2017-07-10

Review: Debian 9 "Stretch" MATE

It has been about 2 months since the support cycle for Linux Mint 13 LTS "Maya" ended. Since then, I haven't been able to update Mozilla Firefox or Adobe Flash, and concurrently, I haven't been able to use the latest versions of Google Hangouts or Skype, the former of which I already cannot use to the fullest extent, and the latter of which I am still somehow able to use but am counting the days when that will end too. Given that, it is urgent that I upgrade the Linux distribution that I use soon, so today, I am trying Debian.

Debian is a rather old distribution, being among the first to use the Linux kernel. It is known for its very conservative release policy for distribution and package versions, as well as its strict policies regarding free versus proprietary software; as such, it is known to be a stable base (and has been the original base for Ubuntu and its derivatives) for desktop and server environments, though while it is not supposed to be a piece of cake to configure and use, it does come with decently-configured generic DEs and other software to start. I figure that I have accumulated a bit of experience with testing and configuring Linux distributions, so that I may be able to install and configure things to my liking even if they aren't present by default.

I tested the 64-bit edition on a live USB made from a live ISO file using the command "cp", which Debian recommends. Additionally, it is worth noting that this is the first review that I'm doing on a new SanDisk Cruzer 8 GB flash drive (as my previous SanDisk Cruzer Micro 8 GB flash drive, which I got 8 years ago, seems to have stopped working reliably, which is why I haven't used it for reviews in the last few months, and the flash drive that I had been using in the meantime, a generic 4 GB unit which I got for free from a career fair several years ago, stopped working after a "dd" command failed). Follow the jump to see what it's like. (Also, I apologize that there are no pictures; I stupidly forgot to upload them, and by the time I exited the live session and restarted my computer, it was too late.)

After getting past the boot menu, I was greeted by a scrolling wall of text. That took a short time to then yield the desktop. The desktop is MATE in its default configuration, highly reminiscent of GNOME 2; the icons, window decorations, and GTK+ theme are all stock MATE, as is the two-panel setup. This befits Debian, which values stability and doesn't go for flashiness, and this is a tried-and-true layout, so of course it's easy to use.

Mozilla Firefox is the default browser; it is worth noting that the Extended Support Release (ESR) is present (at version 45), and I think ESR updates come for every 7 normal release updates. As this is Debian, no proprietary plugins or codecs are present. However, it is easy enough to include the repositories that allow installing such packages, and doing that installation is fairly easy. That said, the big dealbreaker for me is that there is no official Debian repository-maintained version of Adobe Flash; it used to be present with previous versions of Debian, but now, it is required to enable the unstable "sid" repositories. This tells me that the Debian maintainers no longer believe that Adobe Flash is stable enough to include in the main repositories, which is a fair point considering how many vulnerabilities it has, how fragile it seems to be, and how so many sites are moving away from it, but unfortunately, there are still many sites I need to use on a regular basis that require that plugin, and if I'm going to be using a version of Debian reputed for its stability, then I simply don't feel comfortable taking the leap to enable the unstable repositories, especially with all of the warnings surrounding them.
LibreOffice is present as the default productivity suite. The rest of the application collection present is fairly sparse, and some of the choices seem a bit weird. For example, multiple terminal applications are present, including multilingual and Thai-language terminals, along with a Khmer character converter, yet certain basic GUI applications, like GDebi for manual DEB package installation, are not, and neither are music or video player applications. It's also odd that under the "System" menu, the "Administration" submenu has the Synaptic Package Manager as its only entry.

Speaking of that, I was able to use it without any issues to install Mupen64Plus, Redshift, Cheese Webcam Booth (for testing my webcam), and VLC. All of those worked well, and VLC was even able to play MP3 and MP4 files from my computer's hard drive which would normally be locked due to the restricted permissions of the live USB system. I had to install Skype from its own website, but that worked fine; I was able to confirm that my audio and microphone worked fine, though as I have mentioned before, the new version of Skype does not have a way to verify that it recognizes the webcam correctly. As Google Talk has been deprecated in favor of Google Hangouts, which is no longer an installable plugin (and does not play nicely with Mozilla Firefox with respect to audio & video calls for the time being), that bit of testing is now a moot point.

There were a couple of other things that I tested as I would like to seriously consider this for installation. I tried connecting to my research group's server remotely through a terminal as well as through the Caja file manager; both worked fine for running commands, using GUI programs, and editing files. Additionally, I tried connecting my phone to the computer to read files; that worked, but was extremely slow to read folders and open or copy files to a frustrating degree.

