Debian review

16 Nov 2012

A responsive distro with plenty of hardware support, but it lacks the slick optimisations of friendlier rivals, and can be fiddly to get working fully

4

With several other distributions effectively based on the Debian system, it’s fair to say that it’s an important distro. In fact, as Linux distributions go, it’s positively stately; a grandaddy among open source upstarts.

As you might expect from such an elderly, respected relative, it’s awash with hardware support – as well as the common Intel x86 processors, it will work with a number of other architectures, including PowerPC. Plus, there’s a huge 29,000 software packages included on the full DVD-based ISO, a download that runs to 4.4GB. In many respects, Debian’s tagline – “the universal OS” – is well earned.

To test it out, we downloaded the Stable version, but there are two others, separated by package maturity and stability. The rather alarmingly named Debian Unstable, which is a continually updated, rolling release distribution, and Debian Testing, a snapshot of the unstable distribution that’s destined to become the next Stable version. You can also download a version of Debian that’s built on the non-Linux FreeBSD kernel, but this has only just been included in the official release.

Debian

Installation is straightforward. You can choose a graphical or text-based install, but the process is the same. The distribution is installed to your partition of choice, and you can create your own partition structure or use one of the installer’s selection of “guided” modes.

Either way, it isn’t the easiest of distros to set up properly. On our first test laptop – a Dell Inspiron R17 – the Debian installer failed to pick up the Nvidia graphics, Wi-Fi chip and multitouch touchpad correctly, leading to a good deal of fiddling to set matters right. Our second attempt using an older HP Mini netbook was more successful: Debian felt far more responsive on this device than Ubuntu.

That may be due to the ageing Gnome 2.3 default desktop, which is a rather basic affair. Effectively, it’s the same desktop as that used by Ubuntu before it switched to the Unity front-end.

There’s a rather unusual selection of preloaded software included. For web browsing duties, there’s Epiphany or Iceweasel (an unofficial build of the Firefox browser that lacks support for plugins), while the office suite is Apache’s OpenOffice rather than the more popular LibreOffice. Debian’s focus is on completely licence-free software, hence these rather unusual choices, and this approach is reflected in the official Debian software repositories, too; these are accessed by one of two different package manager tools – the Ubuntu-style Software Centre, and the slightly less friendly, but very powerful, Synaptic. Whichever one you use, however, will involve some fiddling once again. By default, both asked us to insert optical media when we attempted to download and install new software; we had to uncheck the “cdrom” option in Software Sources before it would go online.

Debian

In all, Debian is a usable and responsive distribution, but it isn’t one we’d recommend for complete beginners. It’s an important distribution to be sure, but a few niggles and a dogmatic approach mean that it isn’t as good as others here for general desktop duties.

Main wiki contributor: Ynot 82.

Details

Price ex VAT £0
Price inc VAT £0
Overall rating 4
Ease of Use rating 3
Features & Design 4
Software subcategory Operating system