An Everyday Linux User Review Of Debian 9

Introduction

Over the past few months I have been working my way through the top Linux distributions and writing a review for each one.

Thus far I have covered Manjaro, Linux Mint, Elementary, MX Linux and Ubuntu. These reviews are based on the top 5 distributions as listed at Distrowatch. Number 6 on that list is Debian which is the distribution I am reviewing here.

The list of distributions at Distrowatch include every distribution that you may or may or not have heard of and it is worth pointing out that not every distribution on the list is suitable for everybody’s needs. For example Kali is very popular with penetration testers and security experts because it comes with a whole range of tools for testing networks and for searching for vulnerabilities. Kali however is not suitable for the average Joe who primarily uses their system for web browsing and casual gaming.

The Everyday Linux User blog is about looking at Linux distributions from the point of view of an average computer user. What this means is that it isn’t specifically for developers, for hackers, for artists, musicians or video bloggers. The reviews are aimed at showing off a standard desktop operating system that by and large should be easy to install, easy to use and should either provide a good variety of applications or the ability to easily install those applications.

With this in mind whilst reviewing certain distributions I will state where that distribution is or isn’t necessarily suitable for the Everyday Linux User.

Now that I have laid the cards on the table let us begin with the review.

How To Get Debian

You can download Debian from https://www.debian.org/

With most distributions there is usually one clear download page with maybe one or two download links but the Debian website contains multiple ways of achieving the same aim.

In the top right corner there is a “Download Debian 9.7” link. This gives a minimal version of Debian and for reasons that become clear later on this might be the best option to choose.

If you have a slower internet connection then you might choose to go for one on the CD/USB ISO images linked under the “Getting Debian” section.

Personally I find the page that this links to very confusing with options for downloading images via HTTP, download images using Jigdo and downloading images via bittorrent. There are also live images available for download. Debian could be guilty of having too many options. Choice isn’t usually a bad thing but I could well understand somebody feeling overwhelmed on their first visit to the Debian website.

It doesn’t get any better when you drill into one of these links. For instance clicking on the download via HTTP gives options for CD and DVD and each one has about 11 options for different architectures.

Personally I recommend doing one of two things.

  1. Click the “download Debian 9.7” link from the front page of the website
  2. Buy a DVD or USB drive from OSDisc.com with Debian pre-loaded onto it.

If you choose to download your own image you can use Etcher to install it to a USB drive.

Etcher can be downloaded from https://www.balena.io/etcher/ and as it is cross platform it can be used on Windows or Linux. All you need is the ISO you downloaded, a blank USB drive and about 10 minutes.

Creating the USB drive is as simple as running Etcher, choosing the ISO image, selecting the USB drive you want to install it on and clicking “Flash”.

Installing Debian

I generally write an installation guide prior to writing reviews of the Distribution but I haven’t done so for Debian for 2 reasons. The first is that the options displayed when installing Debian differ depending on whether you chose to download a DVD image, used the image on the front page of the site or a live image and therefore there would be too many steps involved.

I also had difficulties whilst installing Debian due to the fact the mouse did not work and the screenshot tool also did not work very well.

You can find a full installation guide at https://www.debian.org/releases/stretch/installmanual. There is also a fairly decent video available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bB-gmnvYDao.

My own experience with the Debian installer as previously mentioned was a bit hit and miss. Apart from the trackerpad not working on my laptop during the install the rest was quite straight forward.

Interestingly if you choose to download a DVD image for a specific desktop environment such as XFCE then during the installation it asks whether you want to continue installing packages from the CD or do you want to download packages from a local mirror. By choosing the local mirror you can then choose the desktop environment again at the point of installation and you can choose whether to install a web server or print server as well as many other packages.

Distributions such as Ubuntu, Mint and Manjaro generally take 10 to 20 minutes to install from start to finish and that usually includes updating the packages as you go. Debian took a while longer to install as it required downloading packages on the fly as I chose the local mirror rather than using the USB drive.

I would say that for a normal computer user installing Debian is possible and the learning curve isn’t huge but at the same time there are easier options available and you wouldn’t be giving anything away by choosing one of those other options.

First Impressions

I decided to go for the Cinnamon desktop environment and on first glance it looks pretty good. Another bonus is the speed in which the operating system boots which I have to say is very quick indeed.

The internet connection I used when installing Debian was automatically selected as well meaning that I didn’t have to select it again. I was able to start browsing straight away.

The Cinnamon desktop is very easy to use and is the same desktop environment that is used by Linux Mint.

