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Debian Squeeze Pre-review

(Updated: Debisn Squeeze was released on 2/6/11 (see http://www.debian.org)

Every two years or so, Debian puts out a new "stable" release. This is my favorite distribution because of the minimal number of bugs and the huge software repositories and the powerful package manager. Right now, Lenny (5.0) is the stable release, and Squeeze (6.0) is in testing. Sometime "soon" Squeeze will get frozen, which means the regular flow of package migration will stop, and from then on it will only get bug and security fixes through a method of back-porting. Once the number of "release critical" bugs is reduced to an acceptable level (which used to mean 0, more recently it means 50 or so), then Squeeze will be released as the new stable version.

As a desktop user, I find that Debian is usually ready enough for me sometime before it's released. This time around, I've been running a Squeeze demo on my laptop (a Thinkpad T41) every few months, and as of May it's been my main install. In fact, to me it's better than Lenny now. (Perhaps this is why Ubuntu just released a new LTS version? They depend on having a stable-ish Debian moment in order to do LTS, it seems.) Here's my review of Squeeze so far:

Update: as of around 6/10 or so, I had a really slow suspend/hibernate/resume (for about 60 seconds after resume, I would get nothing, but then it would wake up). This morning 7/4/10 I figured out I was missing some firmware for my mobile radeon hardware. I did "apt-get install firmware-linux-nonfree" and was cured. Probably I could have figured it out sooner if I payed more attention to messages.

Installation

I hate reviews that bore the reader with installation screenshots. Installation has been a pretty easy task for any Linux distro of the last 5 years, so it's a bit irrelevant. Here's a quick technical overview of stuff I like to do:

  1. Apt-cacher is great for anyone who has a home-server and a less-than-lightning-fast connection. I find this especially handy for a distro that's still in testing. To enable my cache in the installer, I add "mirror/http/proxy=http://192.168.0.1:3142/" by pressing TAB on the boot option I want.
  2. I prefer the netinstall CD. In combination with the apt-cacher, this off-loads the packages from the CD to cacher (which is good because the packages change regularly in testing, I can do multiple installations without multiple downloads and the cache stays up-to-date).
  3. The installer includes options to install LXDE or KDE instead of Gnome as the desktop environment. I initially installed with LXDE, but switched to XFCE later on, as detailed below.

LXDE

I have enough RAM to support whatever desktop environment I choose, but I decided to work on LXDE first, partly because I'm expecting to need it when I do my home-server upgrade to Squeeze.

Immediately I found my first bug: right after logging into LXDE I got a window that says "Your session only lasted less than 10 seconds. ..." As long as I do not click OK, I can continue using LXDE. Clicking OK is now the way to log out.

After installing to LXDE, I added packages (gnome-power-manager, nm-applet, synaptic, gedit, openvpn, ksensors, vncviewer) to make it more laptop friendly. One thing I began to notice is that programs I installed didn't always show up in the LXDE menus.

LXDE doesn't work so great on a laptop, because the non-LXDE applets that I wanted are not persistent. If I log out and log back in, they are gone.

At this point I gave Debian's LXDE setup a failing grade overall and moved on.


Gnome

I installed Gnome using "tasksel install gnome-desktop" as root.

Although Gnome did a much better job functionally than LXDE, I have to complain about several major annoyances:

  1. Default panels on top and bottom of the screen (wasting my 15.4" laptop screen).
  2. The panel menus "Applications Places System" use up way too much of the top panel (no wonder Gnome needs two panels). This becomes a much bigger annoyance after I drop the bottom panel and move the window list and desktop picker to the top panel.
  3. For some reason Gnome takes it upon itself to populate my home folder with a bunch of empty folders labelled "Music Public Templates" etc... I find this incredibly insulting when Windows does it, and doubly insulting when a Linux desktop does it. I don't need you to tell me where to put my files.
  4. As described below, Gnome is a huge drag on boot/startup time.

Overall I wish that Debian would switch their default desktop away from Gnome. I appreciate that the installer makes it easier than ever for the end-user to switch to another desktop, but the problem is that the default always has the fewest bugs and the least hassle, because it recieves more testing and developer focus. Even though I prefer other desktops I generally end up with Gnome with Debian.

I want to take a second to preempt some counterarguments I've heard on this subject. "You can change that stuff if with the following voodoo..." "No one uses the defaults for more than like 2 seconds." My favorite: "If you don't like it, switch to Windows." My point here is that a default creates a barrier for every user who doesn't like it. There isn't a good reason not to pick the best settings as the defaults, and I'm convinced from years of experience that Gnome is not the best.

XFCE

I installed XFCE with "tasksel install xfce-desktop".

