First Time Linux

Debian Lenny

The laptop with Mandriva on it is now sadly dead, and the new barebone system is awaiting its first fresh install. So do I fight my way through all the problems with Mandriva 2009.0 or Mandriva 2009.1 all over again, or do I take a break and try something new? Maybe a lot of Mandriva's problems will be fixed with the forthcoming 2010.0 release (2009 Autumn) but I don't want to wait for that, and I certainly doubt that the problems with KDE will be fixed just yet. It's going to take a while for KDE4 to get stable and in the meantime they've broken KDE3 in too many areas to make that useable. So after liking the look and feel of Debian Lenny, and wanting to see more of their approach to stable, quality software (from the community, not from a profit-seeking company with sometimes odd ideas of community involvement), I went for an install of Debian Lenny using the Gnome desktop. New machine, new distro, new desktop, should be interesting!

Install CD

First of all came the surprise that you can't install Debian from the Lenny live CD. I'm not sure if that was an oversight but there was no way to install from my live CD, nothing on the desktop or in the menus. Odd. So to get an installed system I had to download an additional CD iso for the "netinstall" image. Fortunately I was able to run the live CD using the "toram" boot option to let me eject the live CD and use the burner to burn the install image (which was only around 180 MB!). There's more about this secret "toram" option on the Debian Lenny live page.

So, booting from this mini install CD, I get a kind of semi-graphical install wizard which lets me choose the install options. The only awkward bit of this was the partitioning, there didn't seem to be an easy way to manually select the partitioning. I managed to define a root partition but couldn't find the option to define a swap partition. So I went back to the "guided" partitioning, which gave me root, swap and home partitions, but wouldn't let me change the sizes of them. All I could do was delete the home and recreate a new one, but I couldn't resize the root partition without deleting the swap, it seemed. Mandriva's partitioning tool was much better in this respect.

Obviously it had to download a large amount of stuff over the network because the install CD was so small, but this was no problem, and everything seemed to get installed OK. It let me define a single user, and then rebooted into a very nice-looking Gnome desktop.


screenshot of Debian lenny desktop

We've already seen the live CD so there aren't too many surprises after install - a nice fresh look, with clear gnome desktop, well laid-out, not-too-deep menus and of course the full 1600x1200 resolution. It's very easy to use even if you're not that familiar with gnome. It's also easy to change the keyboard layout, and configure the settings how you want them.

This screenshot on the left shows the bare desktop using the default wallpaper.


All in all, this was a much easier and less painful install than the recent Mandriva ones. No strange effects after the install, no crashes when playing video, not many glaring errors with the packaging, and nothing really annoying. Some of the packages are not particularly current, but that's not a big problem. Most of these errors are pretty minor:

Alternative software

There are lots of differences between this Debian system and my old Mandriva system. Some of the main software differences are here:


The versions of the software are not newer than the Mandriva ones, and in some cases are much older. I had to take eclipse 3.5 from as Debian's 3.2 was not only broken but apparently from 2007. But the system seems very stable and looks great. Certainly there are none of the strange problems and gripes I had with the recent Mandriva releases, and that's not just a result of the different hardware.

I am still confused by the package installation, there seem to be at least five ways to add software and the results are different depending on which is used. In the GUI there are two different options: "Add/remove applications" (which doesn't appear to have another name) and also Synaptic package manager. From the console there's apt-get but also aptitude and then also the lower-level dpkg. If you go to "Add/remove applications" and search for "gpsbabel", it doesn't find anything, but synaptic does. If you try to remove applications from the "add/remove applications" tool, sometimes it says it can't and you should use synaptic. So why are there both?

Overall though, I'm very pleased so far, it looks great, all the tested peripherals work (including Skype with the webcam) and the system feels slick and stable. It feels like a quality system (apart from the chinese font disaster), which I have to say the recent Mandriva releases didn't.

Other Quirks

There are definitely problems with the graphics system, probably due to the Intel drivers. Especially when playing a video, any other minor action such as moving, minimising, opening or scrolling a window, can cause the whole system to crash. Not very friendly at all. But again, probably an Intel driver problem rather than a Debian problem.

The Gnome taskbar at the top of the screen seems extremely sensitive to rearranging itself, through no discernable reason. Sometimes it just decides to move the icons around (even if they're locked), which requires a tiresome manual rearrangement. Other times it flips itself to the right side of the screen and it's a royal pain to figure out how to move it back again. Again, these are clearly Gnome issues and I don't know if other distros have the same problems with Gnome.

Occasionally at boot, Debian insists on doing a time-consuming check of the hard drives if they have been mounted more than a certain number of times without check. That's ok of course, but it slows down the boot enormously and it really needs a cancel button. Sometimes you just want to boot quick and postpone that check until the next boot when you're not in a hurry. A minor niggle but real, especially as the hard drives get bigger and the checks get slower.

Next, a really surprising one. Can you imagine, that the default behaviour of Debian Lenny is that every user can read everybody else's files? It's incredible but true, it goes against everything you'd expect from such a quality- and security-conscious distro. Everybody's files in their home directory are readable by everyone, really? On Mandriva all the home directories are private by default.

Finally, a real annoyance with USB sticks. Imagine the picture: a user is logged in to the computer but the screensaver has locked the screen. Another user comes to the computer and logs in as themselves (using the command "Switch User"). The user then plugs in a USB stick. Guess what? Debian says they shouldn't now be allowed to write to their own stick because someone else was logged in to this machine first. How crazy is that? How much sense does that really make? If our frustrated user happens to know the root password, that's ok because they can then copy files over after using the su command. But what if they don't? Then they have to forcibly reboot the machine so that they're the only user logged in. We'll just have to cross our fingers that the first user didn't have any important unsaved files open....

Debian Squeeze

It's now 2011 and Debian Squeeze is now officially called 'stable'. We've already seen the Squeeze live image and first impressions are good (apart from the spacepyjamas theme), so the next step is an upgrade to Debian Squeeze.