Saturday, 26 March 2011

Debian 6 - does it get the credit it deserves? Absolutely not!

Since becoming interested in Linux I haven't really paid much attention to Debian. My first ever encounter with Debian was with Debian 5 and on a very old Mitac Laptop with an AMD Athlon Mobile processor. That was a positive experience because unlike the releases of Fedora, openSUSE and Ubuntu at that time it was the only distribution that worked on this laptop. However, it was a very brief experience.

So here we are with Debian 6 which I have been waiting to try for a long time.


Debian is a 100% community project, there are no corporate sponsors with their own agenda behind Debian. Just volunteers giving up their time to make a free operating system. Therefore unlike Fedora, openSUSE and Ubuntu, Debian can genuinely claim to put the priorities of their users first.

Debian has a reputation for creating very stable distributions which is often attributed to their long testing periods, strict requirements for labelling software packages as stable and the fact that they avoid using the latest and greatest software.

Their distribution is also being used by a number of vendors as a base for their own distribution, most notably by Canonical Ltd who use Debian as a base for Ubuntu. Had Canonical Ltd used something else would they have been as successful as they are today?

Canonical Ltd's choice to use Debian has undoubtedly benefited the Debian Project but I think Debian are where they are today because they produce a good solid 'no nonsense' distribution with the user in mind.

Many of the other big distributions have further goals which in turn have a detrimental effect on the users needs. As a user I want stability, a well supported product, something that is easy to use and well documented.

Compare that to Fedora, its very nature to be a show case for the latest and greatest can affect stability, it rapidly changes in order to meet that aim and therefore lacks long term support and is hard to maintain documentation due to its continually changing nature.

Fedora is a great product that strives to lead the advancement of FOSS and does a superb job but the Fedora Project have to be careful on how they portray Fedora. With the release of Fedora 14 I noted a change in Fedora's marketing which is very appealing to new users. I understand the need for Fedora to attract new users but they have to be careful not to attract the wrong type of user or at least prevent certain expectations from occurring.

Back to Debian 6...

As with all operating systems, the starting point is to install it and on that note Debian has a very easy to use step-by-step installer that gets the job done. It is a good example of how simplicity can be effective.

Having a working internet connection does help when installing Debian but since Debian decided to remove firmware that may pose an inconvenience for some users. Personally I like the stance Debian have taken concerning the removal of non-free firmware.

During the install I was quite impressed with the fact that Debian explicitly asks the user whether or not they want to install grub, most distributions make the assumption that you do. For me this is a clear example highlighting the very fact that Debian places an emphasis on its users and understands that some have different requirements.

Initially I was disappointed with the lack of ability the Debian installer has to customize what software packages are to be installed. Instead Debian allows you to select from a list of software categories which include desktop, laptop, web server and others. I say initially because after booting into Debian I was very happy with the default packages installed. It seems like the categories available to select during the install provide a good choice of common and essential packages.

What really got my attention immediately after booting into Debian 6 was the font rendering. Out of the box Debian 6's font rendering is not only excellent but has to be one of the best I have seen. I take my font rendering very seriously and Debian tops my list for providing great font rendering.

When using the system, viewing files, folders and opening programs, the system response in Debian 6 could be better. This may be due to several reasons, Debian 6 uses kernel 2.6.32 and Gnome 2.30 which are many versions behind the latest. The significance being newer versions often include bug fixes and performance increases but also looking at the kernel config for the Debian 2.6.32 kernel reveals a timer frequency of 250Hz.

As an experiment I recompiled the kernel with the timer frequency at 1000Hz and did notice an improvement to the system response. I further compiled a more recent kernel, 2.6.38 which improved the system response even more and I would put this down mainly to the more recent nouveau driver.

So there are drawbacks to using older software, has Debian got the balance between software version and stability too much towards older software?

Overall if you are familiar with Ubuntu then you should be quite comfortable with Debian, enabling all the non-free repositories and installing multimedia codes is straightforward but not on the same level of ease as Ubuntu.

Iceweasel Annoyance

Due to branding issues Debian uses a version of Firefox with different branding. Essentially it is Firefox but because the browser identifies itself as Iceweasel to websites this can cause problems.

The fix is easy and documented by the Debian project, other annoyances include Gnash, an open source flash plugin installed by default that doesn't work well. Remove, install Adobe Flash, done.

I want a new version of OpenOffice

Keeping with tradition, Debian 6 has an older version of OpenOffice. I attempted to remove it but apt-get was automatically pulling in Abiword as a replacement. After going through synaptic I found the culprit,  a package called gnome-office. Once that was erased I could successfully remove OpenOffice without Abiword being pulled in as a replacement.

Debian 6 for a desktop user?

After using Debian 6, I can only conclude what others have already. There is no point using it over Ubuntu if you are a desktop user who wants something that requires minimum effort out of the box. Many users are not confident enough to setup the multimedia codecs or compile a kernel a more recent kernel to improve hardware support.

That said, I do not like some of the customizations Ubuntu provide. Apparmor, the social integration to Gnome, the kernel supports more hardware (more bloat), the font rendering is slightly different.

Debain in many ways reminds me of Fedora, out of the box it is very simple. I like that. I also do not mind taking the time to setup Debian. So for those reasons I personally would use Debian 6 over Ubuntu, with a tweaked and more recent kernel of course :-)

"Don't be afraid to try compiling the kernel. It's fun and profitable"

8.6.1. Kernel Image Management - http://www.debian.org/releases/stable/i386/ch08s06.html.en


Debian is a true community project that lerks in the shadows of Ubuntu and Mint, does it get the credit it deserves? Absolutely not!