Debian 11 "Bullseye"Debian is one of the oldest surviving Linux distributions and also one of the largest, both in terms of developers involved and packages provided. Debian declares itself the "universal operating system", able to run on many hardware architectures, with many desktop environments, and even using alternative kernels.
The project's release announcement for Debian 11 (code name "Bullseye") mentions this version features over 11,000 new packages while removing over 9,000 obsolete items. Driverless printing and scanning have been added to this release along with built-in support for the exFAT filesystem.
Debian 11 provides packages for GNOME 3.38, KDE Plasma 5.20, MATE 1.24, and Xfce 4.16, plus an array of other lightweight desktops and window managers. These graphical interfaces can be run on a wide range of CPU architectures, including x86_64, i686, ppc64el, s390x, armel, armhf, arm64, mipsel, and mips64el. The project's release notes go into greater detail about what is available for each platform.
Debian media is available in many flavours. There are a number of network install, CD-sized ISO files along with full-sized DVD media. There are also official live media ISOs. By default, Debian does not include non-free packages, including popular firmware, on its media. This means Debian will not work with many brands of wireless cards, preventing wi-fi connections from working. People who need non-free firmware can use unofficial media. The full sized official DVD install media is 3.7GB. I also downloaded the GNOME edition of the official live media (2.5GB) and the non-free, unofficial GNOME live disc (3.2GB).
When trying the live media, Debian boots immediately to a graphical environment. The GNOME desktop loads and presents us with a welcome screen. This welcome window asks us for some basic information about our language and keyboard layout. We are then asked if we wish to connect to a local network. The official live media could not detect my wireless card, making it useless in my environments. I switched to running the non-free media which detected my card and then offered to connect me with on-line cloud services such as Nextcloud. I was then handed over to the GNOME desktop to start exploring.
Debian 11 -- Adjusting items we can search for through the Activities menu (full image size: 99kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The GNOME desktop seemed to be working okay and I could get on-line using Firefox to browse the web so I turned my attention to the install process. While the live media includes an install option through the boot menu, I decided to use the official Debian install media DVD.
The install DVD presents us with a boot menu where we can choose to run a graphical installer, a text installer, or an install process with text-to-speech for improved accessibility. Debian's installer has not really changed in the past decade and a half. It's a long process with a lot of screens which, on other installers, are usually skipped in favour of defaults or merged from several separate prompts into one screen with multiple options.
The installer walks us through picking our language, location, time zone, setting a password for the root account, making up a regular user account, and disk partitioning. There are 15 screens and prompts, not including pauses to display progress reports, before the base system is even installed. Once the base packages are in place we are asked which extra packages we want. These include a web server, OpenSSH service, and optional desktop environments such as GNOME, KDE Plasma, LXDE, LXQt, and Xfce.
The Debian installer asks if we want to install some packages from on-line sources as this will provide more up to date packages and I accepted. We are then asked which region the repository should be in and which mirror in that region to use. The install then proceeds and stops again to ask if we want to install a boot loader. When all is said and done, the installer presents us with at least 24 prompts in total (assuming we take guided disk partitioning and no advanced options) and setting up the initial packages takes over twice as long as most similarly sized distributions on the same hardware.
My fresh install of Debian booted to a graphical login screen where I could sign into the GNOME desktop. There was no welcome window or introduction. We are presented with a vanilla GNOME experience. A panel is placed along the top of the screen with an Activities menu and system tray. There are no icons and no task switcher. Application windows have a close button, but no minimize or maximum controls. Double-clicking on a title bar maximizes or restores the window.
GNOME's default look features a lot of white and grey. Though some windows are primarily black. For instance the Totem video player offers a mostly black background while most other windows are primarily white.
When I installed Debian in a VirtualBox environment the distribution started out feeling sluggish. GNOME was able to automatically resize to match the VirtualBox window, but performance was not good. This was disappointing as I've had good luck with GNOME 40 recently in virtual machines, but the older GNOME 3.38 release included here still demonstrates the poor responsiveness I've found to be characteristic of the GNOME 3.x series.
When running on my workstation, Debian was able to boot in both UEFI and Legacy BIOS modes. While plain Debian does not detect my wireless card, non-free firmware packages and media can be downloaded from the project and installed off-line. When run on my workstation performance was good, with GNOME offering average performance and responsiveness.
When running GNOME, Debian is a bit on the heavy side, using 760MB of memory. This is about on par for distributions running GNOME, but about 50% heavier than other mainstream Linux distributions running any other full featured desktop. A fresh install with just GNOME and a handful of desktop applications consumed 4GB of disk space, not including the swap partition.
The GNOME 3.38 desktop ships with a handful of applications. We can gain access to these programs by clicking on the Activities menu in the upper-left corner of the screen, then selecting the application button (at the bottom-left. This brings up a full-page grid of icons we can browse. There are three pages of icons we can navigate using the mouse scroll wheel or buttons located on the right side of the screen. Some utilities are kept in a separate container within the application grid and these containers can also hold multiple pages. This means some programs take five mouse clicks and three trips across the display with the mouse pointer to launch. Many people will probably prefer to use the GNOME Activities search feature where we can type the name or a descriptive keyword to find the item we want to launch.
Debian 11 -- The GNOME application menu (full image size: 216kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The GNOME desktop on Debian now runs a Wayland session by default. I was wary of this at first as I've rarely had positive experiences with testing Wayland in the past, but in this case the experience was indistinguishable from running GNOME on the X.Org display server. GNOME Classic and GNOME running on X.Org are options available through the gear icon on the login screen.
Looking through the application menu we find the Firefox web browser, Evolution e-mail client, a contact manager, and a calendar. The LibreOffice suite is installed along with the Shotwell photo manager, and the GNOME Files file manager. Debian ships with the Transmission bittorrent client, a handful of games, and the Cheese webcam tool. The Totem video player and Rhythmbox audio player are included along with media codecs for playing a wide range of multimedia files.
Behind the scenes Debian ships with the usual collection of GNU utilities and manual pages. The systemd init software is used and the distribution ships version 5.10 of the Linux kernel.
The GNOME desktop ships with a polished settings panel. The panel offers two panes, one for navigation and the other for adjusting specific options. The panel worked well for me and I like its layout. I particularly like the file sharing options. Visiting the Public directory in GNOME Files, or browsing the proper section of the settings panel, will give us the option to share files in the Public directory. These settings are easy to adjust, files are easy to password protect, and it works quite well for sharing files on a local network.
Debian 11 -- Enabling sharing files over the network (full image size: 103kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
The sudo utility is available to help us run commands as other users. By default no users are permitted to use sudo, but this can be changed by adding our user to the sudo permissions group.
Debian provided me with two graphical front-ends for handling software packages. Before either of these, or the APT command line tools, can be used we first need to adjust the APT package manager's sources list. During the installation Debian uses the local install media as a source for packages and this repository is not removed when the install finishes. This removed repository short-circuits the package manager. This happens even when we choose to use on-line package repositories during the initial setup process and pick a remote repository mirror. All of which means we need to use either the Synaptic package manager or make a trip to the command line to edit the APT configuration file.
As I mentioned, Synaptic is one of the graphical package managers. It gives us a low-level view of individual packages and repositories. This makes it possible to fine-tune which items are installed, removed, and upgraded.
GNOME Software is the second software centre. GNOME Software is divided into three tabs. One offers search options, recommendations, and the ability to browse categories of programs. The second tab shows what software is already installed and gives us the choice of removing these packages. The third tab lists available updates.
Debian 11 -- The software centre (full image size: 123kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
By default neither the Flatpak or Snap frameworks are installed. These portable package formats are available in Debian's repositories. In the case of Flatpak, once the framework is installed we need to manually add additional repositories and (optionally) a plugin for GNOME Software if we want to use the software centre to manage Flatpak bundles.
I had some trouble with Flatpaks in the software centre. Some would install, but other times the process would hang partway through and never finish being set up. When working from the command line I never encountered any issues installing Flatpak bundles.
I feel it worth highlighting that Debian has shifted its default for the display server from X.Org to Wayland, though X.Org sessions are still available. This is only the second time I've had a good experience with running Wayland as the default display session. In fact this was the first time I couldn't tell the difference between running the desktop (GNOME in this case) on Wayland versus X.Org. It was a pleasant surprise and it's nice to see Wayland sessions continuing to be developed and polished.
One of the first things that I noticed while settling into my Debian trial was how little the distribution has changed. Someone could have swapped out my Debian 11 install media for a copy of Debian 8 and I probably wouldn't have noticed the difference. The installer is virtually identical to the one that shipped with Debian 6, the GNOME desktop hasn't really changed in the past release or two, the same quirks, issues, smooth running, and manual work are the same. Whether this is good or not will probably depend on whether you're interested in new features or consistency.
Debian 11 highlights a few distinct characteristics of the overall project in my mind. I believe it demonstrates why Debian is such a popular and powerful base, both as a foundation for other distributions and for server or embedded systems. It also demonstrates why there is such a need for Debian-based desktop distributions.
On the one side, Debian is an amazing project. It is a huge undertaking, supporting a handful of CPU architectures, providing tens of thousands of packages, multiple kernel implementations, and three main branches people can run. The project offers roughly five years of support and is well known for its stability and maturity. It's a hugely impressive undertaking and the team's dedication to making a universal operating system out in the open (using issue trackers and mailing lists) is commendable.
On the other side, Debian's effort to be universal means that, as an end-user experience, it is clearly lacking in some key areas. One of my UNIX textbooks in college mentioned that software projects tend to follow one of two philosophies when it comes to design - choose good defaults and make it possible to tweak some things later, or avoid choosing defaults and make the user configure key elements. Either approach can be fine, as long as it is not taken to extremes where the user either cannot adjust anything or must configure everything. Debian falls into the latter camp, essentially giving the user a collection of parts and leaving us to craft it into the experience we want.
This turns the initial day or two with Debian into a long process of going through installer screens, adjusting the look of GNOME, downloading non-free firmware, enabling third-party and portable repositories, tweaking the desktop layout to make it more efficient, and configuring utilities like APT and sudo. These are tasks most distributions handle automatically and it makes Debian feel unpolished, at least as a desktop distribution. As a server system, Debian's relatively light approach and focus on stability are most welcome, but the basic steps users need to perform to set up and get common functionality working make it less practical as a desktop distribution. Of course Debian can be used as a desktop system, its dozens of derivatives are proof of that. However, Debian's insistence on not making any choices and forcing the user to do so much manual work up front leaves me feeling like I'm doing work for my operating system rather than it working for me.
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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: