The Linux Project part V:
Test four: Debian, the little system that couldn't.
What can I say about what I feel to be the most overly hyped Linux distribution I have worked with to date? Well, we can start at the very beginning, as in trying to get it to install. In the grand scheme of Linux distributions that I have installed on the test system, Debian is the worst of the lot as far as set up and install. It fails in other areas as well, which I promise I will get to soon.
Debian was actually the second distribution I installed on the test system just before I had the idea for doing The Linux Project. Frankly, Debian almost completely soured me on the idea of running Linux at all. However, maybe as a result of Debian, I decided to start work on The Linux Project. As much to give a warning to those who might want to try as to get the chance to stomp all over Debian in writing, and have an excuse to do so.
Even now, as I type this on my main machine, I am burning the third, as in first, second, third Debian net installation disk from the ISO file. For some reason, and I am just unsure as to why, Debian setup CD's have a really short life once they find their way into a CD ROM drive. Both previous disks failed miserably this last time to set up the system. Considering this is the official setup for the Debian test under The Linux Project, I'd say that Debian is starting off on the wrong foot. Mind you, they will get a hell of a hot foot from me if this newly minted (as in just popped out of the drive) disk fails to load and run. I may have some measure of patience, but I am not writing this review for myself as much as I am for the individual who knows nothing, or next to nothing, about what to expect from a Linux distribution.
If this install fails, I will rate Debian as it operated the last time on the test machine. Mind you, it won't be pretty. I am a fair man, and I am willing to accept much, but when it comes to temperamental computer operating systems, I have a short fuse and little willingness to deal with dumb sh*t.
Wish me luck, I am about to end this portion and see if the new disk will get a long better. If so, I will rate Debian from that point. If not, I will rate it as I recall its operation on the test system right before I began The Linux Project. If I have to go that route, you can rest assured I will rake Debian over the coals. Even if all goes well this time, I wouldn't count on me being kind to what is, for some reason, the root of many different distributions.
Luck was of no use. I had to reconfigure the test system to get the Debian setup disk to operate. For some reason, the burner that created the CD couldn't read it. However, the DVD ROM that used to be in this machine read the disk just fine. So, for the purposes of this test, and most likely for the remainder of The Linux Project, I am going to keep the DVD ROM drive in the test machine. That's no real problem, since Linux comes with DVD programs, well, Slackware does anyway.
Back to Debian. As of now, it gets two stars for installation. Now, although by all rights I should gig it for forcing me to reconfigure the test system, bad drives aren't the fault of the software package. Since the test system is a bit of a throw together, a few hardware bugs are to be expected. Frustrating as they may be, it would be unfair of me to slap Debian down for such things. Besides that, as far as I can see, Debian doesn't need help in sucking. It sucks fairly well on its own.
I give it two stars because of the manner in which you have to install it. The stock Debian distribution is ten CD's. That's a lot of ISO files to download. When in reality, you probably only need two, who wants to gamble on that? The only options are to purchase the full package of disks from Debian directly, or to use the net setup option.
The first option means paying money. One of my unwritten rules of The Linux Project is the distributions must be free. Just by making that a rule, I have excluded some possibly good systems, such as Red Hat. However, what's the point of spending money for buggy systems when you can spend money and get good functional stuff from Microsoft? Even if I did have the money to pay for the disks, I'd still have to wait three or more weeks. I don't want to do that!
The other option, which is the one I am taking even now, is the net install. When I say net install, I mean that you begin by installing a small functional core on your system, make sure you have full exclusive access and use of your DSL line, and lots of time. The net install option is definitely a "smoke 'em if you got 'em" proposition. Once the small functional core is installed, you reboot your system and tell it which packages you want to install, and let 'er rip! For fun, you can smoke 'em if you got 'em, listen to the radio, or, if you happen to have another system sitting around, like me, you write the review as the lights flash on the network hub. There is a timer that tells you how long it will take to download all the packages you selected. When I let 'er rip, it told me it would take about twenty-eight minutes. That was about twenty minutes ago or so.
The timer only times how long it will take for the packages to get to your computer. Once there, they have to be unpacked (decompressed), installed (placed in their proper directories), and configured (made functional). If you assume that means it's going to take a little longer than what the timer tells you, by golly, you are right as rain. This is the third time I have traveled this path with Debian. I know of what I speak. All told, including the lockup that occurs halfway through the configuration of X-Windows (it happened twice already, I'm sure it will happen again), it will probably take two hours more or less to get to a place where you have something resembling an operating system, such as it is considering it's Debian.
So, I give Debian low marks on installation because they don't make it easy. They offer a ten-disk package for purchase, which puts it beyond the scope of The Linux Project. The offer ten ISO's and all the time required burning them, which is, once again, a no-go situation. Or they offer the net install, which is a time consuming operation. Slackware only has three disks. Solaris, the open source option from Sun Microsystems has five. Debian just has to be all things to all people with ten. I doubt all those would be needed, and if I tried to install them all, I'm sure the hard drive would run out of room. Debian is just not a friendly installation, no matter how you look at it.
Well, I have to shift gears now, it seems that Debian is ready to move to the next stage. The lights aren't flashing on the hub any longer. I'll be back presently to talk about the other four criteria. If Debian operates this time like it has the last two, you could say it's only downhill from here for Debian. How on earth did it become such a popular system? I don't get that at all.
On the second criterion, basic system operation, Debian barely garners one star. Let me put the reason into one word: unstable! Once again, I am left in a quandary as to why Debian is such the popular distribution. Oh, to be sure, it's really easy to add packages Debian on fly. And, there are lots of packages available; both created specifically for Debian by Debian, as well as packages from other sources. I found numerous applications available right there as a part of Debian's on-line package setup. Programs for which I had to search under Slackware were there and readily available. This feature is a nice convenience to be sure!
However, when I install an operating system on a computer, I want said computer to OPERATE. I know there is no such thing as flawless operation. Even under Microsoft, I have had more than one computer crash and burn. Even my personal favorite, Slackware has its moments of failure.
With Debian, though, it's like they build crash points into the system. I would be trying do something simple, like mount a CD, and the system would literally go from an operational GUI to nothingness. Sometimes the system locked completely, requiring a push on the rest button. Sometimes there was reboot. Sometimes the GUI would attempt to regenerate, always in an even more unstable state than before the error that sent the GUI packing for parts unknown. A few times, it went directly to the command prompt; a forbidden thing for a default Debian installation. In the time I worked with Debian, the longest time it spent up was when I went downstairs to eat breakfast and watch a bit of Gettysburg with my roommate, Bear.
Amazingly Enough, this time around, Debian found and operated my sound card. That's the first time in three attempts to install the system on the test machine. Therefore, I will have to give it four stars for device support. This is the only criterion that scores a good rating for Debian. I honestly don't know what I did this time that was so much different from all the other times I set it up. Frankly, considering how badly it bombed after the fact, it really doesn't matter. About the only thing Debian did right was find the devices.
On the fourth criterion, look and feel, I give Debian two stars. It came up to the KDE desktop, just like Slackware. However, Debian came up with KDE version 3.3. Slackware comes up with KDE 3.45. One would think the fact that Debian was setup via the net, they'd have provided the newest version of KDE. That could have made Debian even more unstable. While I don't see how that could happen, it's the only guess I offer as to why Debian wouldn't go for the full KDE Monty.
Even though the KDE with Debian was an older version, it looked pretty much the same as Slackware. So why would I rate Debian so low? Because I am not only judging Debian on look, I judging on feel. Considering the longest I could keep Debian up was the two hours between the time I ate breakfast and decided to get back to working with Debian. When actually working with it, I don't think it lasted twenty minutes without a crash. While it looked great, it felt like driving a Yugo: slow, shaky, and prone to die when it's least convenient. Therefore, I just can't give good marks for look and feel.
Finally, for overall impression, I give it a one. I'd have given it a zero, but that's reserved specifically for distributions that simply don't work. If the distribution won't boot, errors out, or otherwise completely falls to pieces before I can get it on the hard drive, then it's not worthy of a one. Debian did install. It did operate. It actually found all the devices and made them work. The on line package installation was a really nice touch. All the packages one could want at one's fingertips is an idea that all Linux makers (like Slackware) should make happen. If Debian had only worked well without crashing every fifteen minutes, I'd have been a lot happier with it.
Crash it did! Considering the time it took to get it setup, and all the other problems I ran into as I worked with it, I hoped it would be a little more bulletproof. When it booted to the KDE desktop without locking up, I figured it would probably get some high marks. After all, it had gone farther this time than it had the two previous times I tried install it.
But it wasn't to be. Too bad, so sad. I heartily recommend the newcomer stay away from Debian in droves. For all its flaws, there are many other Linux distributions out there that install easier, look better, work better, and are less of a pain in the ass over all.
While it's a given that Linux is a buggy system, Debian takes it way far off the beam. I am sitting here right now with my almost month old install of Slackware writing this as I download another ISO for burning. I am linked to my main computer, downloading the ISO, listening to Bear Radio Dot Net, Firefox is up to keep the download going, and the CD burner software is also up in the background just for the hell of it. Other than Firefox losing it's lunch once when I tried to open three tabs at one time, it's been working perfectly. I have been at it for almost an hour and half. Debian would have crashed and burned about an hour ago, with barely two applications up.
I guess just because a thing is popular doesn't mean it's good. Debian proves that!