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, OpenOffice.org, 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” 😛
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? 😉