about that but it was definitely no more than I had to do a year ago when I installed Ubuntu Edgy.

I wouldn’t direct brand new Linux users towards Debian because I think there are definitely easier distributions to cut your teeth on. I got a strange sense of satisfaction from using Debian though I have to say. I’m the sort of person who gets a real rush from solving a problem and I got lots of that from this distro. There were some issues I can’t deny that but I managed to overcome all of them without taking too much time over it and the amount of help available on the net was excellent. Make no mistake, if you have terminal phobia then Debian isn’t for you but you don’t have to do that much in the terminal and there are loads of great guides around. It’s an amazingly stable system and I can see why it’s used on so many servers, not to mention as the basis for so many other distros. The only real downside I can think of is the amount of time it took to install because of the package downloads but it wasn’t unbearable. I have this machine set up completely as I want it with Debian, I can’t think of anything that’s missing and I have to say I’m tempted to come back to Debian when I finish my tour. I’m torn between this and Ubuntu which is based on Debian anyway. I’ve been using Ubuntu for a while and I can see now that a lot of the things I liked about it are actually inherited from Debian. I’ll have a tough decision to make down the road, especially if another distribution takes my eye along the way but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

I think if you’re going to use Debian seriously then you have to buy into the political ethos of it and in many ways it’s a labour of love for the Debian fans out there but you know what? I get it, I really do, I can see why they do it. It’s a great feeling of achievement and possibly a mark of honour for someone who really believes in open source, it is in my own mind at least. If you’re the sort of person who’s going to like Debian then you will put up with the little hurdles it can sometimes present for the freedom it gives you in return. So I suppose if I could leave you with one thought on Debian it would be this.

“Debian: It might start with Ubuntu but before you know it you’re on the hard stuff” 😛

Next time…
So that’s it for now with Debian I think, my feet are firmly under the table here and I feel comfortable but it’s time to move on and I’m thinking that Slackware 12 will be my next port of call. I’ve never tried Slackware and it’s not a distribution I know much about so more adventures await us on the other side of the hill folks. Care to join me? 😉


  1. i know another one that was once written on a t-shirt as far as i remember:

    “Debian, the OS your mother would use if it was 20 times easier.”


  2. I thought of another one as well that I didn’t use in the end.

    “Debian, it can be tricky… but it’s not Gentoo” hehe 🙂

  3. I was a Fedora fan for many years. I came across Debian when I had to do work on embedded mini terminals using flash drives. Debian is perfect for the technically inclined; and I love the way they manage packages. I tried Ubuntu and was not as impressed as people make it to be. I love Debian.

  4. I’m using Debian Etch on several computers, both desktops and laptops. Really, not that much different than (K,X)Ubuntu, except the memory requirements are less since less cruff is installed by default (all easily added using apt-get/Synaptic, if you wish). Debian is well worth the time if the *buntus are taking up too much RAM on a low resource machine.

    The Iceweasel thing really only involves the Firefox icon being copywrited/trademarked/some other such goofy dispute. Other than a different icon and replacing “Firefox” with “Iceweasel” in a few spots, they are identical.


  5. Hello,
    Actually, the nVidia and ATI proprietary driver ARE at Debian “non-free” section of repository (disabled by default at installation time and easily enabled after).
    Despite being an older one (the version has to be kept at the time of release) it works well.
    STABLE is STABLE repository as expected by sysadmins.
    There are Testing, Unstable, Volatile, Security and Backports repositories. Each aimed at some objective for the SysAdmins.
    You can even mix Stable, Testing and Unstable repositories and sections and PIN selected versions and or repos for selected packages (but I do not recommend this approach for newcomers to the world of APT, only for those who really know what are doing by reading all docs).
    Compiz is at repositories too.
    You can also use the (now official) repositories for selected newer packages versions than the stable release versions.
    One can also use the semi-official repository for many codecs and further packages that can not be included into the official repositories.
    A reasonable sources.list as shown at sources.list
    will make available to you all needed packages for stable daily work and entertainment without having to go to the command line and always using the powerfull dpkg package management system apt, via graphical synaptic, kpackage or command line aptitude or apt-get.
    Always using the package management system, you can keep your system sane, consistent, upgradeable, manageable and so stable as you specify (by selecting desired repositories).
    Debian stable is rock solid and extremely manageable. A sysadmin can keep systems running, updating (security) and upgrading (to new releases) for years without having to do a reinstall.

