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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.
I just had my first look at the SolydXK distribution family last December, but I was very impressed by it then — and I still am.
It is somewhat of a spinoff from LMDE, so it shares a lot of the background and packages with it. In fact, as I mentioned in my first post about it, I sometimes think of SolydXK as being the KDE and Xfce versions of LMDE that I had always wished for, but which never seemed to come along.
That is really not a fair judgement, though, because the development team puts a lot of hard work into it, and it has a lot of value beyond being the "missing LMDE versions".
The most obvious thing to mention here is the update schedule: since LMDE was initially announced as a "rolling distribution" which was to have been continuously updated, it then revised that to the "Update Pack" concept with updates held back for testing and release in large groups, and then the interval between Update Pack releases has slowly increased.
The SolydXK developers are trying to make the most of the Update Pack philosophy, but even they seem to be having to compromise with the real-life fact that assembling, testing and distributing updates is difficult, messy and time-consuming work. While they were initially on a monthly Update Pack schedule, they changed that with the January 2014 release to a quarterly schedule to give themselves more time. I understand their motivation in this, and I sympathise with the problem. I hope that they can hold to the quarterly update schedule.
On the SolydXK web site there are actually two different approaches to distribution — Business and Home.
The difference between them is the relative priority given to stability vs. updating, as best as I can tell. This makes sense — home users such as myself are often interested in getting all the latest updates as quickly as possible (see my minor rants above and on the previous page about LMDE and Update Packs), whereas business users are often more concerned with not risking breaking a running system by making "unnecessary" changes.
They still want to get security patches, of course, but not necessarily the latest version of every other package on the system.
I have only installed and worked with the SolydXK Home distribution so far, so the following information will only be relevant to that version. As the name implies, there are two versions of the SolydXK distribution, one with the Xfce desktop and one with the KDE desktop. I discussed both of them in some detail in the post that I mentioned (and linked) above.
SolydXK uses the same Mint Install program as LMDE, so there is not a lot more to discuss about it here. It does NOT include UEFI firmware support, so if you want to install it on a UEFI system, you will either have to use Legacy Boot support in your BIOS, if it is available, or you will have to install a third-party Boot Manager package, such as rEFInd.
Once installed and running, SolydXK looks and feels quite nice. Everything works — on the three or four systems I have installed it on I didn't have a single problem, not one piece of unknown or unsupported hardware, nothing that had to be installed manually or whatever.