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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Fri, 30 Nov 2012

Steady improvements in Debian Wheezy -- and a smooth transition from Squeeze

Debian is boring. Releases happen every two years, give or take. Developers spend months and months chasing bugs while other Linux distributions crank out release after release.

But Debian gets better as it inches toward release. And if you're running the Stable distribution (Squeeze instead of Wheezy, still in Testing) you can enjoy the goodness for the next two years -- or three if you wish, as Stable gets an extra year of security patches as Old Stable after a new Stable version is released.

Debian isn't quite as boring as it is conservative. Even though Debian's Testing is more stable than many other distributions' actual releases, you can expect some bugs. And if you follow Testing, as I am at the moment, you get to see some of those bugs get fixed.


One of my problems has been the menu in the Chromium and Google Chrome web browsers. Only in GNOME (and not Xfce), trying to access the menu would freeze the browser and cause a crash. I first observed the behavior a couple of months ago. Now it's gone. Somehow fixed.

That's great for me because I use Chromium for about 90 percent of my web-related browsing and work.

Of course I could've been using Debian's currently stable release, Squeeze, all this time and not noticed the sometimes-messy process that Debian Unstable (aka Sid) or Testing can occasionally be.

But I wanted to see what Wheezy was all about. I wanted to try GNOME 3. I was already using newer versions of the operating-system kernel, web browsers, mail clients and an office suite from Debian Backports, plus selected newer packages directly from developer web sites.

So I was primed to make the move to Wheezy early. And I did.

The upgrade was easy. Easier than the Lenny-to-Squeeze upgrades I did during the last cycle, which needed a bit of command-line work to reflect changes that the automated tools couldn't (or wouldn't handle), plus a dicey switch from GRUB 1 to GRUB 2 (and on one machine I reverted to what's now called "GRUB Legacy" after GRUB 2 refused to boot anything).

Going from Debian Squeeze to Wheezy, after a small number of changes to repositories took just a few apt-get commands and the wait for packages to download and install.

My 2010-era Lenovo G555 laptop didn't "like" the stock Squeeze kernel but did fine right away with kernels from Liquorix and later Debian Backports. But in Wheezy all the hardware is configured automatically. Sound, video, power management (suspend-resume) -- not a problem. And I'll be able to keep the stock Wheezy kernel for as long as I run this release.

Aside from the simplicity of not needing Debian Backports, I also no longer needed Debian Multimedia. Most of the bits I got from that repository -- codecs and the like -- are now part of Wheezy proper. I stopped pulling Google Chrome directly from Google and am now using Chromium -- the fully open-source browser upon which Chrome is based -- right out of Wheezy's repositories.

For now I'm not even using the upstream OpenShot video editor. Instead I'm using the version in Wheezy, which is acceptably far along and extremely functional and stable. I'm not saying I won't resume pulling .deb packages directly from OpenShot's own repository (and for some reason the .deb isn't easy to find on OpenShot's download page, but it's always right here). For now I'm OK with what Wheezy is supplying.

Immediate improvements in Wheezy included much better Java/IcedTea functionality. I'd already switched from the Sun/Oracle binary-only Java to the open-source IcedTea version of the software in Squeeze. And once I upgraded to Wheezy, all the problems I was having in both Java packages went away. I don't know whether the kernel and other Linux subsystems or the Java/IcedTea packages themselves are responsible for the improvements, but for the few things I do that use Java, the improvements have made the Squeeze-to-Wheezy upgrade very much worth it.

Wheezy's version of the GNOME desktop is 3.4.2. It includes -- and I'm running about half-time -- Xfce 4.8. At present there are a few Linux distributions shipping with GNOME 3.6 (and some getting ready to push 3.8) and Xfce 4.10. The versions in Wheezy -- and they are not changing at this point, post-freeze -- are very acceptable. I'd love to see them bump up a bit, but from what I've experienced running systems that have newer GNOME and Xfce builds, Wheezy is not missing much at all. The freeze happened at a very good time as far as desktop environments goes, and Debian users will enjoy a very mature Xfce and a fairly stable GNOME -- and one with a file manager that hasn't been hampered to such an extent that Ubuntu isn't upgrading and Mint and SolusOS are forking it.

So if you can handle a bit of boring on your desktop -- servers love boring, trust me -- and don't mind a workhorse Linux distribution that you can use for the next couple of years or longer, Debian Wheezy just might be a calm, friendly port in an otherwise overhyped, fractious development and marketing storm.

They call it The Universal Operating System. Release after release, I keep using it.

I first sampled Debian with 2007's Etch release. After all the cautionary tales about how difficult Debian was and how easy Ubuntu was in comparison, I wasn't prepared for Debian to be pretty much the same as Ubuntu -- GNOME desktop and all.

I had a few machines running 2009's Lenny, though I did run Ubuntu, Xubuntu and OpenBSD during that time. I pretty much have run Debian Squeeze and nothing else during the its entire cycle (starting when it was in Testing in 2010 and continuing through my Wheezy upgrade earlier this year).

Sure I sample live images of Ubuntu (including Xubuntu, Lubuntu and the Ubuntu GNOME Remix), Fedora (GNOME, Xfce and LXDE), CrunchBang and Bodhi. And I've started using virtual machines for quick tests.

But I find it difficult to even consider messing with Debian on my main computer. It just works too well -- and keeps working -- with minimal effort.