Debian 6.0 ("Squeeze") has now gone into "hard freeze," and the release candidate for the installer was announced on January 12. It would seem that a final release of Debian 6 is finally within sight, carrying a new installer, a completely free kernel, and an experimental Debian flavor based on FreeBSD for x86 and AMD64 systems.
The previous stable Debian release, Debian 5.0 or "Lenny," was announced on February 14,
2009. If two years between releases seems long, it's worth remembering that
Debian 3.1 ("Sarge") was just under three years in the making. Debian 4.0
("Etch") and 5.0 were each in development for about 22 months. Debian
releases used to come at a much faster pace, but also didn't have to carry
the same number of packages or ports. For instance, Debian 1.1 through 2.2
came out at fairly regular intervals, with roughly a year between releases
— Debian had two major releases in 1996, and one every year from 1997
through 2000. Hamm (2.0 in 1998) was the first release to carry two ports, Slink (2.1) brought four ports, and Potato (2.2) came with six.
Lenny had official support for twelve processor
architectures, but this has been winnowed down a bit in
Squeeze. Specifically, it has removed support for Alpha, HP PA-RISC (hppa), and the original ARM port. The ARM EABI (armel) port supersedes ARM in Squeeze, and is described as "the more efficient successor" to ARM. It has quite a bit of overlap in terms of hardware support with the original ARM port — so it's really more of a transition than dropping a port altogether.
That leaves support for x86, AMD64, Itanium, MIPS, PowerPC, and
SPARC. 6.0 adds a new port that merges the Debian userland packages with
the FreeBSD kernel called Debian GNU/kFreeBSD. It is available in 32- and
64-bit version and, though it's considered a "technology
preview", it is usable.
A glance through the "What's new in Debian GNU/Linux 6.0" guide (which is far more comprehensive than one usually sees for distribution releases) will look very familiar in spots. That is because much of what's new in Debian 6.0 is actually a bit old for other Linux distributions. For instance, the default desktop for 6.0 is GNOME 2.30 (with some 2.32 modules). GNOME 2.30 was released in March of 2010. The release also includes KDE 4.4, which is nearly two releases behind, and the default kernel is 184.108.40.206.
Those who'd like slightly less crusty packages will be able turn to the
Debian Backports service, which
was dubbed an
official Debian service in September of 2010. Since Squeeze is not yet
released, only Lenny and Etch are currently supported — but packages should start rolling into the backports service shortly after the official Squeeze release. Another addition to 6.0 is the stable-updates repository, which will make updates for non-security updates available before the point updates for Squeeze.
Major changes in Squeeze
Aside from the usual package updates, Squeeze does come with a number of changes over the previous releases. Though many users simply ride
dist-upgrade between releases, it is occasionally necessary to use the installer — such as when putting Debian on a new machine. Debian 6.0 brings a new installer with new artwork with a "SpaceFun" theme.
Artwork is not the only improvement to the installer, of course. The new
installer now automatically installs packages which are marked as
recommended as well as those marked required. The
installer now has support for Ext4 and Btrfs, but the default remains Ext3,
most likely due to performance
problems with dpkg on Ext4 that were still
being worked out late in the development cycle. ZFS is an option for
installs of Debian kFreeBSD.
The actual practical experience of using the installer is little changed — depending on one's point of view, the installer either offers much more flexibility or much more complexity. It is worth noting that the Debian crew could at least shave a few steps off the installation by allowing users to enter related details during a single step. It seems unnecessary, for example, to have a single screen to enter a user's full name, then a screen for username, then for the user's password.
Another major change in Squeeze is the removal of non-free firmware from the kernel. For free software purists, this is a win. For those who are slightly less stringent about maintaining a 100% free system, it's a bit more of a mixed bag. I tested Debian Squeeze on three machines, two desktops and a laptop, and it had no problem with the desktop systems' hardware. However, it didn't like a USB Wi-Fi adapter that works perfectly with Ubuntu and openSUSE. It also had some problems with Wi-Fi on the test laptop — which is not terribly surprising.
Users with hardware that requires non-free firmware are not out of
luck. The Debian project is providing tarballs
of non-free firmware and CD
images of the net install CD that include non-free firmware. Note that
Debian provides several choices of install ISOs — a business card CD that will require Net access for the base installation packages, a net install image that includes base packages and network access for everything else, and full CD/DVD sets that include full sets of recommended packages. Note that only the first CD image for an architecture is necessary — the remainder carry packages that one might wish to add after an install. If you're planning an eclectic install away from network access, a full 56 ISO images are available for the AMD64 architecture alone. Compare this to the first official Debian release, which fit on one CD-ROM and contained a whopping 474 packages.
The project also has a few new "Pure Blends" being introduced with Squeeze. Formerly known as Custom Debian Distributions, the Pure Blends are collections of the more than 22,000 Debian packages for specific audiences. Squeeze adds two new Pure Blends to the mix: Debian GIS for Geographical Information Systems (GIS) applications and users, and Debichem for users of chemical applications in Debian.
On January 18 Neil McGovern announced
that a second release candidate is expected by the weekend of
January 22nd, with a target date for the final release the weekend of
February 5th. Any non-critical fixes that don't make it by this
deadline will be held for Debian 6.0.1.
While I tend to change distributions frequently, I've grown used to distributions like Linux Mint, openSUSE, and Ubuntu which attempt to provide a more user friendly experience than Debian. The time I've spent recently running Debian has been by turns refreshing and frustrating. Debian gives the user much more control over configuring a system, and is much closer to upstream projects like GNOME than, say, Ubuntu.
It's also a bit frustrating in the sense that projects like Mint do take the time to do things like tweak font settings so they're not so glaringly ugly. There's also the matter of the default application set — which need a bit more tweaking for this user in Debian than in Mint, Fedora, or Ubuntu. Applications like Dropbox may not have native packages for Squeeze (the Debian packages for Dropbox do not work with Squeeze) so odds are a few packages will require building from source. Others, like Gwibber, are simply hopelessly outdated.
Aside from minor frustrations, though, Debian 6.0 looks to be a solid release. It should be — all of its components have had ample time to settle. For users who want a very stable and basic distribution, this is as good as it gets. Of course, many of Debian's users ride the testing or unstable releases and pay little attention to stable releases. This user, for instance, intends to switch to unstable almost immediately. But Debian's stable releases do have their place — namely, anywhere one would like to set up and then forget (modulo running occasional security updates) a desktop or server.
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