If you have used Windows 7 in the past then you will find it very familiar with a menu in the bottom left corner, quick launch icons next to the menu and in the bottom right corner a system tray with icons for managing the current user, removable drives, network settings, audio settings, power settings, bluetooth settings and a clock.

The menu has icons for settings, instant messenger, a terminal, file manager, lock screen, logging out and shutting down the computer. In the middle is a series of categories and clicking on each category provides a list of items within that category.

All of this is specific to Cinnamon and not Debian. The way your user interface looks will be defined by which desktop environment you choose to install.

Connecting to the internet

As mentioned previously the internet connection used during installation should be selected automatically when you boot into Debian, however if you want to change that connection or if you find you aren’t connected then whilst using the Cinnamon desktop you can click the network icon

Applications

After installing the Cinnamon version of Debian I found the following applications installed by default:

  • LibreOffice – The most well known office suite for Linux
  • GIMP – Image editing application
  • Shotwell – Photo manager
  • Firefox ESR – Web browser
  • Hexchat – IRC Chat
  • Pidgin – instant messenger
  • Remote desktop viewer – Remote desktop
  • Thunderbird – Email client
  • Transmission – Bittorrent client
  • Cheese – Webcam viewer
  • Rhythmbox – Audio Player
  • Brasero – DVD burner
  • Videos – Video Player

There are many other applications such as document viewers, image viewers, calculators, a small selection of games and a screenshot tool.

The default web browser is Firefox ESR and this should let you do everything you need to do on the web such as watch Netflix.

When you first connect to Netflix you will need to click to Enable DRM but other than that it will work straight away.

I wanted to check whether the MP3 audio files would play without having to install extra codecs and to my surprise they played straight away within Rhythmbox without any messing about so that was a pleasant surprise.

The videos application was also a success and I was able to play many different videos in many different formats without any sign of a codec error.

Shotwell was able to show my photo collection and Thunderbird connected to my email without any issues.

From a core set of applications point of view Debian is working very well.

Installing Applications

The tool available for searching the repositories is Synaptic which is fairly basic but very powerful.

By default you can only download free applications using Synaptic but you can edit the sources list to allow non-free applications to be installed.

To do this open a terminal and switch user to the root account by running the following command:

su

Now run the following command to edit the sources file

nano /etc/apt/sources.list

Just chuck the word non-free to each of the lines and press CTRL and O to save and CTRL and X to exit. Finally run the following command

apt-get update

This doesn’t make things perfect however as you will still find yourself searching around in order to find popular applications.

For instance to install the Chrome browser you are better off going to https://www.google.com/chrome/ and clicking the download link.

To install Steam you need to run the following commands from the terminal after adding non-free to the sources list.

dpkg --add-architecture i386

apt-update

apt install steam

The Spotify player is also not obviously available after running an update and therefore whilst the general applications that come with Debian are good, finding other applications that you may need can be hit and miss.

Running commands within the terminal

If you have been using Linux for a while you may have becoming accustomed to the odd terminal command and one of the most common commands is sudo which enables you to run an application as another user (most commonly, root).

If you run sudo after installing Debian you will receive an error telling you that your user isn’t in the sudoers file. By default sudo is not set up to work and you have to edit the sudoers file to enable you to use sudo.

To do this open a terminal and run the following commands:

su

visudo
<username> ALL=(ALL:ALL) ALL

Press CTRL and O to save the file and CTRL and X to exit.

You should now be able to use sudo in the way you may be used to.

Summary

As we move down the list of distributions it becomes easier to see why some are at the top and some are lower down.

Debian is great for people who really know what they are doing and although it doesn’t have the learning curve required of some distributions such as Arch or Gentoo it still requires a steeper learning curve than using something more straight forward such as Mint, Manjaro, Elementary and Ubuntu.

The website tries to be all things to all men and sometimes a nice big download button for the options that most people would require would be nice. I am sure however Debian users would say that if you want a nice big download button go to the Ubuntu website and they would be right.

The installation isn’t particularly much more difficult to follow than the Mint or Ubuntu installer but there are some questions that will baffle new users such as the domain you wish to use.

From a usability point of view I found Debian with the Cinnamon desktop easy to use and for most things it is working the way I want it to but finding some applications is a bit fiddly.

From an Everyday Linux User’s perspective you could use Debian but if you can’t be bothered with the hassle of searching for solutions on the internet for things that are straight forward in Mint, Manjaro, Elementary, Ubuntu and a whole host of other distributions then the question is why bother?