Distro Review: Debian Lenny
Ok it’s time for another distro review and I’m a bit overdue with this one but I’m a big fan of Debian and the dedicated community who develop it I make no secret of that. When I reviewed Etch (4.0) last year I declared that if I were to finally grow up and settle down with just one distro this would be the one. I like the fact that it’s not backed by any commercial entity and sticks closely to it’s Free Software principals. After some delay version 5.0 Lenny was finally released this Valentine’s Day, how appropriate but would it still be true love? There was only one way to find out…
Distro base – Itself, Debian is the mother of a lot of modern distros
Packaging – .deb (Managed by the mighty Apt)
Linux Kernel – 2.6.26
Default Desktop – Gnome 2.22.1
I downloaded the Lenny net install CD image, my prefered installation method with Debian. I find it a bit wasteful to burn 3 full DVDs and then only use one of them. There’s some merit in having everything downloaded before you start but if you’ve got a reasonably fast and stable Internet connection I recommend the network install personally. I was fortunate enough to have a chat with Steve McIntyre (the current Debian Project Leader) on a recent episode of Linux Outlaws where he told us there are even Blu-ray images available now with everything on one disc. That sounds amazing but not having the small fortune it requires to purchase a Blu-ray burner at the moment it wasn’t an option for me sadly.
I booted up from the CD to get started, as always testing with my trusty Dell XPS m1330n laptop. I chose the graphical install and proceeded through the usual prompts for language, location and so on. The installer looks the same to me on the surface as the Etch installer, I’d heard people raving about “the new Debian installer” but I don’t see any evidence of it. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it works well and as the old adage goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I was informed pretty quickly there were no drivers available for my Intel wireless card but was instead offered the option to load them from a disc, I didn’t have one. It wasn’t a major problem since I could use the Ethernet port for the network install anyway. The base system was then installed from the CD really quickly, I mean lighting quick. All the additional packages need to be downloaded from a network mirror and you’re offered the chance to pick one near you. Picking the nearest one to your location will usually result in much faster download times, so choose carefully. I picked the default UK server and was prompted to choose which package sets to install: Web server, mail server, DNS server, desktop, laptop and many more. I chose the Desktop, Laptop and Standard groups, leaving all the server options alone.
The installer then told me I was in for a wait while it downloaded 817 packages and installed them. After which GRUB was configured and I was ready to reboot.The whole process from putting the disc in to booting up my new desktop took approximately 25mins. That’s a respectable time when you consider a large chunk of that was consumed by actually downloading the software, if you used a full install disc it would probably be a lot quicker. It was a pretty quick and simple install, I think most users could handle it without breaking a sweat.
Configuring The System:
Now, this being Debian it’s a little different to the likes of an Ubuntu or OpenSuse which try to configure every little thing for you automatically, I still had a lot of configuration to do. The first order of business was to get my wireless card working which actually turned out to be a lot easier than I’d feared. I opened up Synaptic (the graphical package management tool) and then looked at the preferences to see what software sources were enabled. I could see a couple of groups weren’t ticked such as software that doesn’t comply with the Debian Free Software Guidelines, it seems the drivers for my wireless card fall into this group. I enabled non-DFSG software, refreshed the package list and searched for “Intel” which yielded a fair few packages but scrolling through the list I quickly found one relating to my Pro Wireless 3945 card. After a minute the wireless light started flashing and I was able to log into my home network easily. Not too difficult but most distributions have this driver working out of the box, it’sonly omitted here because it doesn’t satisfy the DFSG which I understand. I have to say at this point I was really impressed by the speed and responsiveness of the system, it seemed very snappy and a quick look at the resources monitor showed I was only using 145mb of RAM, even with quite a few large programs open on my Gnome desktop. Most of the basic software you could need is included by default like OpenOffice.org, GIMP, Rhythmbox, Pidgin and Iceweasel which is great. Iceweasel is essentially a clone of Mozilla’s Firefox made in protest at the actions of Mozilla Corporation and their licensing process. It’s actually repackaged from Firefox source code with minimal modifications, so all your extensions will work just fine. I’ve never had any problems with Iceweasel or noticed any real difference from Firefox to speak of.
I installed most of the additional software I needed via Synaptic and could get packages for other things like Gpodder from the developer’s own website. Installing the .deb files wasn’t quite as simple as double-clicking them though. I had to open a terminal and use the “dpkg -i” command but I got there. I also noticed the Add/Remove Software tool from Ubuntu is now included. Ubuntu inherits a hell of a lot from Debian, I would be as quick as anyone to point that out but I don’t agree with some others who claim they don’t contribute enough back. I’m pretty sure this is a custom Ubuntu development and I assume it’s been contributed back upstream with help from Canonical. (EDIT: Please see this comment for more details). There were a couple of programs I couldn’t find in any of the repositories, even the experimental ones, Gwibber being a prime example. I had to download all the dependencies for it manually and then install from the source code I’d checked out with Bazaar. It was a bit awkward and at times I felt I wasn’t doing things “the Debian way” by trying to install cutting edge software, the distribution is renowned for it’s stability and some critics would say slow adoption of new software. That’s a trade off for the stability I suppose.
