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The well-tempered Debian desktop
by Rick Lehrbaum (Updated Dec. 23, 2006)

I recently reported on my good results with migrating an old server from RH7 to Debian Sarge, beginning with the network-install CD. Responding to my comments that an install of a Sarge desktop on my old Thinkpad left me less than impressed, several readers admonished me for not installing Etch.

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I've now done an Etch install on the same Thinkpad I recently used for evaluating seven single-CD distros, and this article explains what I did and how it worked out.

The install

I began by downloading RC1 of the Debian "testing" net-install CD (aka "etch RC1") iso file from here. It's a quick download, being a 100-150MB file. I like that.

After burning the CD from the iso, I popped it into the Thinkpad, and booted it up.

Welcome to Debian Etch Airlines -- fasten your seat belts, enjoy the ride!
(Click to enlarge)

After hitting Enter to start the install, it began running the now-familiar blue-screen wizard, the same as Sarge had done, in my recent Debian server project.

The installation proceeded without a hitch. I was presented with a dozen or so easily answered prompts for input (administrator password, user name/password, computer name, timezone, etc.). There were two or three whose questions were unclear or cryptic, but I accepted the defaults provided, gritted my teeth, and hit Enter to enable the process to continue -- and apparently no harm resulted.

Some of the installer's prompts and messages are shown in the following photos.

Language selection
(Click to enlarge)

Partitioning! Danger, Will Robinson!
(Click to enlarge)

Popping the kernel
(Click to enlarge)

Eventually, the blue-screen installation wizard displayed a list of package group options. Amazingly, the three pre-checked options were exactly what I wanted -- Desktop, Laptop, and Standard System -- so I simply hit Enter, and the process proceeded.

Package group selection
(Click to enlarge)

Next came a lengthy download phase, during which some 2GB of files were loaded onto the Thinkpad's hard drive. This process proceeded automatically, with the exception of a half-dozen or so prompts for user input, and eventually informed me via the following screen that the installation was complete.

"Installation is complete"
(Click to enlarge)

Time to boot your new Debian GNU/Linux system!

I removed the CD, hit Enter, and the system booted up into the following slick-looking graphical log-in screen:

Portal to the desktop -- abandon all hope ye who enter here
(Click to enlarge)

I entered my username and password, and the system presented me with the following clean-looking, if somewhat empty, GNOME desktop.

A fine-looking Debian/GNOME desktop occupied my screen
(Click to enlarge)

I was immediately informed by an applet on the upper right-hand corner of the desktop that there were a dozen or so updates available. So, I clicked on it and the updates took place automatically, and very professionally, courtesy of whatever updater had been installed by the default GNOME install (Adept Updater?).

I generally replace GNOME as quickly as possible with KDE, my preferred desktop, but before I did, I had a look around. "Hmmm, nice desktop!"

I observed that the default browser on the desktop was Epiphany, and that Firefox had also been deposited on system by the installer. I resolved to fix that, and also add Thunderbird, my standard email client, as soon as I got KDE onto the desktop.

Getting KDE

Next, I opened up a console window and summoned forth KDE. Logged in as root (via "su"), I typed apt-get install kde, and sat back and waited while my hard drive got bloated up to around 3.3 GB -- I had gone for the whole enchilada, not just kde-base.

After that process finished, I restarted X, by clicking Desktop (near the top left corner) --> Log out rick... --> Log out. At the login screen, I then selected KDE by clicking Session (near the bottom left corner) --> KDE --> Change Session.

After I logged in at the prompt in the center of the screen, I arrived at last on the following very barren KDE desktop.

Hey folks, could we please work on cleaning up this mess?
(Click to enlarge)

Checking out Etch's default KDE menu -- not bad!
(Click to enlarge)

I knew, now, that I was home free. Next, I set to work configuring KDE the way I like it, with all my favorite settings, background, desktop icons, and so forth.

Adding applications

Once that was done, I started installing my favorite packages.

Tops on my list of applications are Firefox and Thunderbird, and I always get rid of modified versions and substitute the pristine versions direct from So I downloaded both, unzipped and untarred them into /usr/lib/, where Debian likes to keep them, and created symlinks in /usr/bin/ pointing to /usr/lib/firefox/firefox and /usr/lib/thunderbird/thunderbird, where the system expects to find them.

