Review: Debian 5: Lenny

Debian…the father and grandfather of many a Linux distro.  I think indirectly Debian is probably running on more computers than any other Linux distro.  It’s the basis of Ubuntu, Mepis, Xandros, and many others.  And many people use Debian where they need a nice, stable distro.  The fact that Debian’s stable releases come out every one to two years and remain supported for a year after a new stable version means that it’s the darling distro where stability is needed.  As great as Ubuntu is, you just can’t keep updating every 6 months on a production machine.  Now, the flipside is that Debian tends to have older software all-around.  So it tends to be used more as a server distro than a desktop distro.  But more people than you would expect do run it on their desktops.  Afterall, what does the latest version of Gnome have that you REALLY, REALLY need?

When I setup my file and print server I chose Debian because it had a minimal installation that you could build from and just add what you needed.  Also, at the time, yum upgrades in Fedora were REALLY not supported.  (They’re kinda supported now)  So I didn’t want to have to connect a monitor to the computer every time I wanted to upgrade.  Debian, on the other hand, has a really good rolling release system.  For the most part you can just use apt to upgrade and most everything works as it should.

The last time I installed Debian was version 3.x and it was a little intimidating for me.  I had only installed Fedora before that and Debian did not have a GUI installer.  But I was able to figure it out and get it up and running without too much trouble.  Now with Debian 5, there is a GUI installer supported and I want to check it out and see how it compares to Anaconda and the other GUI installers I’ve seen.

Debian 5 installation - language selection
Debian 5 installation – language selection

Debian boots up and I select graphical install.  The first thing it asks me to do is select my language.   Next comes the localization.  It says, since you picked English you probably live in one of these countries.  I think that’s pretty neat.  And then, since I picked USA, it says I probably want to use the American english keyboard.  Quite a nice bit of programming there.  I like it!  It then started scanning the DVD.

One important thing to mention here before I forget.  This version of Debian is a special remix created by the Debian Project Leader specially for Linux Format Magazine.  I think the only difference is that it has some extra packages over the normal CD, but that’s it.

Next I can select a hostname for the computer.  I leave it at debian, but if it were a real computer I’d give it a name to match my network scheme of Mario characters.  The same goes for the domain name.  Then I select my timezone.  The installer moves onto the disk partitioning step.

I have four choices.  Guided – use entire disk, Guided – use entire disk and LVM, Guided – use entire disk and encrypted LVM, and Manual.   I would have really like a little bit of text at the bottom explaining what each of these are.  Other than that, good on them for all the options.  Also, I just noticed that the installation has a “screenshot” button.  This is good for those reviewing distros on bare metal instead of in a VM.  I choose the first option.  Again, they give some really great options here!

Debian 5 - partitioning questions
Debian 5 – partitioning questions

As you can see, there are choices for having everything on one partition, a separate home partition, and separate partitions as you might do in a server setup.  Again, this is better than I’ve seen in many of the distros I’ve tested recently.  The most amazing thing is that Debian has a reputation for being a lot harder to install than Ubuntu and other distros, but I find these choices very helpful.  Again, I would have liked to have had a small explanation for the reasoning behind these diferent choices.  Since this is just a review distro, I put everything into one partition.  After a confirmation, the disk is partitioned and formatted.

The base system installation also begins at this point.  It takes about 10 minutes.   Then I put in the root password.  Then it asked for my real name, username, and user password.  Then it asked if I wanted to add a network mirror as opposed to just installing from the DVD.  I hit yes, USA, and then the first Debian repo.  It then asked if I wanted to participate in popularity contest.  Sure, why not?

Then it gave me a choice of which packages to install.  I chose Desktop and Standard System.  This took an hour.  (remember this is a virtual machine so it may go faster on your computer)  Then I installed grub.  After rebooting, I had a GDM screen with a very pleasant shade of Blue.

Debian 5 - GDM
Debian 5 – GDM

I login and I’m greeted with a very nice dekstop theme that matches with the GDM theme.