XFCE basically did everything right out of the box, which puts it above the other desktops in my book. It also has the fastest load time of all the desktops that were laptop friendly (see below).

The one bug with XFCE is when I login I get a "wicd cannot connect to dbus" error, which is strange because my user is, in fact, part of the netdev group. Nevertheless, I intend to use network-manager instead of wicd, so I did "apt-get remove wicd" and was cured.

I expect XFCE to be fairly close to Gnome in terms of bugs, because of the fact that they share so much under the hood. XFCE uses the same GUI toolkit (GTK), and it even interoperates with Gnome's applets. In fact, since I already had the network-manager-gnome package installed and configured under Gnome, it automatically showed up and loaded in XFCE. Gnome's network manager and battery monitor applets seem to be an exception in that regard; for most Gnome applets I need to use Xfapplet ("apt-get install xfapplet") as a kind of wrapper in order to run them in XFCE. But in any case, it's very convenient for laptop use to be able to use Gnome applets in XFCE. For me, a desktop manager's overall usefulness primarily comes from the applets that can be run under it, which makes XFCE just about functionally equivalent to Gnome in my book.

KDE

I installed KDE with "tasksel install kde-desktop".

I have to say that KDE has a much more impressive default appearance than any of the other desktops.

However, KDE came with several headaches:

  1. The nework-manager-kde crashes every time I try to open an OpenVPN connection. I apt-get removed the KDE version and started using the Gnome version, but...
  2. I can't seem to get the Gnome network manager to be persistent under KDE (same problem as LXDE).
  3. KDE also had the "wicd cannot connect to dbus" error.

It seems that I'm bound to a GTK environment of some sort because of the network magager's quirks.

I do want to mention that, bugs asside, I tend to like KDE applets better than Gnome applets, as being better polished and more useful. Ksensors is the most striking example; Gnome's hardware sensors are worthless in the dock, and so are XFCE's. If you have a laptop with 5+ sensors you will know what I'm talking about.


Improvements over Lenny

At this point I need to say I've noticed several significant improvements over Lenny, especially from the standpoint of a laptop user.

  1. Once in a while, Lenny would fail to wake up from suspend or hibernate. So far, Squeeze has a spotless record on my laptop.
  2. Every time I woke up Lenny from suspend or hibernate, it would take the network-manager applet a while (30 seconds up to 2 minutes) to reconnect to my WiFi. Thankfully, the network-manager in Squeeze reconnects pretty close to instantly.
  3. Battery life: many Linux distros I've tried prior to 2010, including Lenny, have drawn more power out of my T41 than I believe they ought to, leading to rather crummy battery life. With Ubuntu 8.0.4 I found that replacing the regular kernel with the Ubuntu's "UME" kernel fixed the problem. With Lenny, I found that recompiling the kernel to disable SMP fixed the problem. Using my Kill-a-Watt at the AC plug, my laptop draws 15-17W with the old stock kernels (even in "laptop mode"), and 11-12W with the old UME or SMP-disabled kernels (for testing, I make sure the battery is not charging, the system is idle, and the display back-light is turned all the way down). However, Squeeze draws 11-12W with the stock kernel, so I don't need to make any kernel adjustments to keep my battery life in line. I lack the expertise to explain this phenomenon, especially since Linux has been "tickless" since before Ubuntu 8.0.4 or Debian Lenny. Nevertheless, the Linux kernel developers must have done a good job on something in the last two years or so. (Just for reference, the T41's stock OS - Windows XP - draws 10-11 W.)

There is one thing Squeeze does worse, although it pains me to point it out:

Despite the hard work of a lot of developers, Squeeze boots slower than Lenny overall. Actually, the "boot" time, from GRUB to login, has dropped by 13 seconds from 44 to 31 (on my machine), which is a marked improvement. The problem is that meanwhile Gnome has gone from bad to twice as bad, i.e. from 24 to 42 seconds, an increase of 18 seconds (measured from login to UI being "ready"), for an overall boot increase of 5 seconds. Add this to my list of grievances with Gnome.

Actually, I should say that Squeeze boots faster than Lenny, as long as you can stay away from Gnome. KDE loads in 15 seconds, and XFCE loads in about 10 seconds. Overall XFCE is now my desktop of choice. Upgrading from Lenny/Gnome to Squeeze/XFCE dropped my total boot and startup time from 68 to 41 seconds, where 13 seconds comes from the improved Linux boot scripts, and 14 seconds comes from dropping Gnome.

