Debian "Etch": a Sketch (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 15 May 2007

Debian "Etch": a Sketch

Since I'd already tried the latest Ubuntu on my desktop, I wanted to check out Debian's latest, "Etch", on my laptop.

The installer was the same as always, and the same as the Ubuntu installer. No surprises, although I do like the way Debian gives me a choice of system types to install (Basic desktop, Web server, etc. ... though why isn't "Development" an option?) compared to Ubuntu's "take the packages we give you and deal with it later" approach.

Otherwise, the install went very much like a typical Ubuntu install. I followed the usual procedures and workarounds so as not to overwrite the existing grub, to get around the Vaio hardware issues, etc. No big deal, and the install went smoothly.

The good

But the real surprise came on booting into the new system. Background: my Vaio SR-17 has a quirk (which regular readers will have heard about already): it has one PCMCIA slot, which is needed for either the external CDROM drive or a network card. This means that at any one time, you can have a network, or a CDROM, but not both. This tends to throw Debian-based installers into a tizzy -- you have to go through five or more screens (including timing out on DHCP even after you've told it that you have no network card) to persuade the installer that yes, you really don't have a network and it's okay to continue anyway.

That means that the first step after rebooting into the new system is always configuring the network card. In Ubuntu installs, this typically means either fiddling endlessly with entries in the System or Admin menus, or editing /etc/network/interfaces.

Anticipating a vi session, I booted into my new Etch and inserted the network card (a 3COM 3c59x which often confuses Ubuntu). Immediately, something began spinning in the upper taskbar. Curious, I waited, and in ten seconds or so a popup appeared informing me "You are now connected to the wired net."

And indeed I was! The network worked fine. Kudos to debian -- Etch is the first distro which has ever handled this automatically. (I still need to edit /etc/network/interfaces to set my static IP address -- network manager

Of course, since this was my laptop, the next most important feature is power management. Happily, both sleep and hibernate worked correctly, once I installed the hibernate package. That had been my biggest worry: Ubuntu was an early pioneer in getting ACPI and power management code working properly, but it looks like Debian has caught up.

The bad

I did see a couple of minor glitches.

First, I got a lot of system hangs in X. These turned out to be the usual dri problem on S3 video cards. It's a well known bug, and I wish distros would fix it!

I've also gotten at least one kernel OOPS, but I have a theory about what might be causing that. Time will tell whether it's a real problem.

It took a little googling to figure out the line I needed to add to /etc/apt/sources.list in order to install programs that weren't included on the CD. (Etch automatically adds lines for security updates, but not for getting new software). But fortunately, lots of other people have already asked this in a variety of forums. The answer is:

deb http://http.us.debian.org/debian etch main contrib non-free

My husband had suggested that Etch might be lighter weight than Ubuntu and less dependent on hal (which I always remove from my laptop, because its constant hardware polling makes noise and sucks power). But no: Etch installed hal, and any attempt to uninstall it takes with it the whole gnome desktop environment, plus network-manager (that's apparently that nice app that noticed my network card earlier) and rhythmbox. I don't actually use the gnome desktop or these other programs, but it would be nice to have the option of trying them when I want to check something out. So for now I've resorted to the temporary solution: mv /usr/sbin/hald /usr/sbin/hald-not

The ugly

Etch looks fairly nice, and I'm looking forward to exploring it. I'm mostly kidding about the "ugly". I did hit one minor bit of ugliness involving network devices which led me on a two-hour chase ... but I'll save that for its own article.

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[ 13:29 May 15, 2007    More linux | permalink to this entry ]