Debian on desktop systems

What I expected to happen some time ago, is finally becoming reality: Debian is now my favourite distribution for desktop systems.

First I installed Debian on my new Samsung N210 netbook and I was very pleased with the result. Shortly after that, my father experienced a bug while trying to print in Firefox on Mandriva 2010.1. It would fail to print and there were errors related to ps2ps (if I remember correctly) in the Cups log, hinting at some bug in Ghostscript. Actually it was not the first time this bug hit us, I had seen the same problem some weeks ago.

As analysing and having this bug fixed would likely take a lot of time and I needed a rather quick solution, I though it was the right time to reinstall this system with Debian Squeeze (testing). Debian has many additional bug fixes in its GhostScript package so there was a fair chance that printing would be working better. So I did the same as with my netbook last week: I set up PXE booting to start the Debian installer (easier than digging up a CD-R, downloading an ISO and burning it), and then I installed Debian on the disk, leaving the old /home logical volume intact.

The installation went smoothly and after recreating the users and fixing the UID and GID of the home directories, the system was ready to use. Some observations:

  • The first reaction when booting a clean Debian GNOME install is that it is much faster than Mandriva, even reusing the home directory from the Mandriva installation. Booting itself feels fast, login feels faster and starting applications feels faster. I am not sure whether this is because Debian itself is faster or because my old Mandriva installation was suffering from file fragmentation and suboptimal location of files belonging together.
  • Debian does not install PulseAudio by default. Even better, it is possible to add a working volume applet to your GNOME panel in Debian if you are not using PulseAudio. This is much better then Mandriva, where you are left without a quickly accessible volume mixer if you disable PulseAudio.
  • I had to re-add all applets on the GNOME panels. I am not sure why they were all lost after switching to Debian. After all, Mandriva and Debian Squeeze use the same GNOME 2.30 version. Anyway, this was easily fixable.
  • If you have a wired connection which is configured in /etc/network/interfaces, then NetworkManager will not pick up the network connection and because of that applications like Evolution will not go online because they think there is no network connection. Either completely remove the networkmanager package (I would recommend this on a desktop system with just an Ethernet connection) or comment out everything in /etc/network/interfaces related to your Ethernet card and configure your connection with NetworkManager (I recommend this on laptop systems where you want to use NetworkManager for connecting to wifi networks).
  • And last but not least: printing works fine. There are no ps2ps crashes. I just had to get hplip from unstable because the hplip package in testing is built with python 2.5 while testing switched to Python 2.6 by default very recently.


I am using Iceweasel 3.6 from Experimental because Squeeze (and Sid) only have Firefox 3.5. Do not be fooled by the version number 3.6.4: Debian has patched this version with the single bugfix in 3.6.6, so you are actually using the latest secure 3.6.6.


On my netbook, I am using Compiz. To start it in GNOME, I added this line to ~/.gnomerc:

export WINDOW_MANAGER=/usr/local/bin/compiz-ccp

Then create /usr/local/bin/compiz-ccp with these contents:

/usr/bin/compiz ccp

and make the file executable. There might be an easier way to get this working fine, not involving the creation of the custom start-up script, but this is working for me.

Adobe Flash

Even though I still think Flash sucks (before Firefox started running plug-in in their own process in version 3.6.4, Flash was responsible for 25% of all Firefox crashes!), unfortunately there is no real way around it when installing systems for other users. On 32 bit x86 Debian it is as easy as adding the non-free repository in /etc/apt/sources.list and then installing the flashplugin-nonfree package, which will download the latest Flash and install it for you. If you are using 64 bit however, things get a bit more complicated because Adobe does not publish a 64 bit Flash plug-in. Fortunately, the debian-multimedia repositories contain everything we need to get the 32 bit plug-in working with nspluginwrapper: add the repositories, install the repository’s public key and then install the flashplayer-mozilla package. More details:

Application selection and configuration for a netbook with small display

My netbook has only 1 GB of RAM and a resolution of 1024×600 pixels so I made some adaptations to make use of these resources in an efficient way.

Font size

First I decreased the font size in GNOME. In the menu System – Preference – Appearancd – Fonts I configured it to use 9pt fonts and a 8pt monospace font.

Avant Window Navigator

I disabled the standard gnome-panel and use Avant Window Navigator instead. It combines an application launcher and taskbar in one dock and it can be configured to automatically hide, saving space on my netbook screen. When you have started Avant Window Navigator, right-click on the dock and choose Dock Preferences. I set the panel behaviour to IntelliHide and chose the 3D style and I added the Cairo Main Menu, Show Desktop, Launcher/TaskManager, Notification Area and Notification Daemon applets. Now to make awn replace the gnome-panel by default at login, start-up gconf-editor, and go to /desktop/gnome/session/required_components and change the value of the panel key to avant-window-navigator.


For maximum performance on my netbook I use Epiphany most of the time instead of Firefox/Iceweasel. Epiphany has some useful extensions available in the epiphany-extensions package which you might want to install too. For example it contans an AdBlock extension and an extension which lets you view Youtube movies without using Flash.

In Epiphany, you can switch to full screen mode by pressing F11, which is quite handy on a small netbook screen


For e-mail I use Evolution. It is pretty heavy but there are not that many lightweight alternatives available except maybe for Claws Mail. However I do not like its interface too much and it also has less advanced IMAP support (Evolution now supports the IDLE extension in its IMAPx implementation). I switched Evolution to vertical style (View – Preview – Vertical Style) and I disabled the status bar ((View – Layout – Show Status Bar ) and the Switcher buttons in the bottom part of the sidebar (View – Switcher Appearance, uncheck Show Buttons).

Video acceleration

To squeeze (!) the best performance out of my Intel graphics chip in my netbook, I decided to install the latest versions of the mesa and the Intel driver available in experimental. This has not caused any stability problems for me. I also installed cairo 1.9.10 from experimental but as this is really an upstream development version this is much more risky. I seem to experience some glitches which might be caused by this so you have been warned!

Software Centre

If you want a very nice application for finding and installing new software, then you definitely need to install the software-center package.

So, these were some quick notes about using Debian on a desktop and netbook system. I am quite pleased with the result so I will probably be migrating my other Mandriva systems too in the near future.