Debian, Mint (LMDE), SolydX and Tanglu, compared and contrasted

Debian, Mint (LMDE), SolydX and Tanglu, compared and contrasted

Summary: Hands-on comparison of Debian GUN/Linux and three first- and second-generation derivatives.


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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.

  • SolydXK Xfce

    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.

Topics: Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems

J.A. Watson

About J.A. Watson

I started working with what we called "analog computers" in aircraft maintenance with the United States Air Force in 1970. After finishing military service and returning to university, I was introduced to microprocessors and machine language programming on Intel 4040 processors. After that I also worked on, operated and programmed Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8, PDP-11 (/45 and /70) and VAX minicomputers. I was involved with the first wave of Unix-based microcomputers, in the early '80s. I have been working in software development, operation, installation and support since then.

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  • Correction about the Tanglu Debian branch
    "Is Tanglu 1.0 based on Debian Testing or Unstable?

    It's neither. While the majority of packages comes from Testing, a significantly large amount is taken from Unstable. A few packages even trace back to Debian Experimental. When building this release we tried to get the technically best constellation of packages, including newer versions where it made sense. Using the versions from Testing as primary choice has the advantage that these versions already received some testing in Debian before they landed in Tanglu."
    • Thanks

      Interesting information, thanks for the clarification.

  • Debian

    Am currently running a Debian old-stable (squeeze) desktop system which is nearing end of support (I figure approximately 2 months).

    With Debian, I prefer the netinstall which provides me, at completion, with only a text console. At this point, I install, the Xfce desktop, sound system (ALSA) and those applications which I require. I prefer a minimalistic approach to my deskop systems and Debian's netinstall allows me that flexibility.

    P.S. My quest for minimalistic GNU/Linux desktop systems has also very recently led me to TinyCore Linux (not Debian-based) which I currently enjoy as a "surfboard".

    P.P.S. Very nice review and comparison.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Very Cool

      Well, there's dedicated, there's hard-core, and there's really hard-core. You definitely fit comfortably in the really-hard-core end of that spectrum! I also prefer netinst, because of the flexibility it gives me and because I have found that the Debian Live images sometimes give me an installed system with some odd rough edges that have to be cleaned up. But the important point is, on every system I have there will be a continuously changing selection of Linux distributions installed, depending on what I am currently looking at... but Debian will always be there. Always. It is the only distribution which is on 100% of them.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Like the "Surfbard" idea

      i suppose mine is puppy linux!

      I have a home built testing rig running a series of virtualised systems, some forming a network, with a red hat dom0. Usually each has it's specific purpose and there's little chance of risk. however there has come times when the important business related system is required to access the internet through the browser (sadly unavoidable) my solution has been to use puppy in a Virtual box vm siimply as a browser. I find the fact it loads to RAM at boot can overcome the expense of running a VM inside another virtualised instance.

      great article as usual. I noticed the LMDE repo's went down some time over night - getting a message that it is due t unexpected activity... eitherr this article drew too much attention, or they're under attack!
  • Another metric for your chart

    ...would be "heaviness" or how much memory with a certain app running, like Firefox with one tab open. It would show how suited an OS would be for older PCs. Some distros tout their "lightness" but that doesn't tell you if it will run on your antique.
  • Cool SolydKX

    Currently using Xubuntu. Was looking for Debian based distro + XFCE. Discovered SolydKX thanks to your article.
  • This article is proof that

    Linux is a hobby and not a desktop OS.
    • I agree with you

      I had eschewed anything Linux on a computer but decided to try it on an older computer - it was a chore to get any version to install and after I got Mint to install, I was left with "what can you do with it?" It would not play youtube or iheartradio -given that the only thing this computer would have ever been used for was something that this rudimentary operating system could not do, I ended up giving the computer away with Windows XP reinstalled.

      I don't have the need to babysit an operating system and this is what you do with Linux.
      • right, so you don't understand and you moved on

        That's fine. Your interest lies in the applications, and the computer as a tool for doing something, not the computer and operating system itself, which fascinates people like me and the author. Much like everyone likes music for the singing, dancing, entertainment value, but only musicians like music for the instruments, the notes and chords, which, taken alone simply bores 90% of the people. Because I spent years tinkering with 'linux' I got a job where at least part of it is getting paid to do embedded linux work and servers.
      • Ummm

        Linux plays Youtube just fine! Either enable HTML5 ( or install flash. A simple google should do it.
    • thank you you've made your point.

      There is no reason for you to come back to these sort of linux posts again then, we are not here to discuss the merits of linux as a desktop OS. The author is comparing different linux distros.
  • LMDE + Testing

    I have used LMDE on and off since it first came out. It is not difficult to switch from update packs and just open up Debian Testing. There is an active thread on the LMDE forums for those who choose this path. This thread contains warnings and solutions. It is rare for there to be any problems. There is even one for those who choose to run Sid on top of LMDE. The biggest problem I have seen is a conflict between Debian and Mint versions of Cinnamon. Currently you can run Cinnamon 2 on LMDE + Testing. You can make your own LMDE + Testing with Xfce4 with a few minutes in Synaptic.

    But, of course the other "distro" that should have been included is just running Debian Testing as a rolling release. A very large number of people do just that. Choose Gnome, KDE or Xfce4 and you have a fine system. A system that is reasonably modern with out ever being "bleeding edge". A Testing install image is always available and updated. Yes, you do need to know what you are doing, but there is little to gain from these derivatives over just running Testing.
  • Linux OS

    I would just like to say that I love these compare and contrast articles based on the many different variations of Linux. I have tried many different releases of Linux and my current variation is my favorite so far. I love to customize the appearance and feel of the OS. KDE is best for this customizing "addiction." I have a System 76 laptop and I am running Kubuntu 13.10 64bit. On all other distros I have used, I was using Firefox as my browser, but on this system I found Chromium (Chrome) to be best. The problems I encounter making this switch was the lack of support for flash or java. After some in depth research and work, it works great. I can understand some of the frustrations that people run into when trying to get things to work. Once you overcome some of the difficulties, no other OS comes close to achieving what can be done with Linux. When other people ask me what I love most about Linux, my first response is that it will recognize and use any type of files. No special programs or conversions are necessary.
    Brian Schrader
    • Good information

      This is good information, and quite interesting. I agree with your conclusions.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.