Preview: Debian 6 "Squeeze" (Part 1: GNOME)

Main Screen
Trying to forecast when the next version of Debian will be released is like trying to figure out whether or not it will snow the next day in Washington DC in winter; it's an exercise in futility. That said, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Debian 6 "Squeeze" will be released soon. Why? I'm testing the new Debian live images which were first released a week ago (and are daily builds — this one is the 2010 October 3 build); before that, the most recent live image available was of version 6 "Sqeeze" alpha 2. Now that they're doing daily builds, I figure that it's not too long until we see the official release.
So why I am I calling the review of the GNOME edition "Part 1"? Debian is one of two distributions (the other being RHEL/CentOS (and I suppose PCLinuxOS could be included to some extent, so I guess that makes 3)) renowned for its stability; the reason why there's a relatively long gap between releases and why new versions are released only when they're ready is so that as many bugs as possible can be ironed out. (A side effect of this is that large amounts of time are allotted specifically for the purpose of getting rid of bugs, in what is known in the Linux distribution development community as a "feature freeze"; a side effect of such a long feature freeze is that by the time a new version of Debian is released, its components are already 3 or 4 versions old, which is good in terms of stability but bad in terms of getting the latest and greatest features (and oftentimes, newer versions of software iron out the wrinkles of older versions, so sometimes the well-tested older version may still be buggy in some ways). Keep reading to find out whether or not this is true.) Anyway, the point of saying all this is that if an application or even larger component (e.g. a DE) makes it into a Debian release, that's basically a seal of approval in terms of stability. This is why I want to test the GNOME, KDE, LXDE, and Xfce versions of Debian to see if these versions live up to their promises of stable computing; LXDE is a relative newcomer to the DE scene, while KDE 4 suffered from stability problems up until a few months ago, so the fact that these have made it into the newest stable version of Debian must mean that they themselves are fairly stable.
Today, I'm starting with the GNOME version because this is typically the version of Debian that gets the most attention. It is often described as the most bare-bones and lightweight (on hardware resources) implementation of GNOME possible (Arch and Gentoo notwithstanding). Follow the jump to see if these things really are true. As this is a milestone in Linux distribution releases, I'll also be covering the installation procedure.

