Debian 10 "Buster"Debian is one of the world's oldest Linux distributions and, in terms of the number of developers involved, also one of the largest. Around 1,300 contributors worked on Debian 10, which was released on July 6th.
Debian 10 offers package upgrades across the entire operating system, but the main changes for this release include enabling AppArmor by default and running GNOME Shell on Wayland. (GNOME running on X.Org is available as an alternative desktop session.) The project's release announcement also mentions nftables can be used to manage the operating system's firewall and Secure Boot is enabled for some architectures. This version of Debian will receive a total of five years of support, thanks to the project's long-term support team.
The new version of Debian, codenamed "Buster", runs on over half a dozen CPU architectures and is available in net-install, full DVD install, and seven live desktop editions. This gives users many install options and avenues for trying the distribution. Though not mentioned in the distribution's release announcement Debian's media does not include non-free firmware which is often required to connect with wireless networks. People who need wireless networking have the option of downloading unofficial live images with non-free firmware.
Some more experimental users may be interested in knowing that Debian not only has a Linux flavour, but also offers builds with alternative kernels. The Debian GNU/Hurd team published new install media alongside the main Linux editions.
I ended up downloading the DVD install media, which is 3.6GB in size. I also downloaded the official live GNOME edition which is 2.3GB. My observations in this review come from installing and running Debian based on the install DVD media, unless otherwise specified.
Booting from the install DVD brings up a menu which asks if we would like to launch a text-based installer or the project's graphical installer. I opted for the graphical path, though traditionally both installers walk us through the same steps. A series of screens then appeared and guided me through picking a preferred language, selecting my country from a list, picking a keyboard layout, setting a hostname, and making up a root password. There is an option, disabled by default, which allows us to see the password we are typing.
We are then asked to make up a username and password for a regular user and select our time zone from a list. Partitioning comes next and I find Debian's partition editing a bit cumbersome. There are more screens to navigate and more options we can adjust compared to other distributions. This gives the user more flexibility over simplicity. Debian supports setting up and working with ext2/3/4, Btrfs, XFS, JFS and LVM volumes. I decided to use Btrfs to see if it would work with system snapshots the way some Ubuntu-based distributions do.
The installer then copies packages it needs for the base system, which takes a few minutes. When it is done we are given the choice of installing local packages from the DVD or using a network mirror. Then we are asked whether we wish to participate in reporting which packages we use to let the developers know what is popular. The next screen gives us the chance to install optional items, including a desktop (GNOME, MATE, Plasma, Cinnamon, Xfce, LXDE, and LXQt are available). I opted to install GNOME (Debian's default desktop) and MATE since my recent experiments with GNOME have not gone well and I wanted a backup option. I was then asked if I wanted to use LightDM or GDM as the session manager. I went with LightDM and was told I could adjust this or change login screen settings by editing scripts in the /etc/init.d/ directory. We are given the choice of enabling some services, such as a print server and secure shell (OpenSSH). Then we are asked where we would like to install the GRUB boot loader. The installer finished its work successfully and rebooted the computer.
For the most part Debian's installer feels the same now as it did for Debian 9, Debian 8, Debian 7, and so on. Not much has changed on the surface, other than the previous reddish-pink progress bars and highlights that appeared over white backgrounds have been replaced by blue highlights over a grey/creamy background. It's a small change, but I find it looks nicer.
The first time I booted Debian 10, the AppArmor service got stuck for a while, increasing my boot time by about ten seconds. During the remainder of the week all services started and stopped quickly and the boot process was fast. The distribution boots to a graphical login screen where we can sign in with one of the following session options: GNOME, GNOME, GNOME Classic, GNOME on Xorg, and MATE. (The GNOME on Wayland session is listed twice.) Debian ships with version 3.30 of the GNOME desktop.
For the most part, I used GNOME Classic during my trial, but I did occasionally use the GNOME Shell session too. Both desktops use an unusually light theme and my screen, with a terminal open, was sometimes almost entirely white - a sharp contrast from the common trend these days of defaulting to darker themes. The theme can be adjusted, if we wish, in the Tweaks tool, which I will talk about later.
GNOME Shell presents us with a mostly empty desktop with a panel and the Activities menu at the top of the screen. The Activities menu can present us with a full screen grid of icons to launch applications. The GNOME Classic session uses a two-pane layout with the menus and system tray at the top and the task switcher at the bottom of the display. The Classic desktop uses a tree-style menu that takes up a small corner of the upper-left corner of the desktop.
I ran into a few problems when running Debian on my workstation. The first was that, when booting from the live desktop disc, the distribution could not launch a graphical interface when loading in UEFI mode. I could boot to a text console, but the operating system could not display a desktop or launch an X.Org session. When booting from legacy BIOS mode, Debian's live disc booted into the GNOME desktop and ran smoothly. Another issue I ran into was that Debian's official media could not detect and use my wireless card due to missing firmware. This can be fixed by using the unofficial media or installing Debian and grabbing the necessary firmware from off-line media.
Once these problems were overcome, Debian ran well on my workstation. GNOME Shell and GNOME Classic functioned well, the operating system booted quickly and hardware (apart from my early issue the wireless card) all worked properly.
I had similar success with running Debian in a VirtualBox instance. Debian automatically integrates with VirtualBox and can dynamically resize its desktop. What surprised me the most during my trial was both GNOME desktops performed very well and were responsive. My recent trials with GNOME on Fedora and Ubuntu offered passable performance on physical hardware and awful performance when running in VirtualBox. Debian's GNOME was not only much faster, it also required less memory to run. GNOME Shell memory usage varied a lot, starting at 724MB when I first logged in and eventually settling down at 590MB. GNOME Classic used 526MB of RAM and stayed consistent. With both GNOME and MATE installed, a fresh install used 4.9GB of disk space.
Buster does not ship with a lot of applications out of the box. We are provided with some standard items, such as the Firefox web browser, the Evolution e-mail client, and LibreOffice. The GNOME Files file manager, a calendar application, an application for checking local weather, and GNOME Maps are included too. The Transmission bittorrent software is installed by default, along with a document viewer, the Shotwell photo manager and the GNU Image Manipulation Program.
Debian ships with the Totem video player, Rhythmbox and the Cheese webcam utility. Media codecs were included for playing most audio and video formats, including MP3. Debian uses Network Manager to connect to networks, systemd as its default init software and runs on version 4.19 of the Linux kernel.
Generally speaking, the software included in Debian worked well for me. I am not a big fan of Totem's interface and ended up swapping it for VLC. I noticed when I first started using Firefox, a message would be displayed warning me the browser was out of date. Buster ships with Firefox 60 ESR, which (despite being about a year old) was the latest ESR version at the time Buster was released, so it appeared Firefox's warning was incorrect. However, later in the week Mozilla published Firefox 68.0 ESR which will presumably be made available or backported for Debian users.
While not necessarily a problem where Firefox is concerned, since the browser offers extended support options, running older versions of software is something Debian users need to be comfortable doing. I tended to find applications in Debian 10 were around six months to a year old. Bug fixes are often applied to Debian packages to keep users secure, but new versions with new features are typically not available unless we enable a backports repository or install software from a third-party.
During my trial I had access to two settings panels. The GNOME Settings panel provides access to many aspects of the system, including setting up on-line accounts, adjusting power and sleep settings, setting up network connections, and customizing the Activities search results. Apart from adjusting the wallpaper, the GNOME Settings panel does not deal much with the appearance of the desktop; it handles more of the underlying mechanics and options rather than the look of things.
To adjust the visual aspects of the desktop we can use a tool called Tweaks. The Tweaks utility can adjust the theme, fonts, window button placement and other visual components of the desktop. Both settings panels worked well for me and I encountered no issues while using either of them.
Debian 10 -- Adjusting the look of GNOME Classic (full image size: 100kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
When installing Debian from the DVD where packages are provided by local media, the local disc is kept in the distribution's list of package sources. In fact, most other potential sources for packages are disabled. This means the first thing people installing from the DVD will need to do is edit APT's list of repositories and sources. The bad news is the system does not really make it clear that Debian does this and it will look like the package manager is simply unable to contact repositories. The good news is enabling on-line repositories can be done through the Synaptic package manager with a few clicks.
Luckily I've installed Debian frequently over the years and know to enable repositories right away, but new users are likely to be caught unaware as Debian is one of the only open source operating systems to short-circuit its package manager this way post-install.
Buster offers several ways to handle software. Debian's classic Synaptic package manager is included. Synaptic offers a handful of filtering options and displays packages (and search results) in a simple list of names and versions. We can click a box next to package names to mark the software for installation or removal. Synaptic also handles upgrading packages and can enable optional repositories. Synaptic may not be pretty or modern in its style, but it works and performs quickly.
