Debian Linux 7.0 Wheezy: Hands on

I've been experimenting with installing the new Debian release across a number of devices - here's what I've found so far.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

I have fallen behind on the Distro Deluge of new Linux releases, because I was traveling in the US for three weeks. The good news in that is that I took my two Acer Aspire One systems with me (725 and 522), and both performed extremely well during the trip. The bad news is that I have a couple of new releases to catch up on, and the release of Linux Mint 15 seems to be imminent. So it is time to get busy again.

A new Debian release is always big news, because they don't happen very often and because a lot of other Linux distributions are directly or indirectly based on it, such as Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Pinguy, Mepis and others.  So when Debian 7.0 was released on 4 May, a lot of people (including me) were quite pleased.

Unlike a lot of the other common/popular distributions, Debian offers a lot of different installation images, in a variety of formats and supporting several different CPU architectures. The Getting Debian web page breaks it out by installation image type:

  • Network Installation image (netinst): This is the one which I most commonly use, and recommend to others. The image is quite small (less than 200MB), and when you run the installation it automatically gets the latest packages, so you don't end up needing to update immediately after the installation completes. Of course, this type of installation requires that the system have a working (and reasonably fast) internet connection during the installation, either wired or wireless. If you don't have that, you'll have to use one of the other ISO image types.
  • CD/DVD Installer images: These are sets of ISO images, where the first disk will get you the basic installation with a graphical desktop (GUI), and the subsequent disks (up to nine or 10 CD images, three or four DVD images) will contain the rest of the complete distribution packages. For the CD images, it is useful to know that Debian supports a number of different desktops, including Gnome, KDE, Xfce and LXDE, and there is a different "disk 1" image for each of these desktops.  If you don't specifically choose one of the others, the default disk 1 image is a Gnome 3 installer.
  • Live CD images: As the name implies, these allow you to boot and run a "Live" image, and then if everything works the way you want, you can go ahead and install the system to your hard drive.  As with the CD/DVD installer images, there are different versions for Gnome, KDE, Xfce and LXDE desktops.

All of these are hybrid ISO images, which means that if you have a running Linux system, after downloading them you can just copy them with 'dd' to a USB thumb drive to make a bootable installation medium.

In the case of the netinst and installer images, when you boot them you will have a choice between the traditional ascii-text based installer and the slightly newer graphical installer; with the Live images you will also have the option to boot to a Live system. 

If you are not already familiar with Debian installers, don't get your hopes up when you read the "graphical installer" statement above, it is not the kind of complete GUI-based installer you might have seen with other popular distributions; it is actually just the text installer with mouse support added.

UEFI Support - Ok, here comes the first really important note. I read the release announcement and release notes pretty carefully, and I found several places where it said "UEFI boot is supported", but no details.

Then, because I was traveling while I was trying this and I didn't always have a reliable and fast internet connection, I first tried a Live ISO Image. It would only boot on my UEFI systems if I enabled "Legacy Boot".  Drat. 

It wasn't until I got home again, and tried the other images, that I realized that only the Live images are not UEFI Boot compatible; both the netinst and CD/DVD Installer images have UEFI boot capability. However, as far as I can tell none of them have Secure Boot compatibility, so you have to disable that in your BIOS to boot them.

I have installed this release (from the netinst image) on five of my systems so far: two with UEFI BIOS (Acer Aspire One 725 and HP Pavilion dm1-4310ez) and three with "normal" (legacy) BIOS (Acer Aspire One 522, HP Pavilion dm1-3105ez and Fujitsu Lifebook S6510).  On most of them I left it with the default Gnome 3 desktop:

Debian Gnome
Debian GNU/Linux 7.0 (Wheezy) Gnome 3 Desktop

 I ran into a number of stumbling blocks related to the Debian policy of not including any non-free software. In every case but one, the solution was to complete the installation, update the repository list to include contributed and non-free software, and then download the additional packages required to support my hardware.  Details:

  • Lifebook S6510: This "golden oldie" has an Intel wireless network adapter which requires a proprietary binary firmware file. To get it, I installed the package firmware-iwlwifi. It also has an Intel Core2Duo CPU and Intel graphic controller, all of which worked just fine and the performance was just fine, Gnome 3 came up in normal mode with no problem.
  • Radeon HD graphic adapters: All four of my netbooks have AMD CPUs and Radeon HD graphic controllers.  The problem is that with the latest Linux kernel and X.org display software, kernel mode setting can only be done when an additional firmware package is installed. The effect of this was different between machines; the two newest ones wouldn't start up the graphic desktop at all, while the two older ones would start, but they would only run the fallback Gnome Classic desktop. After installing the firmware-linux-nonfree package, all three worked normally.
  • Broadcom bcm43xx WiFi adapter: Requires the packagefirmware-brcm80211.
  • Ralink WiFi adapters: The HP 3105ez has a Ralink 5390 WiFi adapter, which requires the package firmware-ralink to work. The HP 4310ez has a Ralink 3290 adapter, which is apparently not supported by the drivers included with the Debain 7.0 release. First I couldn't find the firmware for it in the Debian repositories, then when I simply copied the necessary firmware file from another distribution (which has always worked for openSuSE, Fedora, Ubuntu and Mint), it still didn't work. I assume that the problem here is the older Linux kernel (3.2.0), when the necessary Ralink driver was added to the kernel only around version 3.5.x or so.

That's pretty much all of the non-foss/firmware problems I ran into. One other interesting thing that came up that I mentioned above, the Radeon HD graphic controllers didn't work properly (sometimes not at all) in the base installation. 

On the one netbook where it worked at least enough to boot, but then dropped me into the "Gnome Classic" desktop, I decided to try a different desktop before actually solving the problem by loading the necessary firmware package.  I simply went into synaptic and loaded the kde-full package.

That is a metapackage that gets you the complete KDE Software Collection plus some other useful KDE-specific applications. It takes quite a while to download and install, because it is a lot of stuff, but once it is done you an logout and then when you log back in after entering your login name you can change the Session to KDE, and you'll get this:

Debian KDE
Debian GNU/Linux 7.0 (Wheezy) KDE Desktop

Of course, you can do the same thing for Xfce (package xfce4) to get this:

Debian GNU/Linux 7.0 (Wheezy) Xfce 4 Desktop


There is an interesting illustration of the difference in the size and weight of Xfce and KDE - this downloads and installs much faster than the KDE metapackage did.  I mean really, really a lot faster.

I don't want to slight anybody here, or hurt any feelings, so of course you can also do this for LXDE (package lxde), to get this:

Debian LXDE
Debian GNU/Linux 7.0 (Wheezy) LXDE Desktop


 Once again, doing this was a good illustration of the relative size and weight of the desktop environments, because LXDE was an even smaller download and even faster installation than Xfce had been.

So now I have one system with all four desktops installed and I can choose whichever one I want during login. Hmmm. 

Well, technically it is even more than that, because installing LXDE brought along openbox, which can also be selected from the Session menu during login. Very spiffy.  Oh, and after installing all of these different desktops, I went back and installed the firmware-linux-nonfree package, and Gnome 3 was then happy as well.

Ok, enough of that fooling around. Here are two more notes specifically for more advanced users.  If you don't know what these are talking about, or you have never seen the situations described, don't worry about it. They are just a couple of things that have driven me crazy about Debian for quite some time, so I want to mention them quickly in hopes of helping someone else avoid them.

  • When I use the netinst installer and a wired network connection, Debian sets up a static configuration for the wired interface. This prevents Network Manager from controlling and configuring the wired networking, which is probably not an issue for 99 percent of the installations in the world, but I have run into a couple of situations where that was inconvenient. To get rid of this, all you have to do is edit /etc/network/interfaces, comment out (or delete) the lines for the wired interface, and reboot.
  • If you have any other Linux distributions installed on the system, then you will almost certainly already have a swap partition. When you install Debian it will detect that partition and use it - but it will "format" it, which will cause the UUID to change. This will cause any other distribution which activates the swap by UUID to fail. In some cases that is not too awful, because Linux just starts with no swap partition, and on most modern systems that doesn't matter. But there are some distributions which get more upset about this - Fedora and PCLinux OS, for example, stop during boot for a long time waiting for the swap partition to appear. I don't know exactly how long they wait, but it is at least a minute a two, and it is certainly long enough for the average user (i.e. me) to assume that the boot has hung. For most such systems you can solve this problem by simply updating the swap entry in /etc/fstab with the new UUID, but on PCLinuxOS you also have to recreate the initrd image. There is a fairly simple way to avoid this - during the Debian installation, when setting up disk partitions go to the swap partition and change it to "do not use". Then after installation is complete, add the appropriate swap line to /etc/fstab.

That's about it.  I didn't intend this to be a review, but more of a "here's what it is, how to get it and install it, and what signifiant experiences I have had so far". 

So I haven't run through a lot of detail about the bits and pieces. You can get a lot more of that kind of information from the Release Announcement. Oh, and I also mentioned above that Debian supports a lot of different CPU types and architectures that most other distributions do not; for a list of those, check the Release Notes, it's an impressive list, running from the ARM to the IBM S/390, and lots of stuff in between.

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