Debian 5 - Default Gnome Desktop
Debian 5 – Default Gnome Desktop

It appears to be running Gnome 2.22.  The latest version which will be going into most of the spring distro releases is 2.26.  So they are only 2 versions behind.  It’s not TOO bad.  Most of the last two releases have been very incremental.  With the GIMP they are on version 2.4 – only one version behind.  However, version 2.6 was a pretty major upgrade.  Inkscape is also available in the graphics category.  In the Internet category they have Iceweasel (Firefox) 3.0.6.  That’s not too bad.  I think with the browser they need to stay up to date because of all the security problems an unpatched browser could cause.  They also have Pidgin, Liferea, Evolution, Transmission for BitTorrent, Ekiga for SIP, and Epiphany.  Open is at 2.4.  The 3.0 release is supposed to be some hot stuff, so it’s dissapointing that it’s not here.  But I think for MOST people, it won’t matter.  It should only matter when trading docs with Microsoft users or with very, very complex documents or documents using macros.  Rounding things off are Rhythmbox 0.11.6  and Totem 2.22.

So let’s see what version of Blender they have.  I go to trusty Synaptic to install the software.  It’s at Blender 2.46.  This isn’t too old.  I think if you aren’t working with the gaming engine, most of the important stuff came in the 2.46 release.  Since things are running a bit slow (it’s in a VM), I don’t worry about installing it.

It’s interesting to note that Debian has 22326 packages available for installation!  On the one hand, that’s a bit misleading.  Debian tends to split up programs into more packages than other distros.  For example, for the program blobwars, they have the package blobwars and the package blobwars-data.  On the other hand, you have to try REALLY, REALLY hard to find a package not supported by Debian package maintainers.  Gwibber isn’t there, but, according to the most recent episode of Linux Outlaws, most distros don’t have it yet.  Arch doesn’t.  Fedora does.  It’s pretty new right now.

Other misc info:  Unlike Fedora and (I think) Ubuntu, Debian does not pre-populate your home folder with sub-foldres like Documents, Music, Pictures.  Also, it appears that Debian doesn’t have any Mono applications installed by default.  By contrast Fedora and Ubuntu have Tomboy installed by default and maybe f-spot.  So for those purists who install Ubuntu and then spend hours removing Mono from their systems, perhaps it’d be easier to just run Debian testing.

I decided to check out Debian 5’s version of KDE.  I couldn’t figure out the best way to install it so I could get the full KDE experience.  So I went to The Debian KDE Maintainers website.  They said to use “aptitude install kde-desktop”.  So I tried that.  That is nearly a gig to download and install.  So I let that do its then and went about my buisness.  Once I started it up, it brought up the KDE settings wizard.  And I was greeted by a familiar scene.

Debian 5 - KDE Desktop
Debian 5 – KDE Desktop

So, Debian has stuck with KDE 3.5.  So that’s a potential reason to use Debian – if you really hate KDE 4.x.  The KDE install installed tons of programs like Kontact, Kmail, and many other programs starting with the letter K.

So what do I think of Debian?  Maybe I’m just getting “old” in the Linux World, but I almost don’t see Ubuntu as being THAT much easier than Debian.  Especially with their new (newish) GUI installer, Debian does not deserve to have a reputation as being a lot harder than Ubuntu.  Right now, the reason to run Ubuntu rather than Debian is to have the lastest (although not as lastest as Fedora) software.  Although I advocated running Debian testing in the previous paragraph, there IS the chance of breakage when running a testing system.  So, even though Ubuntu grabs from Debian testing, they then finesse the packages and try to iron out the bugs to make it more stable.  To flip-flop once more, there is a distribution called Sidux that runs Debian Unstable, or Sid.  So, I guess it’s up to you how bleeding edge you want to be.  I would say, if you’re an absolute new user to Linux and it’s important to have the latest packages – check out Linux Mint or Ubuntu.   If you’re a new user and want to install your system and then only install security updates – you might want to strongly consider Debian.  You’ll have somewhere between 2 and 3 years of security updates before you need to worry about upgrading to the latest version.  After all, while 90% of the time an upgrade goes smoothly, you could be in that 10% where it doesn’t – so why upgrade constantly?  I know I’m too young to be curmudgeonly, but I’m getting to the point where once I have kids, I might just switch to CentOS or Debian rather than deal with the upgrade crap every six months.  When else should you use Debian?  If you like the .deb package format better than the .rpm and are running a server – you should use Debian rather than CentOS.  If you have a laptop you MIGHT be better served by Ubuntu or Linux Mint.  Manufacturers are always changing the underlying chips in their products without changing the outer packaging so a more up to date distro like Ubuntu might have the kernel modules or firmware you need to have wifi enabled.  If you have a laptop and never use wifi – then you’re probably fine with Debian.

