Debian is one of the oldest and most famous Linux distributions of all time. Its development started back in 1993 by its founder Ian Murdock who passed away in 2015. It’s also known to be the mother-distribution of tens of other Linux distributions such as Ubuntu.
Debian has a strict policy on software packages. It only ships free software by default. It doesn’t even ship non-free firmware and drivers. If you want, you can enable the non-free package repository later to install those packages. But you won’t find it there by default.
Debian is well-known for its stability. They don’t ship new updates to users unless it was tested. Which is why you may notice some very old package versions when using Debian. It’s correct that they are old, but they are also tested and secure. Most discovered vulnerabilities get patched in Debian in a matter of hours or few days.
Those users who would like to get latest and most updated software could switch to using the testing or unstable branch. Both contain more modern software according to a different policy.
The effort which is being done by the Debian project for each release is huge. Currently, they offer 25000 source packages and 51000 binary packages. Getting all of those software from upstream projects, packaging them, testing them, debugging issues and fixing them is definitely not something you hear about everyday.
We downloaded the new version and put our hands on it. This was our review for Debian 9.
We downloaded the default small CD image which comes with XFCE desktop environment (647 MB). It also comes with systemd as the default init system, which they switched to back in Debian 8.0 Jessie.
Our review was done on a Lenovo x260 ThinkPad. This is the default Debian 9 desktop after installation:
By default, the distribution doesn’t come with so much software. You are expected to setup and install your system as you wish later. If you downloaded the DVD images, it would be very much easier for you to choose your software during installation.
The list of installed software on the default CD includes Linux 4.9, XFCE 4.12, Firefox ESR 52.2, VLC 2.2.6 and Synaptic package manager. Beside some other small tools and utilities:
Around 900 packages are installed by default on Debian 9 CD. A complete list of those packages can be found here.
As for XFCE itself, it’s simply like any other XFCE on other distributions. You can customize it and configure it however you like. Additionally, a set of plugins and addons are available for XFCE to be downloaded from the official Debian repositories.
The first problem we faced in Debian 9 was the non-free firmware. Most personal computers need non-free drivers in order to function. Such as Wi-fi and video cards. Since Debian only ships free software & drivers by default, we were left with no wireless Internet connection.
deb http://deb.debian.org/debian/ stretch non-free
After an apt update as root, we installed the firmware-iwlwifi package. Which contains the non-free wireless dirvers for Intel cards (the one we have in our Thinkpad). After a reboot, the wireless connection was ready, willing and fully-enabled.
Additionally, you can also install closed-source drivers from the Debian non-free repository if you like. For example if you are using Nvidia cards, you can install the xserver-xorg-video-nvidia package. A set of other drivers and firmwares are available we well.
Resources usage on Debian 9 is not high at all. Only 256MB of RAM by default with XFCE:
[email protected]:~$ free -m total used free shared buff/cache available Mem: 3389 223 2763 58 402 2894 Swap: 0 0 0
The system booting time is roughly the same as the Debian release number:
[email protected]:~$ systemd-analyze Startup finished in 1.792s (kernel) + 7.222s (userspace) = 9.015s
Since XFCE was a little bit limited to what we wanted to see. We switched to GNOME. It took apt only few minutes to download GNOME Shell and GNOME Session. The download size was 170MB. By default, the small XFCE CD was using lightdm as its default display manager. After the installation of GNOME Shell, we switched to GDM3 with no issues.
This is GNOME Shell 3.22.2 on Debian 9, which has the same default appearance across most Linux distributions, simple and clean:
It’s a good thing that they have stabilized on the 3.2x branch. In this way, all the extensions and themes written for 3.20, 3.22, 3.24 and 3.26 would also work on Debian 9. Which is a nice thing to have for end-users.
This is the RAM usage after logging in:
[email protected]:~$ free -m total used free shared buff/cache available Mem: 3389 423 2375 125 589 2620 Swap: 0 0 0
The built-in recording tool seems to work properly:
As any other GNOME Shell, you can customize your desktop easily using extensions.gnome.org. You can also install GNOME Tweak Tool to adjust few settings. No bugs or problems faced us while doing so.
GNOME Wayland session is automatically installed when you install GNOME Shell and GNOME Session on Debian 9. It is running the Xwayland layer in the background in order to be able to run X applications:
However, some applications like Synaptic Package Manager don’t work under Wayland, they show the following error message:
[email protected]:/home/mhsabbagh# synaptic No protocol specified ** (synaptic:1462): WARNING **: Could not open X display Segmentation fault
On the other hand, some applications like VLC are working flawlessly. VLC in Debian 9 (which was installed by default) was directly able to run MP4 and AVI files.
So after playing a little bit with GNOME, we switched to KDE. Note that we are installing all those desktop environments together to see if any possible bugs could occur. We installed KDE 5.8 on the same machine with the kde-plasma-desktop package, which available from the official repositories.
Just like GNOME and XFCE, the interface is working properly. No bugs, crashes, lagging or anything else encountered us while using KDE 5.8. The RAM usage is also not so high with KDE:
[email protected]:~$ free -m total used free shared buff/cache available Mem: 3389 529 2042 95 816 2538 Swap: 0 0 0
KDE applications 16.08 are working as expected:
As for Wayland with KDE desktop on Debian 9, it’s still not ready yet. You can’t even login to the Plasma Wayland session. However, we managed to run the compositor from inside Xorg (XFCE). But still, it’s not usable at all, it can instantly crash if you try to move some windows or launch an application:
There are a lot of other interfaces and desktop environments which you can try. They are all available to install in few clicks from the official Debian 9 repositories.
For example, you can install the Budgie interface (10.2) by installing the budgie-desktop package:
You can also install Cinnamon, LXQt, MATE and others directly from the package manager.
There doesn’t exist anything which makes Debian “special” when it comes to the desktop experience. You are using upstream components on your system. You’d be able to customize and use the desktop just the same way like any other Linux distributions. Debian doesn’t have special configuration or programs to make it outstanding, only the stability and bug-free experience.
Debian continues to be a reliable distribution on server. If you are using Debian 8 and you want to upgrade to Debian 9, it may be still a little bit early to upgrade. However, all the software which you need on Debian 9 are also tested and secure.
In Debian 9, probably one of the most noticeable changes is switching to use MariaDB instead of MySQL. If you are upgrading from Debian 8, you will now directly be using MariaDB instead of MySQL.
The downside of this is that you may face some incompatibility issues between the two when upgrading your servers. Most of the time you won’t, but make sure you read the compatibility between MySQL and MariaDB page before running an upgrade.
Also, dmesg command now requires root privileges. If you are depending on non-root user, you won’t be able to issue the command on your servers:
[email protected]:~$ dmesg dmesg: read kernel buffer failed: Operation not permitted
Aside from what’s already mentioned, there doesn’t exist anything special in Debian 9. Only updated software:
Debian continues to be a solid and stable distribution which can be relied on to do normal daily tasks or run web servers. The new version came with a lot of updated software. However, Debian, as a distribution, doesn’t aim to be “outstanding” or “so remarkable” like some other new distributions.
The goal of the Debian project is to create a free operating system which everybody can tweak and use for their own purposes. Debian 9 (and all Debian versions) does provide this functionality. And continues to be one of the most stable Linux distributions.
Update: Earlier version of this article mentioned XFCE as the default DE and Firefox 45.9 to be included. Those information were updated.