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User-friendly desktop Linux

One new feature is the use of the no-configuration 7.3. There are now no hardware-related entries in the X11 configuration file – /etc/X11/xorg.conf. In our trials this worked with both AMD and Nvidia graphics cards which, by default, loaded only the open source drivers. There is, however, no mechanism for automatically installing the proprietary graphics drivers, despite the fact that they are listed in the non-free repository – users are forced to utilise either the Synaptic packet management system or go to the command line.

Lenny installs Gnome as the default graphical desktop, which is also used by the Debian derivative – Ubuntu 8.10. In fact, the similarity between the two is astounding – even the menu structure and the process of selecting installed software is pretty much identical. The Debian default installation is, however, missing a few programs, such as the complete Bluetooth stack for connecting Bluetooth devices. For some programs, Lenny also uses older versions than those used by Ubuntu 8.10, which was released in October 2008. The reason for this is, once again, a Debian project decision. The idea is to have only tried and tested software considered for stable releases. For users, however, this means putting up with diminished functionality in borderline cases – especially with regard to drivers, since Lenny sticks with the 2.6.26 kernel, in contrast to Fedora 10, OpenSuse 11.1 and Ubuntu 8.10, which all utilise Linux kernel version 2.6.27.

For the very latest hardware, particularly with fully integrated motherboards, a slightly newer kernel can make the difference between unusable or limited functionality and unrestricted hardware support. This was indeed the case for the Asus P5N7A motherboard in our test system – while the 2.6.27 kernel used by Fedora 10 and OpenSuse 11.1 was able to output sound via the optical and electrical SPDIF output, without any problem, under Lenny it remained mute.

Debian Lenny's multimedia support is otherwise excellent and easily measures up to Ubuntu 8.10. If the non-free repository has been activated and programs such as Totem and Kaffeine have been installed, the major codecs are downloaded along with them, regardless of whether or not they are open source or whether they are patented or licensed. This meant that it was just as easy to play a DVB-T on Kaffeine, as it was to play an MPEG-2 video on Totem. The Brasero and K3B burning applications are unable to burn Blu-ray media with UDF 2.6 because UDF Tools is unable to create UDF 2.6 file systems – UDF 2.5 support is, however, impeccable.

Overall, Debian Lenny remains eminently suitable as a desktop operating system and has become more user-friendly since the Etch release. Network set-up using Network Manager, for example, works well with only the management of multiple locations for the same network device, and therefore multi-network configuration, failing to work in our trials. Users who use their computers at just a single location, or are happy with DHCP, will not be disadvantaged. Automatic USB printer set-up, a very practical feature for laptops, has been a feature of Ubuntu for some time. According to the release notes, Debian now has it too.

Since Etch, the Debian development team have revamped virtualisation. They have updated to Xen version 3.2.1, support additional KVMs (kernel virtual machines) and even offer the option of deploying Qemu, via network boot. Desktop virtualisation solution VirtualBox is also available, even if it is the rather antiquated version 1.6.6.

An interesting feature for server use is that, according to the release notes, various packages have been compiled with the hardening options offered by GCC or, as for PHP, hardening patches have been added to improve the packages security. This should make services less vulnerable to attack. Major server services, such as MySQL 5.1, PostgreSQL 8.3 and Nagios 3 have also been updated.


Lenny can be deployed with confidence on the desktop, by both beginners and experienced Linux users and is significantly more user-friendly than its predecessor, Etch. There are big improvements to network configuration and automatic printer set-up. For virtualisation, in addition to an updated version of Xen, there is a now a second virtualisation system suitable for server use, available in the form of KVM. The omission of major firmware files from the installation media is annoying, since now support for Wifi adaptors and gigabit network cards, may need to be downloaded and installed separately.

The simplest solution may be to install Ubuntu 8.10 instead of Debian Lenny, as its software originates primarily from Debian, but has a much more polished installation routine, newer software and in some ways, offers an even more user-friendly desktop.


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