I don’t want to drag this old argument out again since everything in KDE is supposedly fixed with KDE 4.2 (I haven’t tried it yet).  But a lot of people were upset with the move from KDE 3.5.  It’ll at least two years before Debian moves to the KDE 4 series, so you can get two more years of KDE if you use Debian.  That might apeal to some people.

So, while Debian hasn’t done anything awesome with Lenny that makes it a must-use distro, it has certainly helped raise itself from the too geeky to be of any good status it had before. I think that’s the only thing left for Debian to do.  Debian’s marketing team needs to come up with something that makes them special on the desktop (if that is important to them).  Right now Fedora owns bleeding edge without being too hard.  Arch owns total bleeding edge (seemingly coming out of nowhere).  Ubuntu owns newbie distro.  openSuse is Microsoft-like and liked by businesses.  Right now Debian’s one claim to fame is stability.  But, on the whole, I don’t often experience problems with Fedora’s bleeding edge-ness.  And I never had any stability problems with Ubuntu.  Perhaps one thing Debian could do is steal some of Slackware’s thunder by being the most vanilla.  In other words, you get unadulterated Gnome, KDE, and Xfce.  For example, Xbuntu mucks about with Xfce’s default look.  If Debian already is the most vanilla, they need to do a better job of selling this.

27 responses to “Review: Debian 5: Lenny”

  1. I uninstalled Ubuntu latest to try Debian 5 – and I am going to take my time to get to know Debia 5. I am still trying to get DVDs to play on my laptop, but otherwise it is fine. I like the fact it is stable – and I agree Gnome was getting elaborated .
    I like Watt OS for my netbook and Puppy Linux latest is useful too.

    Enjoyed the review!


  2. I particularly like Debian because it doesn’t by default install a whole heap of crap I don’t need – like Ubuntu does.

    If I want to roll my own FFmpeg and X264 binaries, which I do because I like to have the latest SVN versions, Debian is a much better choice than Ubuntu as their are no library clashes.

    I also find Debian more reponsive than my previous Linux Mint installation.

    There’s no Mono by default in Debian.

    I’m also using Squeeze (testing) rather than Lenny (stable) on a Dell Inspiron 6400 laptop – now a couple of years old – and apart from having to manually install my wireless driver, which was done at OS installation time with the drivers on a USB stick, everything has worked pretty well out of the box. A few minor sound issues so far, but nothing the graphical alsamixer didn’t fix.

  3. “The fact that Debian’s stable releases come out every one to two years and remain supported for a year after a new stable version means that it’s the darling distro where stability is needed.”

    Long Term Support. Guess which distribution wins (again).
    No its not Debian. Debian only wins the “pretending to be 100% free contest”, well maybe the most successful community project too.
    Its Slackware of couse. Despite the fact that it doesnt advertise it.
    Slackware 8.1 released on 18-Jun-2002 is still receiving security updates

    • And a comparison:
      A one man distribution as people often criticise Slackware of being can provide security fixes and support for 7 years.
      On the contrary Debian, powered by thousands of volunteers worldwide can only do so for 2 to 3.

      • There is not a single distribution that support as many architectures and as many packages as Debian.

        Think about that before write something comparing distros.

  4. Debian Lenny rocks but rocks more with KDE 🙂

  5. Debian 5.0 was kind of a miss for me. I use Ubuntu LTS, which is just fine and stable, but doesn’t make you go hunt for drivers and codecs like Debian does. It’s not hard, I’m just lazy. 🙂

    I still love Debian 4.0. It and CentOS 5.3 are my go-to distros for stability. 5.0 just felt kind of blah, especially when Ubuntu 8.04 beat them to the punch. It contains all of the same software, feels a bit more springy, and is easier to install and get moving.

