May 30, 2006

My desktop OS: Debian Etch

Author: Flavio Henrique Araque Gurgel

Some people like to work in Linux distributions that are at the cutting edge of technology. Other prefers stability at any cost. I want both, and Debian Testing, codenamed Etch, gives me that. The Debian project's testing tree has up-to-date software along with good stability, since packages are highly tested in the Unstable branch before they move to Testing.

I've been running Linux at home for about two years, having started playing with it about seven years ago. I tried several distributions but settled on Debian because of its fast, consistent, and safe package management system, with more than 15,000 packages available. Debian Stable, a.k.a. Sarge, is maybe the most stable distribution today, but its software packages tend to get old. Etch is appropriate for personal desktops and even some production ones.

To install Etch I started with a running Sarge that I was using for some time. All I needed to do was to edit the file /etc/apt/sources.list to point to the Testing tree, update the kernel to 2.6.12 version, and update the rest of the system. No errors occurred at all. It is possible to install Etch directly from an ISO created daily and available at

Debian's hardware support just works. Printing with my Hewlett-Packard PSC1510 works perfectly; HP officially supports, and the driver that comes with the package, foomatic-gutenprint, is fast and complete. The new kernel's udev system works well with my USB flash disk.

I do my day-to-day activities in KDE 3.5.2, and I installed some packages for eye candy. Debian developers don't try to make the software look and feel as they want it, but let users do it. Some other distributions include too many customizations, which makes them less familiar to users.

Konqueror loads in a second or two even when my machine is heavily loaded. I can process my documents in an 2.0.2 highly optimized by Debian developers. Writer, Calc, and all OOo applications load in less then a second because they are in memory at login time.

Multimedia is a breeze too. MPlayer and its codecs come from Christian Marillat's repository and work flawlessly. You can use packages in the non-free and contrib sessions to play DVDs. My cheap Nvidia GeForce 4 MX4000 display adapter runs fine with the kernel compiled by the Nvidia installer. The "Debian Way" of installing a Nvidia display driver is to compile the nvidia-kernel-source package by hand as documented on, but it's not in the tree of Etch yet (it is in Sarge), so I installed the manufacturer's supplied driver, which is freely available at Nvidia's auto configuration for Xorg worked perfectly -- no need to edit manually.

I love music, and Debian gives me the latest version of the Audacity audio recorder and editor. I can encode my production in MP3 format with liblamemp3 (Marillat again). You can rip your music to MP3 format with cdparanoia, watch encoded DVDs with MPlayer, and listen music with XMMS, the open source brother of WinAmp. I burn audio and data CDs with K3b and cdrdao.

When it's time for fun, I turn to the impressive open source Nexuiz deathmatch game. It provides beautiful smooth 3-D effects, high-quality sound, and good playability. It's not in repositories (yet), but it's easy to install -- just unzip and run as a regular user. Wine software allows me to use my Steam account and play Half-Life and Counter-Strike. Wine is a bit tricky to use, but Web documentation is easy to find.

For Web surfing, Debian includes the latest Firefox and flashplugin-nonfree. Sun's Java Runtime Environment (JRE) is included, with the package converted by the excellent make-jpkg and fakeroot utilities. After installation of JRE the package system links the java-plugin and mplayer-mozilla-plugin automatically into Firefox. Everything installed easily.

I use the Thunderbird mail client and Kopete multi messenger for my professional and personal communications. Thunderbird filters the spam of all my mail accounts, since I've trained its intelligent filter. Kopete gives me good compatibility with MSN and ICQ accounts at the same time, in the same screen. Today's version in Etch doesn't give me webcam and voice support, but they are coming in the future releases.

I remotely manage a Linux Terminal Server Project server running in another location using OpenSSH with X tunneling and browsing, using the latest Webmin with Firefox. Webmin is not available in the repository yet, but I had no trouble installing it with Webmin's generic installer.

To edit HTML and PHP files, I use NVU and Quanta Plus. I also have the latest MySQL server up and running to test my PHP applications. It's amazing what a machine with just 512MB can do under Debian despite running so many concurrent processes.

I develop Java code too. I installed the Java SDK using a Debian package made by make-jpkg. After that, the Netbeans development environment installed perfectly and integrated itself with KDE. All I needed to do was to edit the startup script to point to Sun JRE and not to the blackdown-java open source system that is installed with

Debian's Advanced Packaging Tool lets me easily manage application software. I never have broken packages and every apt-get update correctly updates my software to the latest package's version. If APT finds some manually edited file in /etc, the dpkg utility asks me if I want to install the new maintainer version, keep the current one, or check differences. APT provides an automatic backup of my old configuration file if it's replaced.

Debian lets me make choices. All packages come with conservative options and developers' settings. When user intervention is needed upon installation the dpkg system use to explain the options.

Support for Debian is among the most complete you can find in the open source world. Debian is traditionally a distribution of developers that connect with each other and with users via email or IRC. Developers respond to bug reports promptly. Several mailing lists in all supported languages have high traffic and people that like to help. If you're in a hurry, you can join the #debian IRC channel on the freenode network. You can even pay for support if you want to; has a list of companies that will take your money and answer your questions.

Debian is the most truly community-driven distribution, proud of its GNU name. It supports lots of platforms, and its software quality assurance is excellent. Security flaws are fixed in the Etch repositories quickly. With mirrors all around the world, installation of new packages is quick. Even if any single Linux company disappears, Debian will remain intact -- as my desktop OS.

What desktop OS do you use every day? Write an article of less than 1,000 words telling us what you use and why. If we publish it, we'll pay you $100. (Send us a query first to be sure we haven't already published a story on your favorite OS or have one in hand.) In recent weeks, we've covered SimplyMEPIS, Xandros, Mac OS X, Fedora Core 3, Ubuntu, White Box Enterprise Linux, Mandriva PowerPack 2006, Slackware, SUSE, GRML, Kanotix, Gentoo, VectorLinux, CentOS, Damn Small Linux, Frugalware, Kubuntu, PCLinuxOS, Arch Linux, and Fedora Core 5.


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