Miscellaneous Errata

Aside from the issues I had with LXDE and KDE, a few other relatively minor bugs cropped up:

  1. Although the default is a "trunk" kernel, there are no "trunk" kernel headers, i.e. I think there ought to be a package called linux-headers-2.6.32-trunk or similar. In order to use VirtualBox, for example, I rebooted to the secondary kernel before "m-a a-i virtualbox-ose" could succeed, and I have to boot to that kernel whenever I want to run VirtualBox. I'm not really sure what's going on here. Update: I've read that the "trunk" kernel was never meant to be released into the wild. I removed it and was cured.
  2. There used to be some extra pdf apps, i.e. xpdf and kpdf, which I can't seem to find anymore... Update: xpdf has returned, and kpdf is now called okular.
  3. On my second install (I have two Linux installations on my laptop, one for a backup), I had a problem with the OpenVPN extension for network-manager. I uninstalled and reinstalled network-manager, and that fixed the problem. When I did the first installation, I did it completely clean, but for the second install, I kept the /home/ directory. For all I know maybe that had something to do with the problem.

Upgrading from Lenny

I made a half-hearted and probably bungled attempt to upgrade directly from Lenny to Squeeze, by simply switching the repositories from "lenny" to "squeeze" and doing "apt-get update; apt-get dist-upgrade"... except in the middle I restarted the apt-cacher on the server, which stopped the upgrade, at which point I remembered I needed to stop the hold I had put on my kernels, and I also tried doing some other operations to get rid of unnecessary packages. The result was some kind of jam in apt-get, where I couldn't dist-upgrade because of the kernel and udev versions (?), and "apt-get -f install" wouldn't fix it. I gave up. Reinstalling is a relatively painless alternative for a laptop user.

Applications

Of course, before I make a switch to a new distro, I need to test out my basic set of applications. I'm an electronics enthusiast as well as an office-type user, so here's a list of things I exercised, all of which passed right away:

  1. QUCS
  2. KiCAD
  3. Wine (LTSPICE) - Update 8/19/10: I realized the installation went smoothly because I apparently had installed some version of Internet Exploder in my wine directory (carried over from a long time ago, I have no memory of installing IE). If I attempt to do a fresh install of LTspiceIV (dated 8/4/10) in an unadulterated Wine 1.0.1, the installer fails with a complaint "Could not open uncompression file /tmp2". This is definitely a regression; an older Wine I have sitting around (1.0), the same LTspiceIV.exe installer runs without any errors.
  4. OpenOffice
  5. Google Chrome


Conclusion

Although Debian has not yet released Squeeze or even frozen it, the system is in great shape already and is functionally superior to Lenny in my testing, and I have already made my switch. The improvements should be attributed to the migrations of underlying system components (in my case, especially the kernel), which is a consequence of the fact that Lenny doesn't migrate anywhere in it's frozen state. (Freezing is a good thing and a bad thing.)

Even though I'm jumping the gun on my upgrades, I still believe the release work that the Debian teams do is extremely valuable. Their drive for quality improves the bug state of the entire open-source world, and they deserve praise for getting Squeeze into position for a stable release.

Unfortunately, in direct opposition to the hard work of developers working on boot time, Gnome has single-handedly messed up the (desktop user's) overall boot speed, in addition to it's other annoying features. I wish that Debian would drop Gnome from the default desktop position for their next release. KDE in particular appears to be quite superior, although it needs to get the focus of being in the default spot in order for it to recieve the detail work that I feel it needs for this distro.

Update: I maintain my conclusion, but laptop/desktop users may be advised to enable the non-free repo and install the firmware-linux package (which will include firmware-linux-free and firmware-linux-nonfree).

Thanks


Thank you very much for writing this nice review. I like Debian myself and I am looking forward to Squeeze. Now even more because of your article. One addition, I found a spelling mistake ;) "the improvements shold be attributed" Linuxopjemac

re: Thanks


Thanks. It seems like my spell-check is on vacation about half the time. :)

gnome


Gnome seems to be increasingly infected with mono. It is odd that a group of militant OSS people would allow mono.

Too bad amarok 2 is teh suxxors else KDE would be as close to perfection as is possible.

re: gnome


I agree, although there are other media projects that could be added to the meta-package kde-desktop to compensate (xine, mplayer, juk)... and I think issues like that would get more focus if Debian put KDE in the default seat.

Apparently there's room to speculate about the motives of Gnome/mono devs, but I guess they meet FOSS requirements... anyways I really believe there are purely practical reasons to prefer KDE over Gnome.

I hate Gnome, really, nothing


I hate Gnome, really, nothing less :) but to be fair you don't have to have the huge "applications, places, system" menu, you can have just one icon, and the drop down will give you applications, places, system...

