Sunday, November 6, 2011

Debian Beckons Ubuntu Refugees to Come Home

Debian Live desktop
Dissatisfaction continues over Ubuntu's choice of the Unity Interface as default and, in the most recent release, no obvious way to return to the old Gnome desktop.

Long time Ubuntu users have been complaining loudly about Unity's lack of stability, limited options and an overall unfinished feel.

Distros that have watched Ubuntu gobbling up the Linux mind-share are suddenly getting a second look by unhappy Ubuntu users seeking alternatives to Unity.

Ubuntu started life as a simplified Debian with an emphasis on desktop usability. Recent Ubuntu releases seem focused on blazing their own trail toward a touchscreen, cloud enabled, widget driven environment. This may prove to be a very forward thinking plan, but it leaves traditional Gnome users hungering for their familiar desktop environment.

I decided to take another look at Ubuntu's parent, Debian. They offer live cd/dvds so I downloaded the i386 dvd .iso of the current stable release 6.0, aka 'Squeeze'. (All the Debian releases are named after characters from the 'Toy Story' movies.)

As a test machine, I scrounged up an ancient Dell Inspirion 1150. This dinosaur sports a 30 GB harddrive, 2.6 GHz processor, Wifi and 512  MB of RAM. Although I love my bling, I did not test compiz on this box due to the low specs.

Debian calls itself "The Universal Operating System" and nothing beats its support for a wide variety of hardware and architectures. Sound, video and ethernet were configured and worked automagically from the live cd.

Clicking the Install icon opens a graphical installer which walks the user through the usual steps: language, location, keyboard and timezone. Enter user and administrator passwords, computer and host names.

The partitioner offers a simple, guided install for a range of configurations. More advanced setup options are available by selecting 'Manual' install. The installation is essentially the same as most gnome-gui based installers and virtually painless.

The desktop is plain, vanilla Gnome 2 with a cartoonish space wallpaper (see above). There are many more wallpapers included by default and Ubuntu users will recognize many beautiful favorites, including 'Cosmos' the space slide show.

Live Earth Wallpaper on Debian/Gnome2
I replaced the default background with a Live Earth wallpaper that updates hourly throughout the day. You can find installation instructions here.
Neither ethernet or wifi would work after install. A quick google search found this documented bug and fix. Apparently, networking auto-configure is disabled by default.

I edited (as root) /etc/NetworkManager/NetworkManager.conf to show managed=true and following a restart of network manager, ethernet finally connected.

This Dell machine uses an old Broadcom wireless chipset, notoriously difficult to get working due to the closed nature of their firmware. Thankfully, in September of 2010, Broadcom finally began offering fully open Linux drivers for their chipsets.

Per instructions here, I entered in a terminal: sudo apt-get install firmware-b43-installer .Following a reboot, my wireless network was located and after entering my password, I was online in seconds.

I updated my repositories to include non-free software packages  Replace 'Squeeze' with 'Testing' for more current software updates, but slightly more breakage. Upgrades are incremental or 'rolling.' No need to reinstall every six months.

Debian uses apt for package management, with Synaptic as the familiar front end. Update manager notifies you of available updates and the Software Center makes adding and removing applications easy.

Debian came with gnash, the open implementation of Adobe Flash, installed by default. If you prefer Adobe's version, it is available in the repositories.

User friendly distros like Ubuntu and Mepis were built on Debian's stability, massive software repositories and superior apt package management system. Debian may lack the polish of these derivatives, but it is also a blank canvas, ready to take on your own look and feel. Experiment with new themes, icon sets, wallpapers and more at

I was pleasantly surprised at the improvements in usability and ease of installation in Debian. Gnome2 seems as comfortable and familiar as an old pair of slippers. I think I will give Debian another try as a Desktop OS and it feels surprisingly good to come home.

A full review of Debian Squeeze can be found here.

Article first published as Debian Beckons Ubuntu Refugees to Come Home on Technorati.

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