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When I wrote about the Linux Mint Debian Edition Release Candidate last week, I promised to look at it in more detail when the final release was made.
Someone then suggested that I compare LMDE to the new Tanglu distribution (thanks for that), and that sounded like a good idea to me. But I'm not one to do things in a small scale, and to be honest I have been really interested in and pleased by the SolydXK distributions since I wrote about them last December and again in January.
So here I have decided to look at each of these four distributions individually, and then comparing them to each other.
The four distributions obviously have a lot in common; Debian is well known as one of the oldest, best established and most respected Linux distributions, Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) is derived from Debian, with a lot of the goodies which have been developed for the Linux Mint 'main' distribution added, and both SolydXK and Tanglu are derived from a combination of those two plus a good bit of work in packaging, repositories, updates, appearances and such.
I think this is going to be an interesting exercise, but it is probably going to take a while, so you might want to get a cup of coffee/tea/whatever and settle in comfortably before starting.
Debian 7.4 Gnome 3
Undoubtedly familiar to the vast majority of Linux users, Debian GNU/Linux is a solid, reliable old friend. There are a variety of ISO images available from the Getting Debian page, including Live images with a selection of desktops (Gnome, KDE, Xfce and LXDE); a full-blown DVD installer, and a very small network installer.
All of these are available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, and all are "hybrid" ISO images, so they can be copied to a USB stick using the dd utility.
The current Debian distribution (at least since 7.0) is compatible with UEFI firmware systems, but only with 'Secure Boot' disabled. Of course it is also compatible with 'Legacy Boot' or MBR systems.
The Debian installer is... well... quaint might be a charitable word.
The text-mode installer that we have all known and loved (or not) for the past 10 years or more is still there, and there is a "Graphical Installer" option available as well. In fact, all that "Graphical" means is that you get almost exactly the same process, presentation and options as with the text-mode installer, but you can use your mouse to click on the options, instead of having to manoeuvre with the cursor arrows and tab key. My point here is that for a new person coming to Linux, the first impression they would get from the Debian installer is not exactly positive.
The one thing that can be said for it is that it gets the job done, reliably, and it is very familiar.
The current Stable release is 7.4, known as 'Wheezy', which is what I am running and showing here. There is also a Testing release, currently known as 'Jessie', which is a sort of intermediate development version, not as solid and supported as Stable. Then there is also the Unstable release, always known as 'Sid', which is where new packages and updates land first, and are then tested, developed and debugged until they are solid enough to move into the testing distribution. The three derivatives discussed here are all based on the Deiban Testing release.
Debian is the parent of a lot of other Linux distributions, obviously including the other three covered here, but also Ubuntu and thus all of its derivatives, and many, many more.
Debian includes only FOSS software — absolutely no proprietary bits at all. That includes drivers, so for example if you have nVidia or AMD/ATI graphic controllers, or various Broadcom wi-fi network adapters and such, you will at least have to enable the non-free repositories after you install Debian, and then download the necessary packages from there.
In fact, the situation with graphic adapters in particular is getting even a bit more difficult because the latest FOSS AMD/ATI drivers use kernel mode setting (kms), and that requires some non-free packages to support it. The same is true of various firmware blobs, the proprietary ones are not included in the base distribution, and things like the Adobe Flash player and plugins.
The FOSS-only distribution means that Debian takes the most additional work after installation of any of the four distributions discussed here. You will most likely have to (or want to) enable various non-free and backport repositories, and then download and install more packages from them.
The positive side of this is that people who choose to run Debian almost always end up learning more about Linux administration than many (most) other Linux distributions. The negative side is that you might not want to learn that much about Linux administration.
Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE)
The next-best known of these four distributions is LMDE (Linux Mint Debian Edition).
A new release (201403) was just announced over the weekend. Because it is considered to be a "rolling release" distribution, there are not specific new release numbers, and this release is actually also considered to be the "original" LMDE release plus Update Pack 8 (UP8). While you should be able to get to this point by taking the original release and applying UP8 to it, personally I have my doubts about how practical or successful this might be.
The important thing to remember here is that this is not the well known Linux Mint distribution that you have probably read about, heard talked about, and seen sitting at or near the top of the Distrowatch rankings.
That would be the Linux Mint (numbered) distribution that is derived from Ubuntu (which of course is itself derived from Debian). LMDE is derived directly from Debian Testing, so it does not include any of the modifications, packages and such which come from Ubuntu — the most obvious example of this is the Linux kernel version.
However, LMDE does include almost all of the Mint-specific utilities, programs, applications and repositories that are in the Ubuntu-derived Mint version.
The Mint Debian Download page contains Live images for Cinnamon and MATE desktops, in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, and again these are hybrid ISO images. It is also compatible with UEFI firmware systems, but again only with Secure Boot disabled.
There is something else interesting here, though — in the disk partitioning step of the Mint Installer, you can actually choose the EFI boot partition to use. This means that it is possible to have both the Debian and Ubuntu versions of Mint on the same system, without them interfering with each others' boot setup. That's nice.
LMDE uses the MintInstaller, which was developed by the Linux Mint team themselves. I'm just speculating here, but since the reasonably nice Ubuntu installer wasn't an option for this distribution, and the Debian installer mentioned previously was not a very appealing option, they pretty much had to do something themselves.
In fact what they came up with is a very nice graphical installer, and I remember when they announced it they specifically said that it was available for use by any other distribution that might want it. As will be discussed in the following pages, both SolydXK and Tanglu use it.
The Mint Installer is a very nice (real) graphic installation program, it gets the job done with a minimum of questions and bother. It makes a simple linear run through the configuration dialog and then the installation, without trying to take the "hub-and-spoke" or "central dispatcher" approach that Fedora and Ubuntu are using now. There are only about three or four screens to get through before installation starts.
Of course, what Linux Mint is known for, compared to Debian, is that it includes lots of applications, utilities and other packages in the base distribution which are not included in Debian, and which many/most people would likely add after installation anyway. This includes some of the proprietary firmware blobs and drivers, as I mentioned in the discussion of Debian, and also things like media players, graphic editors, photo management programs and much more.
Linux Mint Debian Edition is a "semi-rolling" distribution, which means that it does not have periodic new releases which might require completely reinstalling the system.
The idea of a rolling distribution is that it should be possible to install the base distribution once, and then simply keep up with the updates - or in the case of LMDE, with the Update Packs.
My own experience has been that the Update Packs can sometimes be a bit difficult or tricky to install, and my frustration level with them has several times reached the point where I just gave up and waited for the next set of "roll-up" ISO images to be posted.
That obviously defeats the purpose of a rolling distribution, but I know that there are others who have been successful in just installing and updating, so maybe it is just my lack of patience or understanding. Anyway, this issue is the main reason that I have become so interested in SolydXK and Tanglu.