The freedom hating drivers for my nVidia graphics card were installed easily with Synaptic, I then had to run the nvidia-xconfig command manually in a terminal to update the X server settings. I also installed the nvidia-settings package because I use it for switching between internal and external displays. I also like to use the Compiz Fusion 3D desktop, some people dismiss it as eye candy or frivolous decoration but it’s far more than that. The easiest way I’ve found to install Compiz on Debian is through the fantastically named Repository Of Shame. It contains everything you could need and provides handy meta packages for easy installation. I should take a moment to point out the utterly tragic news that Shane Lee (AKA Shame), maintainer of this repository and well respected Debian developer, sadly died last November. It’s hard to know what to say, words fail me but he was only 35 years old and he will be sorely missed. My deepest condolences to his family. The repo is still seems to be working and I was able to install everything by following the simple instructions on the site.
It’s hot, damn hot!!:
This being the stable branch of Debian a lot of the software is quite old, some prefer the term mature but I missed things like Gnome 2.24 with it’s tabbed Nautilus file browser and other improvements. I looked at adding the latest Gnome but it didn’t seem like an easy process, there are some guides on how to compile and integrate it but I decided to take a pass on that. In many ways it would also have destroyed the main benefit of running Debian anyway, tried and trusted software which you know will work. If the Debian guys say something is stable you can believe it’s stable, a conservative approach but I admire their commitment to quality.
Lenny also ships with a much older kernel than I would normally use. My machine kept overheating quite badly and the fan sounded like a small aircraft attempting to take off or perhaps like trying to watch a film on an Xbox hehe 🙂 There were some issues with my model of nVidia card after release and modifications were made to heat management in the Linux kernel to compensate. It works great and the fan does not normally need to work overtime with the newer kernel. Consistently though with Lenny I found I would need to leave the machine to cool down, this may be my fault for having the evil nVidia card but it definitely didn’t like the older kernel.
Ease Of Installation & Use: 2/5
Community & Documentation: 5/5
I was able to get the system working as I wanted under Lenny but it took some time and expertise. I compiled a lot of the newer software from source when I couldn’t find packages. I did try adding the Squeeze repos and even some experimental ones but still found a lot of the packages were significantly behind. That’s what you expect with Debian though, you don’t use it because you want the latest cutting edge software, you use it because you want stability, speed and the support of some of the best developers in the business. There’s a very useful guide to setting up the perfect desktop with Lenny and it introduced me to the Debian-multimedia.org repository, I highly recommend it to everyone for adding extra multimedia programs easily. The overheating problems due to the older kernel were a shame, I could of course install another kernel or compile one from scratcheven but that seems to defeat the purpose of using Debian for me. It would be easier to use Arch or another distro if that’s the aim. Back when I tried Etch it was on a desktop machine and I think the main difference this time around is I’m on a notebook. I said in reviewing Etch that I was at amazed how much of Ubuntu is Debian painted brown and that’s still true but I also gained a new appreciation for the work the Ubuntu guys do in making their software run effortlessly on laptops. I like that Debian is very true to it’s Free Software ethos including things like Swfdec instead of the proprietary Adobe Flash player. However, in practice I found it didn’t work very well and I ended up ripping it out anyway and installing the evil version.
Do I still love Debian? Yes of course I do and there’s no doubt about that but I have to confess that maybe I’ve changed. On my laptop I want the latest and greatest software to play around with, I like to get the newest Gnome for example and Debian just isn’t the right distro for that. It has many strengths to note. Apt is still Debian’s killer app for me and I’ve yet to find another package manager that really compares. The bottom line though is that on the desktop I find Debian too conservative for my tastes these days, it’s a personal thing. On a server or even a desktop with a specific purpose it excels and I wouldn’t replace it with anything else. If I need a web server, database server or.. well.. any other kind of server, I’ll be reaching for my Debian CD because I know it will be rock solid. but on my laptop I guess I’ll keep hopping in search of new software. If you’ve used Linux before and you’re not afraid to learn a little bit about the finer workings Debian has a massive amount to offer and I’d encourage everyone to try it at least once in their life. It’s not for everyone but it”s still a great testament to what a group dedicated volunteer developers can achieve on all of our behalves when they come together. Try it out for yourself and let me know what you think.
I’m not 100% sure what I’ll move onto next but I quite fancy Arch Linux. After coming to the realization that I’m really just a glory whore and want the latest software it seems to be the perfect thing with it’s rolling release scheme. It takes some work to set up but when I have time I will dig into it and of course report back to everyone with my findings. I’ve been told the Chakra Project is also worth a look in relation to Arch and I’ve downloaded the live CD to try out. As always you’re more than welcome to come and join me on Arch and we’ll check it out together, wouldn’t hurt if you brought some biscuits this time though, bribery will get you everywhere you know 😉