I tried Firefox first, but it wouldn't load. I tried it again, this time by typing firefox from a console window, and noticed that the program was sending out an error message ("error while loading shared libraries") regarding a file called "" that it either couldn't load or find. A quick bit of googling led me to install the missing library, using the command (as root): apt-get install libstdc++5. Thankfully, that was all it took to get the pure, Firefox running on my desktop.
Configuration Note

One aside worth mentioning at this point, is that after installing the pristine versions of the dynamic duo, I checked to see whether clicking on a link in Thunderbird would open up a Firefox browser page, and whether clicking on "File --> Send Link" in Firefox would initiate an email via Thunderbird. The former worked, but that latter began to load Evolution, not Thunderbird.

The fix for this is to set Firefox to mail links using Thunderbird. In Firefox, type about:config in the URL line and hit Enter. That results in a display of a long list of advanced preference settings. Then, perform these steps:
    Right-click --> New --> String
    in the dialog box, type and click OK
    in the next dialog box, type /usr/bin/thunderbird and click OK
Finally, be sure there's a symlink at /usr/bin/thunderbird that points to your system's thunderbird executable (in my system it's at /usr/lib/thunderbird/thunderbird).

Now, not only did I have "real" Firefox, but I had the latest version 2.0. So, I dispensed with "Iceweasel" once and for all, by typing (in a console window, as root): apt-get remove firefox. I had apt-gotten Debian's version of Thunderbird (aka "Icedove"), so I eliminated it now, as well, substituting "the real thing" that I had downloaded a few minutes earlier from

I really like being able to get the dynamic duo direct from, since that way I'm always able to install the latest version without waiting for someone in the Debian community to convert it to Ice-this-or-that. Why just yesterday, Mozilla patched a critical security flaw in both Firefox and Thunderbird, and I was able to immediately download and install the newly patched versions on my system within minutes of learning about the problem.

Here they are, on my Etch desktop:

The very latest from Mozilla, the same day it's released
(Click to enlarge)

Now that I had Firefox and Thunderbird in place, it was time to begin filling up my lovely new Debian Etch desktop with all my favorite apps. Actually, many were already installed, thanks to the default GNOME install, along with my full KDE install. At this point, I felt confident that many of the other apps I tend to use would be among the 18,000 or so packages available from the standard Debian repository (and it turned out, they were).

I soon realized, however, that I generally didn't know the official repository package names for most of the apps that I wanted to download, so using apt-get quickly became a problem. I therefore turned to Adept (apt-get install adept), which is really a very decent graphical installation tool, complete with a sophisticated repository search capability. (I am now aware of using apt-cache search and dpkg -l, for finding packages, but I still prefer using Adept).

Whoa! Just look at all that FREE software!
(Click to enlarge)

When I began using Adept, I felt a bit like a kid in a candy store, picking from all those 18,000 applications! I proceeded to download everything that seemed worth having.

Despite that seemingly limitless reservoir of software, there were still a few key applications that I'd need to acquire elsewhere, however. So next, I had to:
  • Download and install RealPlayer from
  • Download and install Adobe Reader from
  • Download and install Flash Player from
  • Download and install the Opera browser from
  • Download and install Skype from
  • Download and install Java from
  • Download and install Crossover Office

Crossover Office springs into action
(Click to enlarge)

OMG it's Windows!
(Click to enlarge)

After downloading, installing, and testing all of the above, I faced the next challenge: fonts and multimedia.

Fonts and CDs and mp3s, oh my

At this point, I took the advice of a reader's posting to the discussion thread associated with my recent Debian server article. He suggested modifying the contents of the /etc/apt/sources.list file to something like this:
    deb etch main non-free contrib
    deb etch/updates main non-free contrib

    deb-src etch main
    deb-src etch/updates main

    deb etch main

Following that, I typed (as root) apt-get update to see if those repositories were all accessible. The last one in the list, the repository, gave me an error that indicated a missing public key. What's up with that?

A helpful reader on the forum kindly provided the answer:
"You need to download repository gpg key, then you need to add it to apt-key keyring. Look at the error message you got. As you can see there is a string [in the error message from apt-get], 07DC563D1F41B907. It is the key you need. Actually the key id is the second half of that string: 1F41B907. Now you can download the key and add it to keyring."

He told me to run the following two commands (as root), to cure the problem, which I did:
    gpg --keyserver --recv-keys 1F41B907
    gpg --armor --export 1F41B907 | apt-key add -

That done, I then typed (as root) apt-get install msttcorefonts to install true-type fonts. After the "all fonts downloaded and installed" message, I typed dpkg-reconfigure fontconfig, which resulted in "cleaning up" this and that, then "updating" this and that, and finally: "regenerating fonts cache... done."