    Severs, however, are always filled with a Debian 5.0 install. No question there.

      • No. I still had to. But when I ran Debian 4.0, the resulting installation was worth it, once everything was configured.

        I put that 4.0 point in a new paragraph because it was a different topic sentence.

  6. I stopped reading your review half way, when most of the sentences were starting to begin with “so”. So, next time you write a review, please take care of that 🙂 So you know – when you use “so” so many times, it gets on your nerves.

    • It didn’t get on my nerves and I read the review top to bottom. You must be SO unpatient… 😛 Yes, you made me look and I found out you were right – a lot of sentences start with “so”. So what? 😀 (kidding :P)

      I’d rather comment on content, not language. That’s why I replied, because I appreciate the man’s effort to write this review while/after going through the whole installation process so I wouldn’t complain at all for these minor issues you say they get on _your_ nerves – not mine.

      What I liked about this review is that it’s aimed to people who don’t know too much Linux or none at all and it’s quite well balanced regarding advices and criticism regarding Debian’s developers’ choice of creating the installer. Yes, normal people don’t need to know about HDD partitioning or LVMs and other stuff so it would be decent to add a few explanations on the bottom on the partitioning screen, one for each option.

      What felt weird about this review is the lack of details but in the end it turns out to be Debian’s fault for not coming out with something special, like other distros do. 🙂

      Nice review.

  7. So for those purists who install Ubuntu and then spend hours removing Mono from their systems

    That should be as simple as removing ‘mono-common’ from your system: that takes every mono-app with it.

  8. “So, even though Ubuntu grabs from Debian testing, they then finesse the packages and try to iron out the bugs to make it more stable.”

    Ubuntu grabs evrything from unstable, not testing!.


  9. Nice review.

    I run Debian Lenny because its’ easy to install/dual boot/server from the netinstall CD. It runs faster and smoother than Ubuntu and uses less resources. I can sign in as root from the “single user” option and start X to make changes I need to, unlike Ubuntu.

    I have choices of desktops, Gnome, KDE, XFCE etc. All of my hardware is detected and the correct driver installed automatically on my old Dell Dimension 8100.


    Swiftfox browser


    Add the contrib non-free repositories using Synaptic couldn’t be easier, just click on the boxes and reload.

    Add the multimedia repository Easy.

    Install Kpackage via Synaptic if you’re running Gnome. Makes installing new .deb packages much easier. Just make them executable in permissions then open with “Kpackage” and install ie: Kompozer or Google Earth.

    A live CD might be a nice improvement also the installation does take some time. Its’ easy enough to understand but since I used the netinstall CD, it does take time to download the necessary files to complete the installation.

    I run both Gnome and KDE desktops however, KDE is much faster and probably more familiar for newbys.

    Codec installation is easy and automatic like Ubuntu if you add the additional repositories as mentioned above first.

    I like Debian Lenny and use it everyday as a desktop and as a server. My installation has everything that I want/need and nothing else keeping it nice and responsive.


  10. Nice review!

    I mainly switched to Deb 5 from Ubuntu because of KDE 3.5x support. KDE 4.2 is really polished and nice, but that is primarily what it is – “Polished and nice”. I’d rather have a solid desktop where I can work without animated widgets getting in the way of everything. I’d rather not re-learn the new desktop concept while a project is halfway through. KDE 3.5x has been the most productive work environment in my 6 years of working on Linux and i’m sticking with it for now.

  11. One thing I noticed in your blog:

    “I think with the browser they need to stay up to date because of all the security problems an unpatched browser could cause. ”

    Debian does maintain updates to Iceweasel, they however only update what’s necessary. If you search for xulrunner-1.9, you’ll see that it has been getting plenty of updates.

      • Nice review, looking forward for your next one on “Squeeze” when it is out.

        Also, Iceweasel is much better than branded firefox in my opinion.

        Iceweasel = firefox code + debian security patches + better desktop integration 😉

  12. Thanks , I’ve recently been looking for info about this topic for ages and yours is the greatest I have discovered so far. But, what about the bottom line? Are you sure about the source?