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Debian 6 Squeeze review – nearly, but not quite…

Debian Squeeze lives up to its name as the “universal operating system”: with the big number of supported architectures, the experimental FreeBSD architecture and its completely free kernel, this distribution keeps standing out from the crowd. It's not plain sailing, though, as Koen Vervloesem discovers...

This article is due to appear in issue 100 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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Pros: Debian Squeeze has become much more user-friendly, is booting faster and has added a lot of new packages.
The 2.6.32 kernel and the KDE 4.4 release in Debian Squeeze are a bit too old and there’s no auxiliary program to install the right non-free firmware packages.

You don’t choose Debian if you fancy the newest software, but if you long for stability and you don’t want to upgrade each 6 months, Debian is definitely for you. The fact that Debian Squeeze’s freeze has lasted for six months, which is as long as Ubuntu’s complete release cycle, can give you an idea about the attention to stability that the Debian developers invest. Moreover, according to Debian’s security policy you get security updates for about one year after the next stable distribution has been released, which is as good as you get from an Ubuntu LTS release.

Of course Debian’s conservative approach has the consequence that the available software packages are rather dated. Take a look at some of the key packages: a 2.6.32 kernel, X.Org 7.5, Gnome 2.30, KDE 4.4, Xfce 4.6, 3.2, Gimp 2.6.10 and Iceweasel 3.5.16. For some users, there could be showstoppers. For instance, if you want to run Debian on a system with an SSD, it’s a pity that you don’t get the automatic TRIM functionality that appeared in the 2.6.33 kernel, so you’ll have to manually trim your SSD with the hdparm wiper script if you don’t want to lose performance on an intensively used SSD.

Another hallmark of Debian is that it really deserves its name of “universal operating system”. There are official CD and DVD images for various architectures: amd64, armel, i386, ia64, mips, mipsel, powerpc, sparc, and s390. So if you have an old Mac with a PowerPC processor lying around, you can give it a new life with Debian, or if you want to install a full Linux distro on your NAS with an ARM processor, chances are that Debian supports it. The Squeeze release even has for the first time two non-Linux architectures: kfreebsd-i386 and kfreebsd-amd64, which give you a complete Debian system on top of a FreeBSD 8 kernel, which is nice if you want features like the ZFS file system.

This is the first Debian release that distributes a completely free kernel. What does this mean in practice? If you have a wireless network card that requires non-free firmware files, you won’t find them in Squeeze’s kernel. However, Debian doesn’t forbid you to use those: the installer detects whether your hardware needs non-free firmware files to operate and kindly asks you if it should load the missing firmware from a CD or a USB stick. So you can download a tarball with the firmware and unpack them on a USB stick, and there are even (unofficial) netinstall ISO images that include the non-free firmware.

Of course you can also add the non-free and contrib repositories after installation and search for the needed packages: the packages have not been dropped from the distribution but just moved from the main to the non-free part of the repositories (so don’t forget to enable this repository). A disadvantage is that there’s no auxiliary program like in Ubuntu that helps you find and install the right firmware, so you’ll have to guess, google and consult Debian’s online documentation.

Although Debian Squeeze doesn’t use Upstart like the latest Ubuntu release, it boots surprisingly fast, because the developers have parallelized the init scripts as much as possible. This clearly shows that distributions don’t need to throw away the old init system to get decent boot performance. And finally, GRUB 2 is now used as the default bootloader, and Debian Squeeze has a lot of new packages, including Google’s web browser Chromium and Ubuntu’s Software Centre.

Verdict: 3/5
Debian Squeeze is a good choice if you want to run a server or a desktop with stable packages and a couple of years of security patches, even more if your hardware is from an exotic architecture. The downside of this stability is that some packages are a bit too old: especially the kernel – it’s not a good fit for SSDs, for example. But compared to Debian Lenny, the newest release is faster, more user-friendly and more universal. We’d award it an extra half-mark if we could.

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