The boot and startup time is quite fast. The default desktop nicely updates the old-school Debian GNOME look, so that it looks functional and modern without looking either flashy or aged. What's more impressive, however, is that even the live DVD only used 130 MB (of 1 GB allocated in VirtualBox) of RAM during idle, which is quite impressive for a GNOME desktop and comes close to rivaling some more lightweight DEs like LXDE and window managers (WMs) like Fluxbox. The desktop otherwise looks like fairly standard GNOME, though I'm not sure why there's a tiny window menu button at the top-right given that there's a window list (taskbar) applet on the bottom panel; it seems redundant to me. Also, I'm not sure why the browser icon next to the GNOME main menu is Epiphany, but I'll get to that later.
For a rather utilitarian distribution, I was surprised to see things like Cheese Webcam Booth (which, alas, still doesn't work because of VirtualBox's feud with my laptop webcam) and the GNOME Games pack. Actually, the live DVD includes a surprising number of (sometimes redundant) applications. Mozilla Firefox, branded in Debian style as Iceweasel, is present. No proprietary codecs are included, but some free software alternatives are present instead. For example, Gnash is included instead of Adobe Flash. As this is the first time that I've used Gnash, I have to say that it needs a good bit of work, because although it works, on YouTube it causes both the video and the sound to play about twice as slowly as they should (and look and sound rather choppy). Iceweasel itself is at version 3.5 (equivalent to Mozilla Firefox 3.5, which is already 1 (soon to be 2) major version(s) old), showing the effects of the early feature freeze. Plus, Iceweasel is probably going to be more commonly used than Epiphany, the native GNOME/GTK+ browser, so what's the point of Epiphany? It just seems redundant. Also, if GNOME/GTK+ integration is important enough to merit the inclusion of Epiphany, why not Midori, another native GNOME browser that has seen a lot more development of late (compared to Epiphany)? Is this another side effect of the early feature freeze? I suspect as much, so I hope that with version 7 "Wheezy", Midori replaces Epiphany.
Nautilus, OpenOffice.org, and Gnumeric
Although Iceweasel is at version 3.5, the GNOME desktop and its applications are at version 2.30, which is the same version that is present in Ubuntu 10.04 LTS "Lucid Lynx" and its derivatives, so this version of GNOME isn't especially outdated. Thankfully, the default spatial view (opening directories in new windows) of Nautilus has been replaced with the much more sensible browser view (opening directories in a hierarchy (which can be tracked with Nautilus's breadcrumbs) in the same window), as spatial view was a hallmark of Nautilus in Debian 5 "Lenny" (as far as I know, as that release had GNOME 2.22).
OpenOffice.org is present at version 3.2, which is fairly recent, but strangely, AbiWord and Gnumeric are also present, which reinforces the impression of there being too many applications doing similar things. Similarly, Ekiga and Empathy (2 native GNOME instant messaging clients) are present together, though Empathy was supposed to have totally replaced Ekiga (and yet for all this, Pidgin isn't included). Of course, Synaptic Package Manager is the way to go for adding and removing packages, though Debian seems to have adapted the new Ubuntu Software Center as "Software Center", which is interesting.
Hard Drive Partitioning in Installer
From here, I moved on to the installation procedure. I remember the Linux Mint team said that they would adapt the Debian Live installer to Linux Mint "Debian", and as I have already tested the latter, this installer looks fairly familiar. There are a few things to note here. One annoying thing was that in the VirtualBox window, the installer window was too large for the virtual machine's resolution. Another thing is that instead of going to GParted for partitioning, the installer allows for partition creation and editing within that window itself; it also allows for encryption of partitions and logical volume management (LVM, as in Fedora). In addition to this, something I've missed in the Ubuntu and Linux Mint installers (and from the distributions themselves) is the separation of the root password from the main user password. While this may seem like a hassle for new users, it's much better from a security standpoint, as it reinforces the fact that elevating privileges to root should rarely happen and should occur with utmost caution. (In fact, there have been proposals floating around the Internet discussing how to make root access scarier for new users. In fact, I've seen a few distributions (I believe Knoppix was one of them, but I'm probably mistaken) that already do this; this particular distribution that I'm thinking of replaces the normal cool blue wallpaper with a bright red background covered with skulls and crossbones, nuclear waste signs, and lit bombs. Is that scary enough? Hehheh.) Finally, the live DVD set the clock to the wrong timezone, and changing the timezone to my current timezone in the installer changed the clock to show yet another different (incorrect) timezone. I'm not sure what's going on here. From there, it's a few clicks forward to having a usable desktop. Installation took between 5 and 10 minutes, all told. The final issue in installation is that at the end, if I accidentally don't click the right button, I'm taken back to a screen with a list full of options for installation. I'm not sure what the deal is, but I just clicked "Finish" and then "Close".
Boot Menu
The desktop isn't much different from the live DVD (though, thankfully, the boot menu background is just as nice as in the live DVD; in the past, the installed boot menu would just be plain text on a black background, while the live DVD would have a much prettier boot menu). I used 1 GB of my 25 GB virtual hard disk for swap space and 4 GB for the root, which thankfully was and is enough. RAM usage of 100 MB is even better than the live DVD for obvious reasons. All the applications present in the live DVD are present post-installation.
So what's the deal? Debian seems to live up to its legendary stability; nothing ever crashed or conked out on me. While a few options seem to indicate that this is a more technical distribution, I think this can be easily used by newbies once the system is installed, proprietary codecs are installed, and the theme is tweaked to their liking. Stay tuned for Part 2: KDE!


  1. Debian rocks and with KDE4 rocks even more ^_^

  2. @Anonymous: As I said at the end, I will be writing a post reviewing Debian 6 "Squeeze" with KDE 4.4. Stay tuned, and thanks for the comment!

  3. Hi, did you mean the Debian Live is also installable? Similar like Ubuntu ?

  4. @Anonymous: There are a lot of distributions that make separate live CDs/DVDs and installation DVDs, but yes, the Debian Live DVDs are also installable (like the Ubuntu live CDs). I hope that helps, and thanks for the comment!

  5. I like a very stable system but newest desktop software (firefox, chromium, vlc, banshee, thunderbird...) that can be easily achieved in Debian by using apt pinning.
    So, my system has all the new packages for desktop and all the stable packages for the bare system which makes it rock solid.
    Who says you can't have it both? :)

  6. @Anonymous
    can you share with us how you achieve this?

  7. Google search for example:
    pinning in debian
    Example helpful result: http://wiki.debian.org/AptPreferences

    It's not that I'm getting rid of you, but I can't really say anything more comprehensive than what people already said.
    I hope that helps.

  8. I'm a KDE fan myself, but as for Midori replacing Epiphany in Debian's default install, I don't see that happening. Epiphany is GNOME's default browser, and I doubt that will change any more than Rekonq replacing Konqueror as KDE's default browser (which is good, as I don't like Rekonq at all, no offense to its developer). Debian sticks to the default, hence Epiphany being included.

