I’ve written a lot of reviews of distros based on Debian, but never a review of Debian itself. So this time around I decided to look at Debian 5 (Lenny). Debian, if you aren’t familiar with it, is the rock upon which popular distributions like Ubuntu and MEPIS are built. Sometimes folks who use a Debian-based distribution aren’t even aware of what it is based on, and that’s a shame because Debian itself has so much to offer.
If you want a really good overview of Debian, be sure to read the Wikipedia article about it.
The Debian Project is governed by the Debian Constitution and the Social Contract which set out the governance structure of the project as well as explicitly stating that the goal of the project is the development of a free operating system. Debian is developed by over one thousand volunteers from around the world and supported by donations through several non-profit organizations around the world. Most important of these is Software in the Public Interest, the owner of the Debian trademark and umbrella organization for various other community free software projects.
Thus, the Debian Project is an independent decentralized organization; it is not backed by a company like some other GNU/Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, openSUSE, Fedora, and Mandriva. The cost of developing all the packages included in Debian 4.0 etch (283 million lines of code), using the COCOMO model, has been estimated to be close to US$13 billion. As of April 2, 2009, Ohloh estimates that the codebase of the Debian GNU/Linux project (45 million lines of code), using the COCOMO model, would cost about US$819 million to develop.
Many distributions are based on Debian, including Ubuntu, MEPIS, Dreamlinux, Damn Small Linux, Xandros, Knoppix, BackTrack, Linspire, sidux, Kanotix, Parsix and LinEx, among others.
Debian is known for an abundance of options. The current stable release includes over twenty five thousand software packages for twelve computer architectures. These architectures range from the Intel/AMD 32-bit/64-bit architectures commonly found in personal computers to the ARM architecture commonly found in embedded systems and the IBM eServer zSeries mainframes. Prominent features of Debian are the APT package management system, repositories with large numbers of packages, strict policies regarding packages, and the high quality of releases. These practices allow easy upgrades between releases as well as automated installation and removal of packages.
The Debian standard install makes use of the GNOME desktop environment. It includes popular programs such as OpenOffice.org, Iceweasel (a rebranding of Firefox), Evolution mail, CD/DVD writing programs, music and video players, image viewers and editors, and PDF viewers. There are pre-built CD images for KDE Software Compilation, Xfce and LXDE as well. The remaining discs, which span five DVDs or over thirty CDs, contain all packages currently available and are not necessary for a standard install. Another install method is via a net install CD which is much smaller than a normal install CD/DVD. It contains only the bare essentials needed to start the installer and downloads the packages selected during installation via APT. These CD/DVD images can be freely obtained by web download, BitTorrent, jigdo or buying them from online retailers.
Debian has three main branches:
The distro I installed for this review was from the stable branch (which has the name Lenny).
Debian 5 is available in KDE, GNOME, Xfce, and LXDE versions. For this review, I went with the GNOME version.
What’s New In This Release
Here’s a sample of the new features in this release:
Support for Marvell’s Orion Platform for storage devices
Java Support (OpenJDK, GNU Java compiler, GNU Java bytecode interpreter, Classpath)
You might notice here that Debian 5 is not exactly cutting edge when it comes to software. Please note that this is to be expected since Debian 5 is based on the stable branch, and not the testing branch. I’ll talk more about this in the problems section, and at the end of the review.
Hardware Requirements & Installation
It’s important to note here that Debian 5 runs on a lot of different architectures. The requirements listed here are for the i386 version and may differ depending on what sort of system you want to run Debian 5 on.
Here’s what you’ll need to run this distro:
A Pentium 4, 1GHz system is the minimum recommended for a desktop system.
Table 3.2. Recommended Minimum System Requirements
Install Type RAM (minimal) RAM (recommended) Hard Drive
No desktop 64 megabytes 256 megabytes 1 gigabyte
With Desktop 64 megabytes 512 megabytes 5 gigabytes
The actual minimum memory requirements are a lot less then the numbers listed in this table. Depending on the architecture, it is possible to install Debian with as little as 20MB (for s390) to 48MB (for i386 and amd64). The same goes for the disk space requirements, especially if you pick and choose which applications to install; see Section D.2, “Disk Space Needed for Tasks” for additional information on disk space requirements.
It is possible to run a graphical desktop environment on older or low-end systems, but in that case it is recommended to install a window manager that is less resource-hungry than those of the GNOME or KDE desktop environments; alternatives include xfce4, icewm and wmaker, but there are others to choose from.
Debian 5’s install routine has a lot more steps than Ubuntu’s, for example. This is to be expected and it should not deter you from trying Debian 5. Note also that Debian 5 also gives you a lot more control than other distros, so the extra steps serve an important purpose.
The screenshots below walk you through the install, from beginning to end.
Booting & Login
Here’s what the booting & login screens look like:
Since I picked the GNOME version of Debian 5, that’s what I booted into after doing my install. The wallpaper is a bit bland but you can change that easily enough. Debian 5’s GNOME desktop is very simple and does not contain, for example, the huge amount of bells and whistles that you’ll find in Ultimate Edition or PinguyOS. It’s essentially a basic GNOME desktop environment.
The default theme is Clearlooks, but there are 12 altogether to choose from in the Appearance Preferences menu. Just click System in the top panel then Preferences to access the menu. I think SphereCrystal is a more attractive them so that’s what I ended up changing mine to after using Debian 5 for a while.
