It’s been 6 years or so since I first started messing around Linux, and although I’ve used pretty much every Linux distro out there, and done 15 months of tech support for SuSE Linux, I’ve never really been a convert to Linux on the desktop for every day use. It’s just never really suited me to be honest. It’s the kinda thing I would have setup on my machines, but spend most of the time switching back into Windows as it was easiest.
The only distro that has come close to fulfilling my needs on the desktop has been SuSE Linux, which I must say is one of the best distros for newbies in my opinion, simply for it’s ease of use, especially the installer which has cracking hardware detection and configuration. It’s not my favourite and most widely used distro, however. Debian GNU/Linux has long held that title. If I talk to people about Linux systems I’ve installed, ran and running, it’s been Debian I’m refering to. Just never on the desktop.
Now, that’s changed. Well and truly. And I want to shout about this, as it’s big. Very big.
I’m quite a picky person, and when it comes to computers, even more so. Everything has to be laid out just so, and I need to be able to do what I want when I want and not mess around with wizards or menu systems. I want to plug something in and have it working. I want to click a button and have it respond the way I expect. On the desktop, Windows managed this better than Linux, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until that changed. And with the latest release of Debian 3.1 r0a, it has.
It’s been quite a while coming, and having seen the roadmap for it, I always had a suspicion it would end up on my laptop and would be used day-in day-out. The installer has changed quite a bit. Although no-where near as graphical and user-friendly as SuSE, Red Hat, MandrakeSoft, etc. have been for quite some time, it was *much* easier than previous versions. This was also the first time I’ve re-sized an NTFS partition during an installer. It was a breeze, although not obvious as to what you have to do (select your partition during the installer, which seems almost like you’re going to wipe it…). The installer claimed to have detected my wireless card and configured it, though I doubted this would be the case. No Linux system I know of can detect + configure a wireless straight out-the-box during install, mainly due to WEP. Same here, though a simple “iwconfig eth2 key restricted  wep-key” solved that one and it came straight up. That was the first “Wow!”. Internet access as soon as the installer had finished. For those interested, I’m running a Netgear MA-401 wireless PCMCIA card, with the latest firmware already applied whilst running Windows. Apparently, an updated firmware needs to be applied before this card will work properly.
Next up, and something that I caught the installer out with, X11. I always chose ‘nv’ as the driver to use, knowing fine-well it won’t work. I always need to use the ‘vesa’ driver, and sure enough X11 threw a wobbler until the config file was changed. But, that allowed me to drop straight into KDE 3.3. Okay, okay, it’s big, bulky, quite slow to load and menu-ey like Windows, but until Fluxbox or some other desktop system gets installed, I prefer it over Gnome. I think this goes *way* back to SuSE 6.2, my first Linux systyem I got X running on, which dropped me straight into KDE. Back then Gnome just didn’t look right. KDE did. End of story. One cool thing I only realised afterwards was as KDE was loading, I got the KDE start-up theme being played. Sound already setup + configured? It never asked me about that during the installer. That impressed me.
After a quick apt-get to stick on Firefox + Thunderbird, installing the extensions + themes I want, and copying across my mail from the Windows system (mounting the NTFS filesystem without a batter of an eye-lid as I’ve come to expect), they loaded up fine. On a roll here, let’s try Skype. No package in ‘stable’ through apt, but a Debian package available from the Skype website. Again, ‘dpkg -i skype.deb’ had this up and running. For some reason, it doesn’t correctly handle contacts, so you need to create new groups, otherwise all contacts end up under ‘ungrouped buddies’. No big deal though.
So, that’s pretty much what I want from a desktop system. Additional apps like the GIMP, OpenOffice, Bluefish, etc. were already installed so that lets me mess around with photos, create my office documents, and knock-out web-based code easily. Here’s what it all looks like:
Does this mean I’d recommend it to new users? I’m not too sure. I still think you need to know what’s under the hood to get a wireless link going. There’s still no way to copy across existing configs + mail from an existing Thunderbird installation or backup, which is tricky, but most new users probably wouldn’t find this a problem. What was nice included quick setup of X11 + desktop managers, configuration of sound without even being prompted, and configuration of my RealTek 8139 network card which has always been a pain under Debian.
So, I’m very happy with my new system. If I’m setting up a server for handling websites or e-mail, acting as firewall or a proxy server, Debian will continue to be my choice as the latest security patches and 2.6 kernel by default are pleasing to see. And now when it comes to desktop machines, I’m quite confident in getting Debian running with all the apps + tools I’ll need for myself or configuring for other people without too much hassle!