Debian 6: Have your Debian and eat your Ubuntu too
GNOME, KDE, and beyond
Review A new version of Debian was once cause for celebration in Linux circles - no doubt it still is in some quarters. Debian's offspring Ubuntu, though, has managed to steal much of the thunder lately.
Of course without Debian, Ubuntu would cease to exist. Part of the reason Ubuntu has been able to focus on polishing the Linux desktop is that Debian provides the core packages Ubuntu relies on. No Debian, no Ubuntu.
Ubuntu's polish of the Debian core used to mean it was a much easier distro for Linux newcomers to install and use. But with Debian 6, two-years in development and available here, that's really not true anymore.
Debian 6 - and arguably its predecessor as well - is no more difficult to install than Ubuntu and it "just works" right out of the box on every piece of hardware I've tested it on. Given the wide range of hardware support Debian boasts - ARM, PowerPC, Itanium, IBM S/390, along with the usual x86 chips - you'd be hard pressed to find somewhere Debian doesn't work.
Part of the reason for Debian's wide variety of support hardware is the distro has become a mainstay of servers and embedded devices, but the venerable distro makes a fine option for a no-nonsense desktop as well.
With Ubuntu making some questionable decisions regarding its future - like abandoning GNOME 3 in favor of the Unity Desktop - some Ubuntu fans might want to take another look at Ubuntu's parent.
In some cases you can even have your Debian and eat Ubuntu too. For example, Debian now includes Ubuntu's Software Center app, which means you can enjoy the same polished graphical interface for installing software as you would in Ubuntu.
The default GNOME desktop - what you get if you opt for the simplest installation options - has a new theme that adds a bit more splash to the interface. It's not as slick as Ubuntu, but it can hold its own with Fedora.
Where downstream distros based on Debian have been obsessing over the details of the user experience, Debian has been focusing on what has long been its hallmark - stability. If you want bleeding edge packages then go with Ubuntu, if you want a rock solid desktop or server then Debian is for you.
Debian 6 builds on that reputation with a more conservative list of updates than you might find in Ubuntu or Fedora's releases. GNOME is at version 2.30 - a couple versions behind the current release 2.32 - while KDE is as 4.4.5, a bit behind KDE 4.6. The other Debian desktops similarly lag a bit behind.
That doesn't mean there's nothing new in Debian 6, though. In fact there are more than 10,000 new software packages, ranging from the Chromium web browser - the open source version of Google Chrome - to a new network manager.
Free, as in freedom from proprietary
Perhaps one of the nicest features in Debian is the ability to have both GNOME and KDE on your system at once. The two even integrate into each other's menu systems. It looks a bit odd, but if you want everything and the kitchen sink, Debian makes it easy.
Another area where Debian differs from its downstream offspring Ubuntu is its emphasis on free software, as in freedom. Debian removes the binary blobs from the default Linux kernel and, while Debian so far has stopped short of removing all non-free software from its repositories, none of its default desktop configurations include any non-free software. Instead you'll find free software alternatives, like Gnash instead of Adobe Flash.
If you don't mind the occasional proprietary software or driver, you can of course grab most of them from the repositories.
What you won't find in Debian is the extra layer of polish that the Ubuntu team puts into their releases. The Debian 6 desktop did get a new theme, but it's a far cry from Ubuntu's obsession with perfecting the gradients in toolbars or continually tweaking its icons. If you want that level of obsession, but don't want to give in to Steve Jobs, then Ubuntu is for you. If you really don't care how many pixels are which shade of grey, then Debian works just fine.
If this release of Debian has a drawback, it's that the hardware requirements have been bumped up slightly and when it comes to downloading the latest copy, and Ubuntu users might be left scratching their heads - do you really need eight DVDs to install Squeeze? No, you don't. All you need is the first CD or DVD and a network connection to grab any extra packages you might want to install. The extra CDs and DVDs are just extra packages, most of which you probably don't need.
While Debian is delivered as an all-in-one package (there's no Kubuntu or the like), this release does see some new pre-configured setups that Debian refers to as Debian Pure Blends. There are Pure Blends tailored for a multimedia workstation, specialized GIS map workstations, chemistry workstations and several others.
Perhaps the oddest news in this release is Debian's decision to offer a variant with the FreeBSD kernel stuffed into the Debian userspace. Yes, you read that right, Debian without the Linux. The FreeBSD version of Debian is, for now, what the developers call a technology preview with "limited advanced desktop features." That means, if you've been clamoring for a way to relive the Debian of 1999, this is probably for you.
For the rest of us, the Debian of 2011 makes a nice, stable alternative to Ubuntu, even if it does perhaps lack a little of the shine that has endeared Ubuntu to the masses. ®