As I noted above, the wallpaper is rather bland and uninspiring. The selection in the Appearance Preferences menu isn’t much better. Most of it is sort of generic colors or cheesy nature pictures. No problem, if you do a Google search you can find tons of cool wallpaper to use instead of what comes with Debian 5.
Here’s a look at what you’ll find in terms of admin tools in Debian 5.
Here’s a sample of the software included in this release.
gThumb Image Viewer
Inkscape Vector Graphics Editor
XSane Image Scanning Program
Liferea Feed Reader
Remote Desktop Viewer
Terminal Server Client
Transmission BitTorrent Client
Audio CD Extractor
Rhythmbox Music Player
Serpentine Audio Creator
Debian 5’s software management tool is not as elegant or as sophisticated as the ones in Ubuntu or Linux Mint. However, it’s very functional and fairly attractive in its own right. While you cannot rate or review applications, you can see which applications are the most or least popular based on the number of stars in the popularity field.
Applications are categorized, as shown in the screenshot, and you can easily search for an application if you don’t want to spend time browsing for it. You can choose to show All Available Applications, All Open Source Applications or Installed Applications Only.
Adding & Removing Software
Adding or removing programs is very easy. Simply find the application you want and then click the checkbox next to its name and icon in the Add/Remove Applications tool. After that just click Apply Changes and you’re good to go.
Sound and Multimedia
YouTube & Flash
Version 9 of flash comes already installed in the Iceweasel browser. Unfortunately it did not seem to work at all for YouTube videos. I did notice a message from YouTube encouraging me to upgrade to flash 10 though, when I went to play a video. I recommend upgrading to flash 10 before trying to play flash content on the web.
Also installed in Iceweasel are the iTunes Application Detector, QuickTime Plugin 7.2, Totem Web Browser Plugin 2.22.2, and the Windows Media Player Plugin 10. So it’s pretty safe to say that Iceweasel is locked, cocked and ready to rock when it comes to multimedia on the web.
You should note that you do not get the multimedia codecs available in Linux Mint Debian Edition or Ultimate Edition (for obvious legal reasons). So bear that in mind if that’s an issue for you.
You also get a decent selection of desktop multimedia applications including Audio CD Extractor, Movie Player, Rhythmbox Music Player, and the Serpentine Audio CD Creator. If that doesn’t cut it for you, don’t worry. There’s a whole bunch of other multimedia applications (way too many to list here) that are available in the Add/Remove Applications tool.
Problems & Headaches
One of the drawbacks to Debian 5 is that you won’t necessarily have the most updated versions of applications. For example, it ships with OpenOffice.org 2.4 instead of 3.0. But it’s important to note that stability is very, very important to the Debian project. So shipping cutting-edge applications in Lenny is really not something to be expected. I note it here for those who care about having the latest & greatest of everything.
Beyond that, there’s not much to really note here in terms of problems. Debian 5 was rock-solid for me and seemed quite speedy as well. I did not see any application crashes, system hang-ups or other problems while running it. It performed extremely well for me and I was able to do all of my usual stuff while running.
Where To Get Help
Please take a moment to register for the DLR forum (registration takes less than a minute and you can login with your Facebook account if you want); everybody is welcome. You are welcome to post a message in the Linux Help section and we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction. The forum contains discussions about Linux, but also many other topics. Please stop by and say hello when you have a chance.
You might also want to check out the excellent Debian support page. You’ll find links to documentation, a Wiki, mailing lists, bug tracking and a bunch of other stuff. I highly recommend browsing the support page if you are totally new to Debian. Bookmark it and refer back to it if you find you have issues using Debian 5.
Final Thoughts & Who Should Use It
Debian 5 is perfect for those who want a very stable system that provides a great deal of control to the user. It is not well suited for those looking for the latest & greatest of everything. If you bear that in mind and proceed accordingly, you might find Debian 5 to be a very useful desktop distro.
Those who want things to be a bit more up-to-date should really consider Linux Mint Debian instead. Bear in mind that LMDE is based on the testing branch (also known as Squeeze) rather than on the stable branch (Lenny). So you may not have the same sort of rock-solid stability that you get in Debian 5. It’s a bit of a trade-off, to a certain degree and it’s something you should know when you consider choosing between the two.
My experience with Debian 5 was overwhelmingly positive. I’ll be keeping it around to use regularly, though I suspect I will still lean a bit toward Linux Mint Debian a fair amount of the time.
Debian 5 is probably best suited to intermediate and advanced Linux users.
However, because I like it so much, I want to qualify that recommendation a bit by encouraging users new to Linux to check it out anyway; try running it in a virtual machine via VirtualBox on your existing system. Don’t be afraid to give it a shot in a VM if you’re new to Linux; you might find yourself having some fun with it.
The worst that can happen is that you newer folks might decide that you don’t like it and then delete it from VirtualBox. But by running it (and reading about it), they will gain some very helpful desktop Linux experience and will have a better understanding of how much the Debian project has contributed to the well being and popularity of desktop Linux overall.
|Product:||Debian 5 (Lenny)|
|Pros:||Rock-solid stability; decent selection of applications; fast; supportive community.|
|Cons:||Applications may be older versions; the install routine has more steps but also provides greater control; software management tool does not allow for application reviews & user ratings.|
|Suitable For:||Intermediate and advanced users; although beginners might want to consider trying it in a VM.|
|Summary:||Debian 5 is the granddaddy of many of today’s desktop distros, but it’s also a fine desktop option in its own right.|