Debian 9 "Stretch"The Debian project is one of the world's oldest surviving Linux distributions and can trace its release history back to 1993. The project attracts many developers with over one thousand people contributing to the project with code, artwork and documentation. The Debian project maintains a massive number of software packages with a very open infrastructure which makes contributing to (and borrowing from) Debian quite easy. These factors, along with Debian's famed stability, have caused over one hundred GNU/Linux distributions over the years to base themselves on Debian.
The Debian team released Debian 9 (code name Stretch) on June 18th and the new version offers a number of interesting changes. For example, the MySQL database has been replaced with its fork, MariaDB. The Debian-rebranded packages of Icedove and Iceweasel have been replaced by their upstream counterparts, Thunderbird and Firefox. According to the release announcement over 90% of Debian's huge collection of packages can now be verified through reproducible builds, which is great news for people who want to verify the source code they have access to matches the code used to make their executable files. In some situations administrators can now set up the X display software to run without root user access, making the display software a little more secure.
The release notes also mention updates to the GnuPG security software and PIE security support through version 6 of the GNU Compiler Collection. Also on the security front, Debian supports booting on UEFI-enabled computers, though Secure Boot is not yet supported. This release has changed the way network interfaces are named. Now, instead of eth0 and wlan0, network devices will be assigned names such as enp1s1 or w1p3s0.
Debian provides users with many desktop environments, including GNOME 3.22, KDE's Plasma 5.8, LXDE 0.11, MATE 1.16 and Xfce 4.12. These environments can be tested through Debian's live discs. Apart from these live discs, Debian can be downloaded in net-install (290MB), CD (647MB) and DVD (3.5GB) editions which just include an installer and do not feature live desktop environments.
Debian 9 -- The MATE desktop's Applications menu (full image size: 493kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
I began my trial of Debian 9 with the MATE live edition which is a 1.9GB download. Booting from this disc brings up a menu asking if we would like to launch the live desktop environment, launch a graphical system installer or launch a text-based system installer. Taking the live desktop option boots the operating system and presents us with the MATE 1.16 desktop environment. MATE is displayed with two panels, one at the top of the screen where we can find the Applications, Places and System menus. A system tray can be found in the upper-right corner of the display. A second panel is placed at the bottom of the screen and features a task switcher. Icons on the MATE desktop open a file manager.
There does not appear to be any way to launch a system installer from within the MATE environment so I rebooted and selected the graphical installer option from the media's boot menu. The graphical installer appears and asks us to select our preferred language from a list, click on our country's name and select our keyboard's layout from a list. At this point the installer produced an error message saying it was unable to read a file from the disc and the installer was unable to proceed. I tried the graphical installer a second time and it ran into the same error again. I also tried the media's text installer and it once again ran into the fatal error after selecting my keyboard's layout.
The live MATE disc's checksum was correct and I heard from other Debian users during the week who reported the same error so it seemed there was a fatal flaw in the MATE live media. I next decided to try Debian's standard CD installation media. The 647MB installation CD does not feature a live desktop environment; when we boot from the disc we are only given the choice of launching a graphical installer or a text-based installer.
The graphical installer walked me through selecting my language, country and keyboard layout. I was asked to create a password for the system's root account and then come up with a username and password for myself. We are then asked to select our time zone from a list. The installer then gets to the disk partitioning stage and we have the option of letting the installer automatically set up disk partitions or we can manually divide up the disk ourselves. The automated partitioning option sets up an ext4 root partition and a swap partition. The manual partitioning option I find a little cumbersome as the steps are broken up into several screens or separate options. However, Debian's installer got me through setting up partitions and assigning file systems to each section of the disk.
The installer then copies some of its files to the hard drive. A few minutes later I was asked if I would like to install the operating system from the local media or download packages over the Internet. If we take the on-line option we are asked to select a Debian software mirror from a list. We are also asked whether we would like to send package statistics to Debian to gauge package popularity with the default selection being to opt-out.