    I do wish that more people would join the Iceweasel team, though, so that glandium wouldn't have to do it all himself, and we might get new releases faster. There's really no excuse for Squeeze not having 3.6, even if 4.0 will unfortunately come far too late given when Squeeze was frozen.

  9. Titulo mal escrito: squeeze no sqeeze

  10. I've been a fan of Debian since I first tried it 15 years ago.
    A full blown Debian install with all the applications, bells and whistles does take more than 3GB of disk space, but that's not much when 1TB drives are $60, especially when compared to the bloat of Win7 with no applications at all.
    Until KDE4 I was tracking Debian Unstable, and found it very usable, and quite stable. Debian _Stable_ makes the Rock of Gibraltar look shaky. It really depends on what you want to do with it. As far as I am concerned, a server once set up should remain "stable" until the server is rebuilt or retired. Debian stable is perfect for that.
    Debian Live is a great development. I hope that the "standard" Debian installation becomes the Debian Live for "desktop" systems, and the Bootable Business Card "network install" for those (like me) who like to do things interactively, building a system up from the bottom.
    Debian is as relevant now as it has ever been. Thank you, Debian Developers!

  11. @ anonymous
    create a preferences file in /etc/apt/preferences.d/

    And add:

    Package: *
    Pin: release a=testing
    Pin-Priority: 700

    Package: *
    Pin: release a=experimental
    Pin-Priority: 600

    Package: iceweasel
    Pin: release a=experimental
    Pin-Priority: 800

    add unstable repository into /etc/apt/sources.list and then do
    apt-get update
    apt-get install -t experimental iceweasel

    After Squeeze becomes stable, don't forget to change this file and sources to stable, not testing.

  12. @Anonymous (RE: Pinning): Wow, that's really helpful. Thank you so much for all this information! Also, as Linux Mint "Debian" is based off of Debian Testing (which is right now "Squeeze"), another way to do it is to get that, change all instances of "testing" to "squeeze" in the sources.list, and one can then have a stable system with the newest applications (because things like Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, Chromium, and Opera come from the Linux Mint "Debian" repository, which is always rolling).
    @Anonymous (RE: Epiphany): True, but my question is, is there any reason for GNOME to stick to Epiphany as the default browser as opposed to Midori? (Granted, I've read in some places that Midori can be slightly buggy at times, but I've never experienced this, and I've found Midori to be far more feature-filled than Epiphany.)
    @Ivan: Sorry about that; that's quite a big error. I've changed the spelling to the correct version in all 3 (the third is going to be published in a few minutes as of writing this comment) articles. Thanks for the tip!
    @Bob Robertson: True that! And the great thing is, Debian stable can be updated simply by updating the repositories (and as far as I know, this is a very reliable method of updating).
    Thanks for all the comments, everyone, and thank you Linux Today for publishing this!

  13. The big issue with 3.6 of Firefox/Iceweasel is that it probably does not compile on at least a few supported platforms. The javascript acceleration in 3.5 had to be disabled to compile on the MIPS platforms IIRC.

    Chromium is having similar issues in getting into Debian, as the V8 javascript engine only compiles on amd64, i386, and arm. MIPS, PowerPC, alpha, mips, hppa, s390, and ia64 are all ports needing done, before debian will set chromium, or firefox 4 into debian stable.

  14. @Anonymous: Thanks for the information!

  15. @PV (RE: Epiphany): Actually, there is a reason. A bit of a petty tribalistic reason, but a reason nonetheless: Midori is not integrated into GNOME at all. It is rather a standalone, cross-platform browser which happens to use GTK+ as a toolkit. Which, now that I think about it, is actually analogous to Arora, which uses Qt but no KDE technologies, not Rekonq, which is specifically integrated into KDE, using kdelibs et al. So no, someone would have to create a more GNOME-tailored browser for it to replace Epiphany, and given how much GNOME emphasizes simplicity (to the point of stupidity IMHO), any replacement would have to be just as lame as Epiphany in order to be accepted.

    So we'll just have to live with retrieving the better browsers from the repositories. I like even more features than Midori/Arora, and I live on the edge, so when I'm in Debian, I use Iceweasel 4. ;) The best way to get it now is from glandium's (Debian's official Iceweasel maintainer) unofficial repository; see http://glandium.org/blog/?p=1032 . The blog post is old and references Beta 1, but Beta 5 is in that repository now, with Beta 6 no doubt on its way.

  16. @Anonymous: I guess that's also why Debian chooses Empathy (AND EKIGA?) over Pidgin, because while Pidgin is a GTK+ application, it isn't native to GNOME. Thanks for the comment!