I restarted X by logging out, rebooting, and logging back in. After that, I used KDE's "Control Center" and selected my favorite fonts, and then set them to be anti-aliasing, with sub-pixel hinting set to "full" hinting style.

Finally, I restarted X once again, after which my system's fonts were -- simply put -- gorgeous! This is how my Debian Etch desktop looked:

Ahhh..... home, sweet home!
(Click to enlarge)

Final bits and pieces

By now, my Debian Etch desktop seemed quite usable. However, a few tasks and tests remained:
  • Verify that I could play CDs
  • Configure the system so I could rip CDs to mp3s, and play the resulting mp3s
  • Get WiFi Internet access working
  • Get dialup Internet access working
You may be wondering why playing DVDs isn't on that list. It would be, except the old Thinkpad unfortunately doesn't have a DVD drive in it.

I next obtained a few multimedia libraries and utilities using the following commands (as root) from a console shell:
    apt-get install w32codecs
    apt-get install lame
    apt-get install xine-ui
If my system had a DVD drive, and assuming I was comfortable with the legalities of non-licensed DVD decoders, I would also have run:
    apt-get install libdvdcss
At this point I checked to see whether I could play CDs, play mp3s, and rip CDs to mp3s. All that worked. (I did, however, run into a problem playing CDs with KsCD, one of my preferred CD players: it appeared to play the CD, but without any audible output. I'll probably solve that at some point.)

Now it was time to get WiFi and dial-up Internet working. Here, I ran into two stumbling blocks -- probably both due to Linux's legendary hardware driver issues.

In the case of WiFi, I attempted to use the WiFi configuration utility accessable from the KDE Menu via "Control Center > Internet & Network > Wireless Network." The result of starting that function was: "unable to autodetect wireless interface." Apparently, the system couldn't find my PCMCIA WiFi card, an old LinkSys WPC11 version 4 card. Now before you blame that card, bear in mind that in my recent test of seven desktop Linux distros on the same Thinkpad, the very same WiFi card worked perfectly with MEPIS, Xandros, and Kubuntu, and was detected but didn't "connect" with several others. With Etch, though, it was completely undetected. I'm hopeful that with some further investigation I can find a way to get it working.

Thankfully, the problem with my PCMCIA modem was not quite so absolute. Using kppd, the modem dialed out to my ISP; but, each time it connected, it immediately disconnected and returned an error message: "pppd daemon died unexpectedly; Exit status: 1." As an alternative, I tried wvdial from the command line (as root), and was able to successfully connect to my ISP (Earthlink) using it. However, wvdial.conf, which contains the username and password for accessing the ISP is unencrypted, making me hesitant to use that as a long-term solution. Here too, I suspect I'll locate a better solution after additional investigation and experimentation.

The verdict

So, what's my overall impression of my Debian Etch desktop?

Using the same standards as in my recent seven distro article, I rate Etch as follows:


  • Tons of software available from the official and unofficial Debian repositories
  • Excellent appearance, fonts, and configurability
  • Totally mainstream -- no worries about long-term availability (despite the concerns of some)

  • Couldn't get my WiFi card to be recognized
  • Couldn't get kppp to get me online via dialup, but wvdial worked
  • Installation process is more complex than any of the "user-friendly" Debian spinoffs, and not particularly suitable for Linux newcomers, or the faint of heart
  • Doesn't offer automated installation of some popular proprietary apps and plug-ins such as Adobe acroread and flashplayer, Skype, Opera, etc., and doesn't provide "standard" Firefox/Thunderbird


Debian Etch Scorecard
Installation3 points
Customizable5 points
Hardware/multimedia support3 points
Apps included/available4 points
Total:15 points

Bottom line

At 15 points, Etch scored just below the lowest-ranked distro in my previous Thinkpad shoot-out -- Freespire -- which scored 16 points. However, bear in mind that I found it relatively easy to circumvent all the shortcomings listed above, other than the hardware problems. In addition, it seems likely that I'll find ways to solve those hardware problems, too (and without buying new PCMCIA cards), given a healthy dose of perseverance "and a little help from my friends."

And you know what? When I do solve those hardware problems, I might just decide to blow away my main desktop's SLED 10 distro and replace it with Etch! Stay tuned...

Rick Lehrbaum is the founder and executive editor of

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