GNOME Software was the other graphical software manager I found on the system. This utility provides a more modern interface where we can browse through categories of applications and click a program's icon to see a full page description with a screenshot of the program in action. While GNOME Software does have a pleasantly modern look and makes it easy to browse types of applications, I did run into some quirks while using it.
For instance, sometimes there are multiple versions of a package listed. Software listed two instances of the GNU Image Manipulation Program. Both had the same version, the same source, same statistics and both were listed as being installed, but the two entries had entirely different descriptions. At first I thought one might be a Flatpak, but Flatpak support is not installed on Debian out of the box.
At one point I was installing a new package using Software and the process locked up, stuck at 0% completion. I clicked the software centre's Cancel button and the action appeared to stop. After that, I was unable to install any new packages for a while. I discovered that GNOME Software had not canceled its earlier install cleanly and there were bits of packages caught in limbo. I had to make a trip to the command line and use the low-level dpkg package manager to clean up the mess before I could install any new programs. Later on, I did use GNOME Software again to install some packages and grab updates. These processes worked, but always ran very slowly compared to using Synaptic or APT from the command line.
While Flatpak and Snap support are not installed by default, these portable package formats are available in Debian's repositories. I installed Flatpak and used it enough to confirm it works to install and run portable packages listed on Flathub.
I made a few other observations while running Debian 10. One is that, unlike many other mainstream Linux distributions, Debian does not enable sudo by default. We can use su to gain admin access, or manually configure sudo to work with our user account.
I was happy to find that when the OpenSSH service was enabled, it blocked remote root logins. I feel this is a good default to have and I'm pleased this configuration is becoming more common. Blocking root logins used to be one of the first tasks I would perform after setting up a system and I like that it is now done for me on most distributions.
The most common complaint I keep seeing about Debian 10 in user-supplied reviews and on forums is that wireless connections do not work. This is because people are downloading the official ISO files which do not include non-free firmware, meaning most wireless cards will not work. While Debian offers unofficial media with the non-free firmware, which would enable wi-fi to work, the unofficial media is hard to find and it's not clear from the download page that it even exists or why people would need to use it. This separation of free and non-free firmware media is not even mentioned in the release announcement. Which means a lot of people are giving up on using Debian from a combination of the free firmware only policy and unclear documentation.
Earlier I mentioned installing Buster on a Btrfs volume. My hope was that I could use Btrfs along with a tool such as Timeshift to take snapshots of the operating system, offering a level of protection against broken updates or configuration mistakes. I found Timeshift does not work with Debian's default Btrfs configuration the way it automatically does on Ubuntu-based distributions. An administrator could make adjustments to get Timeshift working with Debian's Btrfs layout, but it would take manual work
Debian has a well earned reputation for stability and performance. The distribution starts up quickly, its GNOME implementation runs circles around GNOME on most other mainstream distributions on my system, and Debian offers a relatively small disk and memory footprint. The software which ships by default was reliable during my trial and worked as expected. Just these points on their own would make me consider Debian a solid choice as a desktop or server operating system.
There are some other strong points in Debian's favour. The project describes itself as "the universal operating system" with good reason. Debian runs on many hardware architectures, offers lots of desktop options, and ships with a massive amount of software packages. Debian can work with portable package formats, multiple kernel types, and is small enough to work in many different environments. It is amazingly flexible.
There are some negative trade-offs to balance Debian's stability and flexibility. One is that packages in Debian's Stable branch are often quite old compared to the same software in other distributions. Virtually every package will be at least six months old at release time, some are a year old, and I found at least one package that was a year and a half old on launch day. For people who want to stay on the cutting edge, Debian's Stable releases are not ideal.
To me, Debian also feels like it lacks a coordinated design. Some distributions integrate their pieces, have a shared look, or a particular focus. Debian does the opposite, providing a amazing range of options, packages, and tools, but doing so in a way which feels vanilla. It's the difference between having a model car and having a box of Lego bricks - one has a clear design, but that is all it is good for while the other leaves the design up to the owner while being more flexible. Put another way, Debian doesn't try to be great at any one thing, but provides a good starting point for many roles.
One the whole, I was happy with Debian 10. It has some rough edges, particularly with GNOME Software and the lack of non-free firmware. Or, more specifically, with how hidden the non-free firmware installation media is. However, the performance, range of software, CPU support and low resource usage make this release feel really good. I wouldn't recommend Debian to a Linux newcomer, the operating system does not do any hand holding and expects some degree of comfort with working with Linux, but for intermediate and experienced users I think Debian is an excellent choice.
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Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: