Monday, July 11, 2011

Goodbye Ubuntu, hello Debian

My road to Ubuntu

I have started using Linux around 1998. I remember that I wanted to try out several distributions before settling on the one the "best" one, but I had a dial-up connection (28kbps, if I remember correctly) and downloading all of them seemed infeasible, so I mail-ordered a set of CDs that contained Red Hat, Slackware and Debian. I think I decided on Debian because I liked the clean and transparent package management system, especially APT which seemed way ahead of other distributions at that time. Linux became my primary OS within a few months: even though it didn't have a fraction of the tools that are available today, it had everything I needed.

A lot happened in the Linux world since then. I don't know when (if?) Linux "conquered" the desktop, but in 2003 it became mature enough that I installed Linux (Debian, of course) on my parent's desktop. Neither of my parents are very computer-savvy, but they also found Linux much nicer than Windows. I think what mattered the most to them is its stability: I would update the software once in a while, test that everything was working (and fix it when it didn't), but in the meantime, the system was rock-solid. This was important as I no longer lived in the same city, so I couldn't just drop by to fix computer problems on a short notice, which I had to do with Windows.

When they got another computer (I think it was around 2005), I replaced Debian with Ubuntu, figuring that it would provide a more polished user experience, and I was pleased with the result. I installed Ubuntu on all computers that family members asked me to help with, and in 2009, I installed Ubuntu on a new laptop I got. It was a bit more polished than Debian, especially when it came to setup things like printers and network drives. I knew how to do those things via the relevant config files, but I appreciated the GUI.

Why I moved back to Debian

I think that I like Linux because it allows me to concentrate on my work: I came to accept that sometimes setting things up required a bit of tweaking, but once I configured something, it would work exactly the way I liked it. I welcome changes if they make sense (eg a feature extension), but I don't see the point of gratuitous ones. In retrospect, I should have considered the moving of window buttons a warning sign, especially when Mark Shuttleworth refused to move them back despite popular demand. The fix was easy, but the whole move was totally unnecessary and resulted in a lot of confusion: until I fixed it (I really did give it a try for a few days), my desktop just felt like a car with the gas and brake pedals interchanged.

The controversy surrounding Unity was the real eye-opener for me. I dist-upgraded Ubuntu on my parents current computer (a perfectly good desktop for office work, around 2 years old) and was informed that the system doesn't have the resources to run the damn thing. I tried it out on my laptop briefly, and realized that all that glitz and glitter is unnecessary and a waste of resources (most importantly battery power), and Ubuntu was trying to force yet another gratuitous UI change on its users. I backed up my data, wiped my HD, and within an hour, I was back to good old Debian. Which still rocks.

Why Debian is perfect for me

In order to answer that question, here is a sample of the desktop software that I use (of course I use a lot of other programs, eg Git or SBCL, but there is no purpose in enumerating all of them):

desktop environment
XFCE (with some Gnome applets in the panel)
mutt, offlineimap, msmtp
zsh, running under screen in yakuake (with the Tango color scheme — I got used to that from Gnome)
emacs, TeX Live, AUCTeX, org-mode, …
password manager

This is a pretty eclectic mix with no overall GUI concept — for example, it has programs from Gnome and KDE — but I have come to like each of these programs and they work very well for me. Debian testing has pretty recent releases for all of them, and more importantly, the idea of Debian developers forcing any particular choice on how I set up my desktop never even comes up at any point. They provide excellent software, take care of packaging new releases and fixing bugs, but I doubt that any of them would even entertain the idea of pushing some wacky desktop du jour concept on their users. I think that they have better things to do with their time, including maintaining the best Linux distro out there, and that's the way I like it.

The icing on the cake

Compared to my previous desktop (which was plain vanilla Gnome, Ubuntu/Maverick), the above setup appears to be much less resource intensive. I have plenty of RAM and CPU power, but I noticed that my laptop gives me about 20% more battery time than it used to. I cannot help but love Debian. It is good to be back!

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