Although I agree very much with the whole "defaults matter and then some" argument.

Debian w KDE


I also feel that Debian has a GNOME-centric focus which I dislike, but I do think their KDE is pretty great. In general, the desktops (and all apps) aren't really customized in Debian, they're very close to what the project developers set, so that would by why GNOME's panels take up space, etc.

I do use Wicd on all 5 of my Debian/KDE setups and it always works great, so I wonder what is going on with your setup.

re: I hate Gnome


I felt certain there was a way to change those menu settings, but I don't remember stumbling across it, which maybe makes it another example of how defaults can induce frustrations.

I agree, like I said,


I agree, like I said, excellent example. It should be small menu by default (it's fully functional) and then if someone really wants a big useless one, they could change it. Well... I use Openbox and recommend it to anyone :D

Anyway for those using Gnome who want a single icon for menu, r-click remove old menu, go to add to panel, you have an item called customized menu or something like that (that's your old big menu), and then you have "the main Gnome menu". Add that, and move it around. It does save space.

oh I forgot


"I hate reviews that bore the reader with installation screenshots."

Thank you! :)

I will have to try out


I will have to try out OpenBox and Wicd, I may give KDE another run sometime. I restricted my review to the cross-section of things that I already currently use, but it's also fun to learn new apps/desktops. Thanks for your comments.

UME or SMP kernels


Just curious , what are UME or SMP kernels that you have mentioned ?

Not able to get any useful answer out of gogole :(

re: UME or SMP kernels


To clarify; Ubuntu has a UME (Ubuntu Mobile and Embedded) kernel in repository. The only feature that I think is important about the UME kernel is that it is compiled with SMP disabled. I first discovered the effect on my power draw with Ubuntu 8.0.4, but later I switched to Debian Lenny. Debian doesn't have very many different kernels in repository, they definitely don't include a "UME" kernel. To duplicate the effect, I recompiled Debian's kernel on Lenny with all the same options Debian used, except that I disabled SMP (Symmetric Multi-Processing) support before recompiling. This had the same effect as Ubuntu's UME kernel; a reduction from 15-17 W to 11-12 W idle.

I also haven't been able to find anyone else who had this problem. I don't know if this is peculiar to the Thinkpad T41, or if it's true for all Pentium M processors, or if it may possibly affect Pentium M architectural derivatives like Core, Core II, and Core i.

At any rate, I only know that I had this problem on the Lenny/Ubuntu8.0.4 kernels (2.6.26 and 2.6.24). The new kernel with Debian Squeeze (2.6.32) draws 11-12 W idle even in the stock version, with SMP enabled.

window manager


I propose that you try fvwm-crystal, wicd, slim. These will make your laptop speedy and lightweight. I have been using squeeze from last 6 months or so in my office and home laptop with almost no quirks at all. Check out the page for my fav software: http://sites.google.com/site/alindsharma/Home-1/software .

Kpdf


Kpdf is no more. Since KDE 4 it has been replaced by/merged with Okular

I'm ditching Ubuntu 10.04


I'm ditching Ubuntu 10.04 tonight/early this week for Debian Squeeze. I've been using Debian since 2.0.36 kernel. It's come a long way from when I started (try apt-get dist-upgrade after a CD-ROM install on 56k.. I remember when I took my machine to my uncle's business to use their "brand new" 384/128k DSL lines)

xfce-lxde iso of squeeze


Thanks for this helpful post. Iḿ planning an install to Thinkpad x40 using the xfce-lxde iso of Debian Squeeze, will choose xfce during install. Iĺl try USB startup disk creator and write the iso straight to USB. Cheers

amarok2


If you don't like amarok2, you can use either of two forks of amarok1.4, namely clementine and pana which are available. I also don't like the new amarok interface much and would recommend trying out the forks.

Here are links to the websites of those players for your reference:- http://www.clementine-player.org/ http://pana.bunnies.net/

GNOME but...


I hope this time Debian comes with anti-aliasing fonts :) , better dependency - i remember to uninstall i think sudoku and it would uninstall the whole gnome :) - ah! and another thing: Gnome is great if you just have the stuff you really need. Otherwise it's a bit weird. So I agree Debian should choose XFCE or KDE -if- the user will have the same headaches removing unwanted stuff as with Lenny. Because DEBIAN is great, stable, powerfull and very very fast. As fast as my optimized gentoo. And that's incredible. Great Review.

a


Switching away from gnome????????????????????????? Use Windows than!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You shouldn't write reviews!!!!! Get a new job for your self!!!!!

Re: a


Yeah for trolls.

Nice work! And THANK YOU for


Nice work! And THANK YOU for skipping the install screenshots.

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