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

Hands-on comparison of Debian GUN/Linux and three first- and second-generation derivatives.
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Topic: Linux
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1 of 6 J.A. Watson/ZDNet

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.

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2 of 6 J.A. Watson/ZDNet

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.

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3 of 6 J.A. Watson/ZDNet

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.

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4 of 6 J.A. Watson/ZDNet

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.

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5 of 6 J.A. Watson/ZDNet

Tanglu KDE Netbook

I had seen some announcements about the Tanglu GNU/Linux distribution, but honestly I had not paid much attention to it until someone suggested that I compare it to SolydXK. 

The idea behind Tanglu is that it will be derived from Debian, but it will not be subject to the long development delays and freezes that Debian goes through with every development/distribution cycle. 

As such is it based on Debian Testing (not Debian Stable), and the Tanglu development team expects to provide a lot of the testing, integration, packaging and distribution of patches and updates. This is a very new distribution (the current release is 1.0), so it is difficult to predict how successful they will be at this, but at least their initial effort has been good.

The Tanglu downloads page has Live ISO images for KDE and Gnome 3 desktops, each with 32-bit and 64-bit versions, and as usual they are hybrid ISO images. Tanglu also uses Mint Install for their installer, so again there isn't much to add about that. As with SolydXK, they do not support UEFI boot yet. 

Other than that, downloading, creating a Live USB stick or Live DVD, booting it and installing Tanglu is nearly identical to LMDE and SolydXK.

When I installed Tanglu KDE on my Samsung N150 Plus netbook, it came up automatically with the Netbook desktop — obviously it had detected the small screen (1024x600) and made the configuration based on that. 

At the other end of the spectrum, when I loaded it on my Lenovo T400 which has dual displays (laptop and external), it detected and configured them both at optimum resolution with an extended desktop. I have loaded both the KDE and Gnome versions on the T400, and they both detected and configured the dual displays correctly.

The Tanglu base distribution does not include a few packages which are in the others, such as GIMP and any kind of photo management/editing application in the KDE version. I was a bit disappointed in that, because I am a big fan and active user of digiKam. 

Of course, these packages and literally thousands of others are only one or two mouse-clicks away in the package manager.

Because of the lack of UEFI support I have so far installed Tanglu on only two of my systems (the Lenovo and Samsung, mentioned above). It installed with absolutely no problems on both of them, recognised and configured all of the hardware and everything works perfectly.

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6 of 6 J.A. Watson/ZDNet

Debian and Derivatives

In summary, here is a quick comparison of some of the features of these four distributions:

  Debian Stable (Wheezy) Mint Debian SolydXK Tanglu
Desktops Gnome, KDE, Xfce, LXDE Cinnamon, MATE KDE, Xfce Gnome, KDE
ISO SIzes

280MB (net), 1.2GB (Live),

4.4GB (Installer)

1.3GB

1.1GB (Xfce)

1.5GB (KDE)

930MB
Installed Size 4.0GB 4.4GB 5.25GB 3.33GB
Linux Kernel 3.2.54  3.11.8  3.11.10  3.12.9
X.org Server 1.12.4 1.14.3  1.14.5  1.14.5
Office  LibreOffice  LibreOffice

AbiWord / Gnumeric

LibreOffice

 LibreOffice
Internet  Iceweasel / Evolution  Firefox / Thunderbird Firefox / Thunderbird / Steam

 Firefox / Kmail

Graphics  GIMP  GIMP

GIMP / Image Magick

 
Multimedia  Rhythmbox / Totem  Banshee / VLC / Flash

Exaile / VLC / Flash

Amarok / VLC / Flash

 Amarok / VLC / Flash

Rhythmbox

Photos  Shotwell  gThumb

Shotwell

digikam / Gwenview

 Gwenview

Shotwell

Updates  Packagekit / Synaptic  Mint Update Manager Mint Update Manager

 Apper

PackageKit

A couple of quick comments about this table.  First, it is a basically random list, based on things I use regularly, things that came to mind as I was writing it, and things I saw in the menus as I was writing. 

Second. the significantly older kernel version in Debian is because I use Debian Stable (Wheezy), while the other three distributions are based on Debian Testing (Jessie).  Third, where there are different contents between the different desktops on the same distribution, I have tried to list them.  Sorry if that makes it look a bit confusing.

Perhaps one of the most important things to consider is how updates are handled. 

Debian Stable is quite conservative about updating, but it sends individual updates out whenever they are ready so there is a fairly steady trickle of them. 

There is then also periodically "rollup" releases, where new ISO images are made available with all updates to that point incorporated. 

For Wheezy, we are on the fourth such rollup (thus 7.4).  Linux Mint Debian Edition does updates via Update Packs, which means that almost all updates are held back until a complete pack is ready and tested, then they are all released together. 

As far as I know there is no formal schedule or commitment for frequency of LMDE update packs; they seem to happen about once every four to six months. 

In addition, new ISO images are made available after two or three update packs, which works out to about once a year or so.  But remember, LMDE is a "semi-rolling distribution", which means that even when new ISO images are released, they are just a roll-up of the base distribution and all the updates; if you already have Mint Debian installed and running, there is no need to completely re-install periodically. 

SolydXK also uses the Mint Debian Update Pack mechanism, but they test, assemble and distribute their own packs, on their own schedule. That was on a monthly basis until the end of last year, but now it is on a quarterly bases (every three months). 

I haven't been using Tanglu long enough to be really sure about their update processes, but it appears to be "release when ready", so individual updates will come through as they are tested and released by the package maintainers.

Finally, here are a few general tips and comments about strengths and weaknesses of each distribution:

  • Debian — Choose this one if you want to really learn about Linux, not just install and use it. You will have to make the effort to get it installed and configured the way you want, to get the drivers, utilities, applications and drivers that you want or need.  But when you get that done, you will most likely have a good, solid understanding of Linux administration. On the other hand, if you don't want to have to this administrative work, if you want to just "Install and Use" Linux, then you probably don't want to start with Debian.
  • Linux Mint Debian Edition — This is the opposite end of the configuration-administration spectrum.  Most of what you are likely to want will already be included in the base distribution, so you will have little or no additional download/install/configure work to do after the installation is complete. LMDE is about as close to "Install and Use" as any Linux distribution gets. The big question here is whether you want one of these desktops. Both Cinnamon and MATE are developed and maintained by the Linux Mint development team, and although they are spreading to other distributions somewhat, they are not as widely distributed as the "standard" KDE/Gnome/Xfce/LXDE desktops. There is a significant drawback, compared to SolydXK and Tanglu, in the Mint Debian Update Pack process, first in the apparently ever-increasing interval between Update Packs, and second in the relatively complex, possibly error-prone update procedures for the two latest Update Packs (7 and 8). In fact, this could be interpreted as indicative of a larger problem for LMDE — there may be a lack of time on the part of the Linux Mint development team, whose top priority is obviously the much more popular Mint (numbered) that is derived from Ubuntu. This is only my own opinion, and my own speculation, but I don't think it is out of the question that the Mint developers could eventually decide that they just don't have the time and resources to maintain LMDE any more. It's not likely at this point, but it's not impossible either, and if something like that matters to you, if you wouldn't be comfortable just distro-hopping if it happened, then you might want to consider it now.
  • SolydXK — Very similar to LMDE, but with a choice of KDE and Xfce desktops. Again, it will be ready for productive use "out of the box" (immediately after installation). The other significant advantage of SolydXK is the availability of different versions specifically designed for Home and Business use.  Choose the Home distribution for faster updating across the board, or the Business distribution to give stability and security priority over rapid updating. When compared to LMDE, SolydXK also has an advantage in Update Pack frequency and regularity. New Update Packs are promised quarterly now, and so far the SolydXK developers have been true to their word on providing updates on announced schedules.  Also, although there are no firm commitments that I have seen about this, I have the feeling that even if something did happen and LMDE were discontinued, SolydXK would very likely find a way to survive on its own.
  • Tanglu — Choose this one if you want to be as close to "pure" Debian as possible, but using the more recent/current packages from Debian Testing rather than the much more slowly changing Debian Stable. The idea here is that the Tanglu developers do the testing, packaging and integration much more quickly than Debian themselves do. It is planned to be a release-cycle distribution, not a rolling distribution, with new releases every six months.  if you don't mind making a clean install once in a while, this can be an advantage.  I always feel like things are in an overall better state when I install from scratch once in a while rather than just updating forever. But then, I guess that is the fundamental philosophical difference between releases and rolling, so you choose the one you like the best.

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