Is Debian Still Relevant

I’ve been dual booting or running Linux full time now since around 1996. During the first few years, I used mostly Red Hat based distributions. I used Mandrake/Mandriva, SuSE, Red Hat, and Fedora to name a few. When I switched over to Debian, my eyes were truly open to what a distribution could be. I’m not even sure what made me switch to Debian. If I had to guess, it was during my distro whoring days when I just switched distros at random, trying each one out for at least a few days.

Needless to say, Debian-based distros have been my staple ever since. I’ve tried others. I’m a big fan of ArchLinux, for example, but I’ve always had a Debian-based distro running on a machine somewhere.

A few years ago I started using Ubuntu, which is probably the most widely used distribution of Linux there is. Ubuntu uses as its base Debian testing/unstable, and build upon it, creating a great user experience.

Ubuntu has become so popular that there are now many distributions of Linux based on Ubuntu. That makes Debian the grandfather distribution of all of these. Probably may favorite Ubuntu-based distro is Mint. It adds to the base Ubuntu system and promises a better out-of-the-box media experience, along with a better theme. Ubuntu needs better designers in my opinion.

With all of these Debian-based distros and distributions based on Debian-based distros, is there still a need for Debian itself?

Here recently, I decided to replace my Mint installation with the newest Ubuntu release (10.4). I should mention that I’m installing the 64-bit version of all OSs mentioned. This is so I can take advantage of the RAM I have installed on my main system. I should also mention that there is an issue with my nVidia card and the “nv” generic open source nVidia driver. This error causes many problems when I try to install most distros. The problem occurs when the distro recognizes my nVidia card and uses the nv driver. This usually causes the system to not boot. I was able to get around this by using the Ubuntu alternative install CD and using the curses-based installer. This installer is more like the default Debian installer and doesn’t require X. I’m probably one of the few people who like this type of installer over the Live-CD installers. There are two main reasons that I prefer them.

  1. Curses-based installers are much faster. Waiting on a Live-CD to load can take time. There are advantages to Live-CDs but when I’m wanting to install an OS that I’ve pretty familiar with, curses-based installers are more efficient.
  2. Errors like the one I mentioned can make the OS much more difficult to get up and running. The installer mistakenly uses the wrong display driver. This mistake doesn’t just cause an issue with X. It makes the entire system freeze for some reason.

So even though I used the alternative installer, I still ran into issues post-install. This required me to boot into recovery mode and install the proprietary nVidia drivers from the command line. Since one of Ubuntu’s goals is to make Linux easier for the masses, this is very counter-intuitive. If a first time Linux user ran into this same issue, they would be turned off of Linux instantly.

So, after having other issues with Ubuntu that shouldn’t be there, such as 64-bit Adobe Flash sucking completely on it (videos won’t pause or let you use the slider to seek through them), I decided to try something else. I thought to myself, “Why not try Debian 64 bit?” I was in for a surprise.

Debian had none of the issues I ran into with Ubuntu. I even installed the desktop right away, and it came up without any errors. I still had to install my proprietary nVidia drivers, but for some reason Debian used X settings that didn’t freeze the system. This is probably due to the fact that it doesn’t use Compiz right out of the box. I believe that the issues I had in Ubuntu were due to Compiz being enabled by default. I like my eye candy just as much as the next guy, but a desktop that works out of the box is a great thing.

I’ve always like Debian as a server OS and I’ve used it many times as a desktop OS. I have to say, after evaluating the latest Ubuntu and Mint, Debian is still very relevant and could even give them a run for their money as a desktop OS. Sure they have some added features that make them a bit easier for a new user, if the user doesn’t run into the issues I had, but for many of us, Debian is actually easier to use. I’ve been using Ubuntu so long, letting it take care of things like my networking and automatically starting Empathy when I login, I have forgotten just how simplistic Debian can be. It does what I want, when I want it, with little fuss.

I’ll be using Debian this year. I may try out the next Ubuntu release in October. I’ll probably try a few other distros as well, but Debian doesn’t seem to be going away from my computer any time soon. The politics inside the Debian camp may be rough, but the results are spectacular.

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