The next stage of the installer gives us the opportunity to select which packages we want to install. These choices are divided into big-picture categories such as Print Server, OpenSSH, Base System and various desktop environments. When installing from the CD, the default desktop selected was Xfce, but I changed this to MATE. The installer then downloads and installs the selected categories of software. The final stage asks us whether we want to install the GRUB boot loader and, if so, on which part of the disk. The installer then ejects the CD and reboots the computer. The new copy of Debian boots to a graphical login screen.
I explored running Debian in a VirtualBox virtual machine and on a physical desktop computer. When running on the desktop box, Debian performed well. The distribution boots fairly quickly, the MATE desktop was responsive and all of my computer's hardware was detected. Debian does not ship with utilities to manage printers, but with the system-config-printer package installed, Debian was able to detect and quickly set up my HP printer. Debian does not require much memory and used just 200MB of RAM when logged into the MATE desktop.
Debian 9 -- The MATE desktop with a dark theme (full image size: 278kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
When running Debian in VirtualBox the experience started out well. Once again the distribution was fast to boot and responded quickly. However, Debian was unable to automatically to integrate with VirtualBox and use my host computer's full screen resolution. VirtualBox packages do not appear to be available in any of Debian's repositories and the guest modules were not present in the official VirtualBox Debian repository. I tried installing the generic VirtualBox modules following the available documentation and the modules failed to build on Debian 9.
Debian, when set up with the MATE desktop environment, includes a relatively small number of default applications. The Firefox web browser, version 52.2 ESR, is included along with LibreOffice 5.2. The Atril document viewer, the GNU Image Manipulation Program and the Eye of MATE image viewer are installed for us. Debian also provides us with an archive manager, calculator, text editor and system monitor. There are no multimedia applications, codecs or Flash featured by default. Depending on which software repositories we have enabled, these extras may be available and I will come back to the subject of installing additional software later.
Debian 9 -- Running various applications on the MATE desktop (full image size: 338kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Debian 9 uses the Network Manager utility to help us get on-line. We are also provided with Java and the Caja file manager. By default there is no compiler present when installing from the CD, but version 6.3 of the GNU Compiler Collection and versions 3.8 & 3.9 of Clang are available in the repositories. Debian uses systemd (version 232) for its init implementation and the distribution ships with version 4.9.0 of the Linux kernel.
The MATE edition of Debian 9 ships with a settings panel which can be found in MATE's System menu. The control panel mostly features modules for adjusting the look and feel of the desktop environment. We can alter the wallpaper, desktop theme, style of pop-up notifications and display resolution. We can also adjust our user's keyboard layout, keyboard short-cuts and mouse sensitivity. From the settings panel we can manipulate the screensaver and make small adjustments to how windows behave when moved or clicked. The settings panel does not feature modules or working with lower levels of the operating system. For example, there are no modules for managing background services, setting up user accounts, enabling the firewall or setting up printers. These tools are available in Debian's repositories and may be installed later, but are not included by default.
Debian ships with the Synaptic graphical package manager. Synaptic is a no-frills package manager that displays a list of available software down the right side of the window. On the left we can find some filters for adjusting which types of packages are shown. We can also search for software using key words. We can click a box next to each package to mark it for installation or removal. The Synaptic application also provides a button that will select all available software upgrades, saving us the time of hunting for them one at a time. I find this short-cut button for upgrading everything is very welcome as Debian does not feature a dedicated update manager and does not automatically inform the user when software updates are available. During my week with Debian only one software update was made available and it was less than 1MB in size. The update installed without any problems.
When I first started using Synaptic I ran into some repository related errors and these could be traced back to the installation media (now removed from its drive) being listed as a software source in the package manager's configuration. The installation media can be removed from the list of software repositories either through Synaptic or by editing the /etc/apt/sources.list configuration file. By default, Debian provides us with free software only via the project's main repository. We can add additional repositories, such as Debian's contrib and non-free repositories, to gain access for a wider range of software. Earlier I mentioned Debian does not ship with multimedia software by default, but we can find media players, Flash and codecs in the project's various repositories. I found these extras worked well for me and installing media players automatically pulled in codecs for playing all my media files.
