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Debian Etch: Solid, Crufty, Some Assembly Required

Debian is the the quietest big Linux distro. I see hourly posts on Distrowatch, Slashdot and Digg about the latest builds of Ubuntu and SUSE, and even Mark Shuttleworth’s wearing of a KDE t-shirt is considered news. I presume that things are fine inside Debian and that no gnus is good gnus, but also I believe, as Oscar Wilde said: “What’s worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

I’ve written a number of posts about Ubuntu and Debian on this website in the last few weeks, saying that: in principle I should be running Debian, that Ubuntu is too small a team for the size of their customer base and buglist, questioning the size of the fork Ubuntu has made, questioning whether Debian is stagnant, etc. I decided to see if I could test any of these assumptions, so I grabbed the latest Etch bits from the Debian-testing tree and installed it on a 2-year-old Sony VAIO laptop.

Even though I had grabbed just a daily build, the very nice Debian installer recognized my hardware, it generally installed and ran like a champ. However, my hopes and expectations for Linux in 2006 are greater:

  • The mouse pointer was very slow; it took 15 swipes to move the mouse across the screen and tweaking the speed of the mouse in the Gnome UI didn’t help. There is a bug in Debian’s database which suggested a workaround and that the problem isn’t specific to Debian, but I haven’t seen this problem on the other distros. I plugged in a USB mouse and kept going.
  • My ipw 2100 didn’t work. I know there is a firmware freedom issue, but the drivers ship with the kernel, and they work on other distros. I just plugged in an Ethernet cable, which worked right away, and kept going.
  • Menus: There are simple Ubuntu-style menus, and then a deeply nested set of Debian menus. I’m not sure if this is part a transition, but I do think they should ship with one nice simple default set.
  • There is a a lot of crufty old apps which get installed by default: mutt, sh, tcsh, xeyes, etc., etc. Given that it is so easy to install software, even if you assume that Debian is for experts, why not ship the prettiest and most popular and perhaps put the old command-line stuff into a meta-package?
  • I tried to hibernate and received an error message saying that it didn’t appear software support was compiled into the kernel. Neither was any support compiled into the UI for me to choose hibernate from the logout menu.
  • Sound didn’t work. Totem-gstreamer would crash saying “failed to connect to the d-bus daemon.”
  • Everything is built against gstreamer .08 even though .10 is in the repositories; I presume this is being worked on.
  • Apache is 2.0, latest is 2.2
  • Drupal is 4.5.8, latest is 4.7
  • GCC 4.0.3, latest is 4.1
  • OpenOffice 2.0.1, latest is 2.0.2
  • Tomboy 0.3.3, latest is 0.3.5. No F-Spot or Beagle
  • No Ekiga
  • Tried to install the free ATI 3-d drivers (the proprietary ones I wish I had the freedom to install are nowhere to be found) but it couldn’t install because it complained about missing xserver-xorg-core 1:0.99.0-1, which it said wasn’t installable.
  • I installed the Xfce Window Manager which worked fine, but I didn’t see the application menu for starting any apps, like Xubuntu has.
  • Lots of little things: the “Add to Panel…” dialog box is lamer than the one that ships with Dapper. Sorry I don’t have a screenshot. The dialog to change the desktop background had repaint issues.
  • On the good side, Debian ships with a more sane set of fonts than Ubuntu, which has a pile of international fonts, causing my few Western fonts to get lost.

After that I gave up. I know this is an incremental build and I could get more or perhaps even all things working, but I feel like Debian will need to do more than fix the RC bugs to keep up with the other distros and tempt me.

I know some people will read this and say that I don’t understand Debian, or that Debian shouldn’t be easy to use. Whatever. Linux is growing in double digits, but not Debian. And if you aren’t growing, you are shrinking through attrition. (I wonder if Debian is firing on all cylinders–I’d be interested to know how many of Debian’s developers do less than 4 hours a week of work.) I did a subsequent install of OpenSUSE, and was very impressed with both its stability and polish, so it isn’t just Ubuntu which thinks that the last 5% is important. It should be no surprise that Debian is only #7 on the distrowatch list.

I also didn’t see that Debian is benefiting as much from Ubuntu as I thought it would. Power management features, and many new packages and new versions of code in Ubuntu have not made it upstream. Perhaps this is work Debian has signed up to do but hasn’t done, but it does suggest that things might work better if more work was done directly in Debian; code is flowing downstream much better than upstream right now.

I wish Debian was trying a bit harder for my affection. I’ve boasted that I’ll probably be ready to maintain a Debian box in the Etch timeframe, but now I’m not so sure. Ubuntu has lots of bugs, but I don’t think more than a handful are regressions. It appears that Ubuntu has all the advantage of Debian with no new disadvantages.

Finally, while I do see that Debian has given Ubuntu a great base and that Ubuntu could probably be helping Debian more, it seems fair to say that Ubuntu has taken Debian and polished it up quite a bit and they deserve more props for that than I and many others in the Debian community have given them. Of course, when Canonical adds another 24 people, Ubuntu will really rock…

I have been rude and disrespectful to thee, Ubuntu. Will you take me back? [Eyeing the SUSE CD in the corner–I’ve always had a thing for Germans.]

P.S. Some people are angry that I dare criticize Debian when its not ready, but I want Debian to succeed, this build is the culmination of 12 months of work, with 6 months remaining, and I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em; that’s why you guys pay me the big bucks!

25 comments to Debian Etch: Solid, Crufty, Some Assembly Required

  • The business model used by Canonical is not a viable business model.
    Just because Mark has “a lot of money” and can do this… doesn’t mean this is sustainable — if the king dies, evethything goes away.
    (I still have an old lady using Ubuntu Hoary for e-mail communication, and I was converted for good to GNOME by Ubuntu Warty, but I’d not stick with the closed Ubuntu circle — the developer zone is infinitely more anti-democratic than the Debian Project is.)

  • Cool —

    Review an incomplete and constantly in flux testing Linux distribution (GCC 4.1 was installed after an upgrade 2 days ago, before your article was printed) is this how you get visitors to your site?

    Going for the sensational like journalists do?

    Why don’t you do some good with your site and pull people away from that monster Windows. Belittling an unfinished distro may make you look cool to the ignorant — but your credibility has a leak in it.

    Man — you’re not doing anybody any favors.

    –machiner

  • KeithCu

    I was running bits from Friday.

    You can pick on my GCC 4.1 issue, but what about the rest?

    Take Apache 2.2, which was released 6 months ago…

    What about sleep and hibernate? Can you say that will work like SUSE and Ubuntu by ship?

    Will mutt and the other cruft be removed before ship? Did it ship with Sarge?

    I’m not belittling it. Etch has had 9 months of coding and has 4-6 left, so it seemed like a good time for a checkpoint…

  • James Dixon

    > I installed the Xfce Window Manager which worked fine, but I didn’t see the application menu for starting any apps.

    Probably because XFCE doesn’t have an application menu. From memory, try right clicking on the desktop.

  • James Dixon

    > Will mutt and the other cruft be removed before ship?

    Well, mutt won’t be. If you want to run a console only system, it’s the best email client available. Not everyone needs or wants X.

  • dthacker

    I like mutt. I’m not always able to use a GUI, and mutt can come in very handy! As the perl folks say
    TMTOWTDI! I’m not in favor of deprecating command line utilities. Call me a mossback reactionary. but I like my CLI.

    Dave

  • Do like I do:

    Debian for the servers, which it is great for. Ubuntu for the desktops, laptops, etc, which it is great for ;-)

  • Jim

    I have found Debian/Unstable/Sid to be more stable than Debian/Testing/Etch. You won’t get the latest because it must be stable for a certain period of time before it graduates to Testing. The developers are updating the packages in Sid more often than in Etch. The disadvantage of Sid is all the daily package updating which sometimes really does go unstable (but rare). Hence, the real advantage of Ubuntu: the stability with 6-month old packages.

  • Etch is the codename for the upcoming release of Debian. Etch has been the testing “release” of the Debian distribution since the release of the current stable version, 3.1 (codenamed Sarge), on June 6th 2005. The project is currently aiming at a December 4 2006 release date….

    Good job you made an extensive review on something that isn’t released yet. You are using Debian “testing” they call it debian testing for a reason…get a clue.

  • Peter Harris

    I think there is a real problem with linux. On the one hand there is debian stable – which of all the distros I have used is the ONLY one that is usable as a work tool. Play around with all the other free distros, even debian testing and unstable and they are fine but try to do some real work with a variety of programs and you are in trouble. Unfortunately the fast development of linux and its programs means that it is almost impossible for a distro to remain current and upto date with packages and remain bug free. It just makes me sad that I read about how many developers are working on linux and how many hours of work goes into reproducing distro after distro of exactly the same with just different bugs introduced at slightly different times. What a waste. We need fewer distros with debian stable stability but with backport of all packages that do not put that stability at risk. I certainly welcome the day when one distro is picked that all developers will try to at least ensure that a package exists for that distro and that it has less bugs in it than the one already packaged by the distro.

    When I try to get a windows or mac user onto linux the first impression is that it is the buggiest system they have ever used. If that is because there are too many beta programs out there then that needs to change. Stability over buggy new features is the way to go, but if you can have new features and keep the stability then that would be perfect.

  • AC

    He undoubtedly expected an “Applications” menu in XFCE because of the atrocious job Xubuntu has done of “improving” it: making it look and feel more like GNOME. The XFCE Debian gives you is the way that XFCE’s developers ship it, very reminiscent of the CDE, which inspired it. And a superior interface to GNOME, IMHO.

  • Sarge is the stable one. But Debian’s never been all that good as a desktop OS.

  • James Dixon

    > Stability over buggy new features is the way to go..

    One word: Slackware.

  • AC

    What is it with Slackware users? A discussion of Debian and some Slackware user has to chime in, as if Slackware were the only stable GNU/Linux out there, as if there were no such thing as, say… Debian stable? I’m not denying that Slackware is pretty stable in what it offers. I think Debian is as stable while offerring quite a bit more, but I’m not even arguing that. I’m just pointing out the silliness of the Slackware zombie whose kneejerk response is to always suggest that Slackware is the most stable system out there.

  • Glenn Greenfield

    I love Debian and I agree, it needs some polish. This is where Kanotix comes in. It’s Debian Sid all the way with a few added things like easy nVidia & ATI driver installation. How easy?

    CTRL+ALT+F1
    su
    install-nvidia-debian.sh

    Preconfigured KDE w/ nice selection of usable applications. Many wireless cards/adapters ‘just work’. But with Kanotix you don’t have the fork problem. You use standard Debian repos just like always. In fact you can easily add the Kanotix repo to your Debian Sid installation.

    Latest Kanotix kernel is version 2.6.16-16. At least give it a try.

    A few of the drivers from the last Kanotix kernel I checked out:

    ivtv, lirc-modules, ltmodem-modules, madwifi-modules, ndiswrapper-modules, omnibook-modules, ppscsi-modules, qc-usb, rfswitch-module, rt2400, rt2500, rt2570, rtl8180, shfs-module, spca5xx-modules, sqcam-modules, unionfs-module, zd1211-module and more.

    Lots of kernel patches including (but not limited to)
    sony_acpi4, pctvsat, acpi-dsdt-initrd, cpufreq-speedstep, t-sinus_111card, bootsplash, acpi-ec-nospinlock, radeon-gart-fix, reiser4 and more.

    If you need help there is of course a forum but also a very strong IRC presence where you may literally be overwhelemed by competent people willing to assist you with any questions you might have. It’s not often that you’ll be told to RTFM.

    Who’d like to see a distro challenge between Kubuntu & Kanotix?

  • “He undoubtedly expected an “Applications” menu in XFCE because of the atrocious job Xubuntu has done of “improving” it: making it look and feel more like GNOME. The XFCE Debian gives you is the way that XFCE’s developers ship it,”

    Then is should have an applications menu, that’s been in it since somewhere in the 4.x series.

    It is a great environment, but on a fast computer GNOME makes me more productive, so I’m only using it on older hardware.

  • Bert

    I guess Debian is not ideal if you want gnome or kde and the latest versions of all apps. But, then again, when I look the DistroWatch pages of Ubuntu and SUSE, I see that many application versions are marked in black (which means that they’re obsolete) while the up-to-date apps are marked in green. In fact, I didn’t find any distro where all applications would be the latest versions. So Ubuntu and SUSE are no better than Debian in this respect.

    But I don’t like gnome or kde. Instead, I prefer FLUXBOX that makes a fast, good-looking and easy to use desktop. I use Debian testing and of the extra “cruft” that the reviewer mentions (mutt, sh, tcsh, xeyes) only xeyes got installed automatically. I had to install mutt manually and I don’t have sh or tcsh. Debian gives me all the apps I want — and only those. Ubuntu, on the other hand, installs by default all kinds of cruft that I don’t need or want. I haven’t tried SUSE.

  • AC

    Bert, I suspect you installed a minimal system and then x-window-system (I think that metapackage includes xeyes. I know x-window-system-core does not) and fluxbox. Whereas I believe the reviewer used tasksel and chose Desktop Environment. That’s one of the beauties of Debian: there are a lot of ways to go about setting up a system. Some (tasksel) require fewer choices and will likely install more packages one might call cruft, while others require making more choices but give you precisely what you ask for. Metapackages provide a nice middle ground.

  • James Dixon

    > Then is should have an applications menu, that’s been in it since somewhere in the 4.x series.

    I’m running 4.2.something, and it doesn’t have an application menu in the same sense Gnome and KDE do. It has a menu, but you have to right click on the desktop to bring it up. That’s probably not what he was expecting.

  • James Dixon

    > What is it with Slackware users? A discussion of Debian and some Slackware user has to chime in, as if Slackware were the only stable GNU/Linux out there, as if there were no such thing as, say… Debian stable?

    Debian stable and Slackware are approximately equal in stability. The poster had tried Debian stable and wanted to know why there weren’t any OTHER stable distributions. He’s obviously never tried Slackware. If this is supposed to be a Debian only discussion, I guess the other posters will want to remove their references to Ubuntu, Macs, and Windows.

  • AC

    James,
    That’s been my experience building Xfce from upstream as well. Debian and Slackware tend to go with the vanilla defaults. I see TFA’s author has added a link now to a Xubuntu screenshot, illustrating what is in fact a far from normal configuration of Xfce, one that is a (in my view) grotesque imitation of GNOME.

    btw, I no doubt overreacted to your Slackware remarks. I might have preferred something like, “There are comparably stable distros out there, Slackware being a noteworthy example,” but it seems that was in fact your intent, however much “one word: Slackware” may have rubbed me the wrong way. Hey, I get cranky sometimes.

  • James Dixon

    > ” but it seems that was in fact your intent, however much “one word: Slackware” may have rubbed me the wrong way. Hey, I get cranky sometimes.

    As do we all. Given that this is a Debian oriented thread, I probably should have been more verbose. I simply thought the intent was obvious from the context. I should know better by now.

  • I have just recently ditched windows after using windows and linux on and off for many years. I waited until SuSE 10.1 came out to do this… well… suse 10.1 lasted all of about 2 hours on my machine.

    Trying to stick with it, i tried to install the latest kubuntu build (flight 6 or 7 at the time i think) from the live cd and it failed…

    Then i thought… mmmm… why not just use Debian, i’ve used it before… so lets give it a go…

    I installed Debian etch using net install, it installed extremely fast using a mirror on my isp and i had a fully working system with gnome and openoffice and many other apps… it was very quick and everything worked! I then installed kde and started configuring what i needed.

    Its now been 2 or 3 weeks and i’m still running debian etch… mind you i now have a combination of etch (testing) and unstable (whatever the unstable branch is called) packages installed and my system is running great…

    i have had a few sound issues… but they are mainly kde related, not debian.

    I think debian is a great distro… i plan to keep using it as long as possible or until i decide i need windows again…

  • logicalhippo

    xeyes!?! cruft!?!?!
    Are you crazy! No system is complete without xeyes! How else will the Boss know what you’re doing?