  6. Thank you for the extra information on repos I will check that out. I love the Deb packaging system and apt-get is an amazing tool I think. As I said in the article I can see why so many people use Debian for servers and environments where stability is vital. It really is rock solid and I was impressed by it.

    I’m very tempted to come back to Debian full time at the end of my journey rather than going back to Ubuntu. We’ll have to see what happens but one thing is for sure if I were running any kind of server this would be my first point of call 🙂

  7. Hello,
    You can use, also the for searching gazillions of unnofficial packages.
    In general, you can find not yet officially packaged, or newest versions, or private / personal, or non-free or commercial sw repositories.
    It is like a kind of “universe”/ “multiverse” repository open to inclusions by anyone.
    It is a search engine for Debian packages.
    Also, for those really adept of the cutting leading bleeding edge versions, there is the official Experimental repository. As the name implies, you are at the very front and on your own (well, with some feedback from developers if you ask clever questions), without any stability. Only for devs or adrenaline addicts.
    You can see more helpful Debian sites and repositories links at the Linux blog linux links and ask for more links at the Debian USERS lists, and forums, IRC, newsgroups, wiki.

  8. Actually, Debian makes a great newbie distro if you don’t demand too much of it.

    It was a better newbie distro when I discovered it, back in the days of Sarge, when the debian-installer disk came out. If you used the net-installer disk, Debian set up completely ready to install a freaking universe of software, at the slightest command. No setting up of repositories, no dependancy problems. Nowadays, when you use the net-installer with etch (Which maybe you should have tried, Dan, if it took you several days to download Debian,) you need to edit the /etc/apt/sources.list file just a little bit to disable apt from seeking packages from the CD and not from the net, when you use the apt command. Back then, that would have stopped me in my tracks.

    (When you’re used to apt-get, synaptic seems like a pain. Never used it.)

    There were certain things I couldn’t do, like install my accelerated drivers for gaming, (I’m not a gamer anyway) and I had to use realplayer instead of mplayer, so there was one internet station that I couldn’t get… but I could surf, post, download music, burn CDs, watch DVDs… in Linux! I loved it!

    After a year or so, I started using opensuse, right about the time suse 10.0 was released, and that gave me full function. I returned to Debian, my first love, earlier this year, after learning things like how to install the kernel headers to build modules for video drivers and where to get mplayer.

    I now have a second computer, and I’ve been fooling around with Slackware. Good luck with that, my friend. I find that Slackware makes a great desktop, and it’s great for learning, but I wouldn’t be able to use it if I didn’t have my debian box to grab more elaborate software for certain functions.

    While touring, if you haven’t already, a suggest a visit to Vector Linux, especially the SoHo (small office/home) version, which installs with KDE. The standard version is gorgeous, but it uses xfce. That’s almost fine with me, since I’m just going to install fluxbox anyway. I can live without KDE… but I can’t live without Konqueror. And getting Konqueror in Vector Linux standard, with or without KDE turns out to be not so easy.

  9. Thanks for the suggestion I’ll take a look at Vector Linux on my travels. You’re right about Slackware it is a lot of effort to get working so far, I feel a bit like I’ve gone back in time and I’m installing Linux 10 years ago with this, setting up my own Window Manager and so on. I know some people love doing all this and that’s great but I prefer something less demanding usually, certainly on my main machine.

  10. The fun really starts when you try to get software. It’s all easy when you know how… but when you don’t know how, it’s not easy. On the other hand, for


    If you have a DSL connection, the way to get online is by typing “netconfig” as root.

    Try for prebuilt slackware packages.

    (or is it

    I thought of another T-Shirt:

    “Ubuntu: an ancient african word, meaning ‘can’t handle Debian'” Needs a little work.

  11. Thanks for the support, I’m online and I’m now manually installing updates. It’s heavy going to say the least.

    I like the t-shirt slogan 🙂

  12. I’ve been a Debian user for a while now, and for the most part I agree with your assesment of it. I do have a few things to note, however.

    First and foremost, Debian is not a distribution of Linux, it’s a project that produces several distributions including Debian GNU/HURD, Debian GNU/k{net,free}BSD . The goal of Debian is to develop systems that are 100% Free Software as per the Debian Free Software Guidelines.

    That goal, I think, impacts your review.

    The first things you did upon installing Debian was adding restrictive applications such as your video driver, Skype and so on.

    That Debian didn’t have these things “by default” isn’t a lack on Debian’s part, it’s a misunderstanding of what Debian is. Debian is designed to free you from the control of non-free software vendors; a perfect example is that you installed the “wrong” version of Debian because Adobe doesn’t yet produce a 64-bit version of Flash. (Check out Gnash – it needs a LOT of work but it’s rapidly improving).

    That said, a lot of people who use Debian DO add that non-free software and Debian has a repository for packages such as the nVidia and ATI drivers and Adobe’s Flash plugin if those things exist on your platform. I’ve personally found system maintainance to be less of a nightmare when using “official” repos rather than mixing them, unless of course that “mixing” is pulling in sources from another distro, which doesn’t ever happen with non-free stuff.

    Finally, in regard to the comment about Firefox/IceWeasel…

    Debian’s DFGS, mentioned above, require that all users be able to edit nay part of a program and redistribute that program. In Firefox, the word “Firefox” is built into the program and you CAN”T use it unless you have permission from Mozilla – permission you won’t get if your version is signifigantly altered. So Debian simply takes advantage of a built-in feature of the Firefox configure script to re-brand it.

    Iceweasel is compatible with all of the Firefox plugins and it’s patched (at least in Sid) about 2 hours slower than Firefox itself.

    However, the Iceweasel you mentioned (being renamed to IceCat) is NOT the version that Debian ships, at least not this moment. Debian simply rebrands Firefox, what you linked to is GNU IceWeasel which has some signifigant changes to remove the prompts to install non-free software. The change of GNU IceWeasel to GNU IceCat was most likely BECAUSE people confuse the two.

  13. Thank you for all the information Kevin. I do understand the reasons why Debian doesn’t contain things like Skype or closed drivers by default, because of the ethical stance of the distro and not some kind of technical oversight. I did try to reflect that in the tone of the article and I certainly do not see those things as flaws in the system, far from it. I admire the commitment to open source I totally agree with it. Although sadly sometimes productivity requirements force me to use non-free software I do try and use complete open source solutions wherever possible. have looked at Gnash and not had much luck in the past and I am also keeping a close eye on things like the Nouveau project to create an open source Nvidia driver 🙂

    I wasn’t aware that the Debian project produced more than a Linux distro and I was interested to learn that. I also didn’t know the Debian version of IceWeasel was different to the GNU one and I suspect a lot of people make the same mistake. A change of name is definitely a good idea I think to prevent confusion.

    Once again thanks for your comments I enjoyed reading them 🙂

  14. Where do I sign up for that t-shirt? Great slogan.

  15. Thanks, maybe I should print some up hehe 🙂

  16. You will try Slackware 12 ? That´s great ! hope you enjoy Slackware as i do.


  17. I run Stable on servers and Testing on my desktops. But, I have an Ubuntu sticker on my laptop, and I use Ubuntu as my LTSP desktop environment.

    The situation is just like you described, set it up and forget it.

    Debian does somethings that Ubuntu doesn’t that makes me prefer it to Ubuntu. For starters, it keeps one kernel version. On Ubuntu, released versions (like dapper) will keep upgrading the kernel via the update manager, leaving old versions in place, but also forcing you to have to recompile the manually compiled modules. On Debian (not sure about testing, but stable for sure), you’re stuck with that kernel version, you’ll only get updates to the same versioned kernel with bug/security fixes.

  18. About the Firefox/Iceweasel thing…

    There’s a lot of confusion around this, so I wanted to clarify what exactly happened. For even better information, see Mike Hommey’s blog (he maintains Debian’s Firefox/Iceweasel packages), or the bug report that led to the name change; I’ve just watched this at a remove and I might be wrong. In particular, I want to make it clear that I do not speak for Debian on this issue.

    In general, Debian considers software to be free even if modifications require a name change, although the official Project position is that this is not a great idea.

    So why kick Firefox out? Basically, as I understand it, the initial problem revolved around an icon. The standard Mozilla icon is not free; IIRC, it uses a pretty straightforwardly non-free copyright license (users can’t modify and redistribute it). So the Debian maintainer removed it from the package and used a generic icon instead. This is standard procedure in Debian.

    This is where trademarks came in: Mozilla insisted that Debian had no license to use their trademark unless we included the non-free logo. Doing so would be unacceptable to Debian (it would essentially amount to putting non-free stuff in the archive for Mozilla just because they’re big).

    A secondary reason for kicking it out was that Mozilla started making demands that they be involved in any change Debian made to its packages, including security patches. Debian requires the ability to patch and update software to fix security bugs in order to properly support our users.

    That we can do security support without having to ask permission is one of the major practical benefits of free software, and Mozilla is not going to get special treatment just because they’re big and popular. The problem with this is not just the time lag, but that you are at the mercy of what the owner of the software thinks is “reasonable”; for instance, if they think people should quit using older versions of the software, they might just deny approval to any security patches for that software.

    I suggest reading the links I provided above to get your own view of what happened, though. It’s hard to provide an accurate summary of the issues involved, and most reports I’ve seen simplify the events beyond recognition. There’s no substitute for primary sources.

  19. Hey Dan,

    When you finish up with Slackware, might I suggest you sink your teeth into Arch Linux?

    I have spent the past of days assembling an Arch system – with a lot of help from the official Beginners Guide on their website – and have learned much about Linux in the process.

    Just a thought,

  20. I will check Arch out thanks, I heard quite a bit about it. Suppose to be a good server OS I was told. I’ll add it to the list 🙂

  21. No way to configure a wireless connection during installation.

    No obvious way to add a wireless connection after installation.

    Not a credible desktop non-geek distro…

  22. Hello Dan,

    I’d like to thank you for your most excellent review of Etch. I don’t know what distro you’re on now, but after reading about how much you liked Debian, I decided to give it a go myself.

    I’d been bitten by the Linux bug recently, and I had an old desktop sitting around that I wasn’t using. So I decided to do something with it – to see if I could build myself a nice system. I tried Ubuntu, Mint, and Mandriva from your recommendations of them as the most newbie-friendly distros, but I was irritated by by the somewhat cartoony friendliness of those distributions (not knocking their software of course, I tried them all and they all worked well).

    I then read your review of Debian and I gravitated toward this distro because it offered control and power, a challenge to get working completely, and at least a somewhat non-newbie atmosphere. I am very pleased with Debian and I’d like to credit you with helping me to pick a distro and settle down in the GNU/Linux world permanently.

    All the best!

  23. Wow thanks for the comment Justin, I’m really glad Debian worked out for you. It’s nice to hear that these reviews have helped in some way, that’s why I do it 🙂

    Good luck with Debian and if you have any questions just drop me a comment. Dan

  24. Good review! I am also interested to try Debian but annoyed at its size. Is there any single DVD debian available? At some mirror I saw it comes with 4 DVD.

  25. Yeah the size of the 3 dvds can be a real problem, a lot of people prefer to do a network install. That way you only get the latest packages you need and you don’t end up with 2 dvds full of packages you don’t need. It’s a more specific install tailored to your requirements.

    I don’t know what your network connection is like but even if it’s not that fast maybe you can find a local mirror and leave it overnight, I would definitely recommend a network install. You just download a small single CD image and it downloads the other stuff that it needs during install. Could be worth a try for you I’d say. I’m sticking to netinstalls in future with Debian I think. Even when you download the dvds everything is out of date in a couple of months anyway it seems.

    Good luck, let me know how you get on 🙂

  26. Hello,
    As already cited, the “netinst” small iso cd is the best way to go.
    You will download only and exactly what you will use, saving bandwidth and your time.
    But if you prefer you may download the first cd /dvd image only.
    The cd/dvd are organized in such way that the most popular programs are in the cd/dvd 1, then the “second” most popular ones at cd/dvd 2, and so on.
    You will get a fully working desktop or server “usual” or “popular” system using the cd/dvd 1 and downloading only the missing packages.
    If you prefer, you could download cd images preconfigured for gnome/kde/xfce desktops.
    The default is gnome desktop.
    Please, take a look at the alternative cd 1 images at bottom of

  27. Yes, I am a Debian user and have been for many years now…after starting as a roll-your-own in the very early days…

    Very nice to read a well-thoughtout review. There are drawbacks to the Debian world, no doubt, and you presented a clear and balanced view of a new Debian install.

    Have fun with the rest of the distributions, it is a journey I wish I had time to take…

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