People who prefer to manage software from the command line can use the APT family of command line package management tools. These utilities work quickly and, during my trial, functioned without any problems.
While many distributions automatically set up the first regular user account with sudo access, effectively making the first user the system administrator, Debian does not. Instead Debian takes the traditional approach of using a root account with administrative access and any other users on the system have regular, unprivileged accounts. The sudo command is available, it just is not configured to grant access to any users. We can grant sudo access by either adding users to the /etc/sudoers file or by adding privileged users to the sudo users group.
When a CD or DVD is inserted into the computer, Debian automatically mounts it. If there is an auto-run option available on the disc, Debian will offer to run the auto-run script. However, all inserted media is mounted with the noexec parameter, meaning no scripts or executables on the disc can be run. If the user attempts to run an auto-run script it will always result in an error. The noexec option is a good security feature, but it does make the doomed offer to run scripts seem like a bug.
When I was originally setting up Debian I opted to install the print server software. I had hoped this would cause a package for managing printers to be added to the system, but it did not. I had to install the system-config-printer package later to enable my printer from the desktop.
Earlier I mentioned that the live disc, featuring the MATE desktop, contained a bug which prevented me from installing Debian from the live media. About three days into my trial, Debian published updated live discs, carrying the version number 9.0.1, which fix this issue. It should now be possible to install Debian from the 9.0.1 live discs.
I think any review of Debian is going to come across as incomplete because the distribution is so large and flexible. Apart from the live disc and installation CD I explored in this trial, there is an installation DVD, several other live discs and a popular net-install option. Plus there is support for ten hardware architectures and Debian can run a wide range of desktop environments. That's not to mention Debian's popular role as a server operating system. In fact, the lack of customization in Debian's desktop environments tends to give me the impression that Debian is more of a server platform which can be used as a desktop system rather than a distribution designed with desktop use as the top priority. My point here is that Debian is incredible flexible and running desktop environments on generic PC hardware is just one of the distribution's abilities.
There are a lot of reasons to like Debian, particularly this release, but I feel there are also a number of flaws in Debian 9. On the positive side, the Debian project is massive, with a huge collection of software, developers and documentation. The project is very transparent and its infrastructure forms the base, not only for Debian itself (and its ports), but also for dozens of other Linux distributions. Debian strives to be a universal operating system, able to function just about anywhere, in a wide variety of roles, on just about any modern CPU architecture. I admire the project's flexibility and it is no coincidence that I either use Debian or a derivative of Debian every day on my laptop, on servers, on my phone and on my Raspberry Pi.
Debian is unusually flexible and has a well deserved reputation for reliability. At the same time though my week with Debian 9 was not always a smooth experience. Early on I ran into the installer bug on the live MATE medium. That issue has since been corrected, but it got my trial started on the wrong foot. Debian's installation process is unusually long (installing took over an hour in my case) and features several screens, some of them redundant. For example, the installer asked me which region I lived in three times, requesting my country when selecting localization, my time zone and then the country where the nearest package mirror would be. When the installer finishes, even when we install packages over the network, the installer leaves behind the local media in the package manager's sources file, causing errors when we later wish to install new software or updates.
Once the distribution is up and running, Debian is quite functional as a desktop system. It's light, fast and contains a handful of useful applications. I felt there could have been more administration tools to help manage user accounts, the firewall and printers, but that is a personal preference.
For me, I think the experience of running pure, vanilla Debian can be summarized by saying it is an operating system that takes more time than average to set up. We start out with a fairly small collection of tools and each user needs to build upon the small base, adding the applications, codecs and configuration utilities they need. That being said, once Debian is set up and we have everything we need in place, the distribution will run for years without a change or new issue popping up. I think Debian's two main strengths are that the distribution is reliable - it runs exactly the same way yesterday, today and tomorrow - and it has long term support lasting four or five years. This combination makes Debian an excellent choice in any environment where long term stability is required.
Debian may require more effort up front to install and configure the system, and it doesn't offer a lot of modern conveniences or hand holding. The system expects the user to be able to do some early customization and stays out of the way. After that, Debian just keeps on running until someone pulls its plug.
* * * * *
Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: