The Year Of The Penguin - Part Five: Debian Linux

Linux-PenguinBy Andrew Frame

About ten years ago we purchased a Compaq laptop. It was built before built-in Wi-Fi, touch screens, netbooks, or tablets -- a pretty simple machine compared to the toys now available. Heavy as a brick, it also works as a self-defense device, like Mom’s cast-iron fry pan.

Though the packaging decals said it was optimized for Windows XP, it had some deficiencies. A bad software patch meant the inboard cooling fan wouldn’t cycle on, eventually destroying the hard drive and invoking a warranty service call; and the 128Mb of RAM was insufficient to run Windows smoothly once Service Pack 2 came out. Playing a DVD was out of the question. If you could put up with the staccato playback, the DVD would eject physically too hot to touch. (I never tried it, but I suppose it would run Windows 98 like a rocket.)

After acquiring an iBook G4 five years later, the Compaq gathered dust, occasionally brought out to have an OS loaded for experimentation, or do service as a light duty media player. We ran an early version of Ubuntu for a while, but crashes, slow performance and lockups while trying to turn it off put it back on the shelf.

Fanboys tout the Linux’s ability to run on just about any kind of “older” hardware. What they’re not as quick to say is you do sacrifice a lot of “user friendliness” in the process, like the entire graphical user interface (GUI). Strip away the GUI and run a command-line (CLI) only system, and it will run on older hardware. The GUI usually eats up the most system resources – CPU cycles, memory allocations, hard-drive activity.

But, how many non-tech people do you know have the ability to run a CLI-only system? How many of them even know what it is? I think it’s statistically safe to say that most PC users (this definitely includes Apple), wouldn’t know how to get to the command line, and what to do if they found it. This is by design. Manufacturers want users to be all about the “experience” of using their operating system. That “experience” doesn’t involve looking under the pretty GUI.

Over the last couple of years the GUI coders have made sure that for almost every action you take at the command line with Linux, you can point and click on the GUI. Like its market dominating counterparts, you don’t need to go to the command line. You can load any of the major distributions and it “just works.”

Even when you need to add repositories (online software depots), you do it from the GUI. Want to add an application, a game, a widget? With the Debian family of Linux, you go to System → Administration → Synaptic Package Manager and take your pick from thirty-thousand or so programs to add to your system. If you don’t find what you want, you add more repositories, and your selection gets bigger. All from the GUI. The current versions of Linux for the desktop are ready for prime-time. You should have zero concerns if you want to deploy on a single workstation, or across an entire office.

Our studio is based around two desktop machines - Windows XP for Cool Edit Pro, and Ubuntu for everything else. I like to have music in the background while working, but the current setup makes having a media player open on either machine a little problematic. So, I pulled the old laptop off the shelf last year to see if it could be turned into a glorified streaming radio.

The major Linux distros all have Live CD’s available. A Live CD will run the entire operating system from the CD, no hard drive install required. It enables you to test-drive a distro to see if you like it.

We started with Puppy. Small and quick, but something about the hardware made the laptop lock up after a few hours. Never figured it out. Fedora would lock up during the install. Ubuntu, the same version I used on my desktop, also came to a halt during install.

The front runners quickly became those with “lightweight” GUI’s, like ICEwm, Fluxbox, and Rox. Those three interfaces were great -- rocket fast, and simple to navigate. Loaded the CPU so little, the meter barely registered. But, I was used to the conventional bulk of Gnome, the most used of all the Linux GUI’s. Heavy, graphically intense, Gnome (and competitor KDE) is equal to anything Microsoft or Apple produces. Gnome has been the default GUI for Ubuntu, and having put Ubuntu through the wringer for the last 24 months, it’s what I was used to.

Like the majority of the population, I wasn’t particularly interested in anything but having a machine that “just worked.”

Comfortable with Gnome, but knowing Ubuntu would not load, I went up the family tree to something I tried a few years ago – Debian. Like Fedora, Slackware, and a few others, Debian is one of the “top level” distributions. That is, other distributions are built by modifying Debian.

Released in 1993, Debian is one of the old guard of Linux. Progeny include Corel’s Xandros, Lindows and Linspire/Freespire, Knoppix, Mint, Damn Small Linux, Puppy, MEPIS, and of course, the Ubuntu family of releases.

They use Debian as the starting point, then modify the package to suit their specific market target. As such, Debian doesn’t have the rapid-fire updating that Ubuntu has. It lacks much of the eye-candy. It’s workable out-of-the-box, but not the easiest one of the lot to set up. But, it works. And works nicely. It’s a four-wheel-drive pickup truck in a world of luxury SUV’s.

Not too long ago, building your own PC from scratch was frustrating. There was minimal standardization in peripherals. You needed to know the head/platter geometry of a hard drive, and how to manipulate the drive controller. Video card peculiarities. And more. Now, hardware has an almost universal level of standardization, and installers are written to exploit that.

Installation of Debian benefits from that advancement. Point, click, done. If you have ever installed Windows, you’re dealing with the same level of ease. Occasionally, there is a particular piece of hardware that it has to take a pass on. My glitch came with the old PCMCIA wireless card. It took me the better part of a day isolating the problem and installing the software that would get the card running. I could have gone to the store and bought a new wireless card, but that would defeat the point of reviving an old laptop for new use, wouldn’t it? And, when part of your income stream is repairing computers, it’s a good idea to not take the fast way out. You never know when a wee bit of arcane know-how may save the day.

I installed Debian to see if it would run well, and, to give myself a little bit of a challenge. And I got one. There are many sites online that give you a list of software repositories and tweaks to add and help to run Ubuntu. Not so much with Debian. You have to dig around, you have to experiment.

Software you’re used to seeing in Debian derivatives may be missing, or have different “unbranded” names. Some need to be updated to a newer version. Debian sticks with the proven versions of applications. This is not cutting edge. This is the truck that pulls the pretty SUV out of the ditch.

Debian also sticks closer to the FOSS philosophy, that of Free and Open Source Software. In a nutshell, Debian will ship with applications that are completely free of patent, copyright, or trademark issues. A good example is Firefox, the open source web browser. There is a bit of trademarked artwork in Firefox, the logo. That is enough to keep it out of the Debian distribution. Instead, they include IceWeasel. Exactly the same engine under the bonnet. Same for the Thunderbird logo. So, you get IceDove. (I’m simplifying this for brevity. Visit debian.org for a good primer for what the Open Source philosophy is all about.)

After a couple of days fiddling on-and-off with the machine, Debian was installed and updated. Windows XP (for Cool Edit Pro whilst on the road) was dual-booting without issue.

The Gnome GUI was loading the machine down, so Xfce was loaded from the Package Manger. Xfce is not a “lightweight” like Fluxbox or Rox, but a “middleweight” desktop. It lacks the ability to browse the office network (like Windows Network Neighborhood), but it does go online with no fuss, plays streaming music, and the PCMCIA wireless works. It does what I need it to do, without creating a huge load on the CPU. And, I can switch to the more-featured Gnome GUI, if necessary, by just rebooting.

For the novice, Ubuntu is the way to go. When you’re ready to make the first step out of the comfort zone, look upstream to Debian. It provides a good step in self-education with less hand-holding, and more thinking on your part.

None of this is beyond the ability of a casual user. If you can figure out how to format an iPod or flash drive, or better, if you can install a new hard drive, tinkering with one of the Linux distros is well within your capacity.

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