Slowness was the name of the game for my experience with Debian. Although it only used 413 MB of RAM at idle according to the command "free -m", the MATE System Monitor showed a much higher RAM figure, and that seemed to jibe more with what I felt. In particular, clicking on menu items, opening dialog boxes, scrolling, and doing things of that nature all had a noticeable (though still relatively short) latency period, along with the aforementioned slowness in reading the contents of my phone. It may be possible that this is due to my flash drive or the way I created the live USB system, but as will become clear in an upcoming review, while this accounts for a small amount of latency (in clicking, moving windows, or reading data from my phone), most of this I can only blame on Debian.
Additionally, there were a few other nits I had to pick regarding usability. I found the default monospace font choice and size to be too small for my tastes, in both the Pluma text editor and in the MATE Terminal application, and I can imagine that others may have a much more difficult time with this (though none of the other application fonts were too small). Plus, when I used my laptop's keyboard shortcuts to change the volume or screen brightness, the resulting indicator in the middle of the screen made it very difficult to actually see what the volume or brightness levels were. It turns out (as will become clear in an upcoming review) that the former issue is not unique to Debian, but the latter issue appears to be so.

That's where my time with Debian 9 "Stretch" MATE ended. It clearly isn't meant for newbies, while those who specifically want Debian for its stability, free software, or suitability as a server OS will continue to use it for those purposes anyway, though my intention in reviewing this distribution doesn't cover those use-cases. I just want to see how feasible it would be for me to install and regularly use Debian without having to do too much low-level configuration or debugging, but the lack of a stable version of Adobe Flash, in conjunction with the slowness and usability issues, means that this probably isn't the right distribution for me.
You can get it here.

EDIT: A lot of people have raised issues with my observations of slowness, specifically with regard to my use of a live USB to test this. Additionally, I realize that as this is a review of a more powerful and less newbie-friendly distribution like Debian, many people may have assumed that this would be a review from the perspective of a power user and may have been disappointed to see this. I attempted to clarify these points in this review itself as well as in my replies to comments, but for general interest, I will emphasize the following points.
1. For those new to my blog, the set of things I have tried here is representative of other reviews that I have done. I am not a power user, merely a Linux enthusiast. As such, I review for the benefit of newbies, which means that I more or less review from the perspective of a newbie as well, and if I don't find something to work quite right, while I may spend a little time finding a solution, I will generally not move heaven and earth to make it work myself, and simply report what I see. This is something I point out in the concluding paragraph too, and I want to make clear that none of this is meant to disrespect Debian, its developers, or its users; I am merely pointing out that I have come into this review with a certain set of expectations based on similar reviews that I have done over the years, and have found that it wouldn't be right for me to use regularly.
2. With regard to the specific issue of slowness, many commenters have taken issue with my use of a live USB. I invite all readers to peruse past reviews on my blog: what you will find for the most part is that in consistently doing reviews through live USB systems, I generally have not had performance issues with such systems, and in the few cases (discussed in long-term reviews) that I've installed another distribution to a hard drive and used it for at least a week of regular work, I have found the live and installed system speeds to be comparable. This is why I find the slowness of the Debian live USB system to be notable, especially when other distributions like Linux Mint, Ubuntu, Manjaro, Chakra, and many others don't have such issues. Some commenters have also said that the Debian Live project in particular is not meant to be representative of the performance of an installed system; this is a fair point, but then I would expect to see a disclaimer of some sort posted on its website to that effect, given that my expectations have been primed and met fairly consistently across the aforementioned range of distributions with respect to the performance of a live USB system (and its comparison to an installed system).

12 comments:

  1. Sluggishness is due to being a USB install. USB is far slower than a hard drive. LiveCD install partially compensates for this by using file system compression, but this still inevitably means sluggish delays due to decompression time. If you want to just see whether or not Debian is functional, a LiveCD is good. If you want to have some idea of its performance for a hard drive install, LiveCD will give you no idea.

    Flash works in Debian 9. I don't know precisely how it works, but every web site I've tried works with both Firefox and Google Chrome (normally I use Google Chrome, but it's not available in 32 bit so I was forced to try Firefox to use Netflix on my 32 bit computers). Anyway, I think it has to do with the PepperFlashPlayer.

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  2. Testing live image from USB/DVD and complaining about sluggish delays is bit silly. Unless you test some Puppy/Puppy like distro that loads in ram. Debian live images are used for only one purpose, to see what it can offer with different desktop environments. It is not even recommended to install from those live images, even if that option exists. As for flash, no it does not work out of the box with Debian. And package for flash in Debian is unusable, its maintainer is missing in action. On google chrome flash comes integrated with browser. For Firefox it can be installed easily by downloading it from adobe site, unpacking it and moving libflashplayer.so to the /usr/lib/mozilla/plugins/. Downside of that is that you must manually repeat procedure whenever adobe updates flash.

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  3. Oh my God are you seriously complaining about the performance from a Live Usb? This idiotic review should not even be published on a good Linux news website like Lxer.

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  4. @Isaac Ji Kuo, Anonymous: In the past, I've generally observed that live USB testing gives a fairly accurate representation of performance relative to a hard drive installation, which is why I continue to use it. Also, thanks to both of you for the tip about Adobe Flash! That said, my concern remains that it would be harder to keep it updated and ensure that no vulnerabilities remain.

    @Unknown: It's clear that you haven't been to this site before, and I realize that my statement about an upcoming review isn't likely to pacify you. Suffice it to say that live USB performance has been generally good and accurate in past tests, and if distributions like Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and Manjaro can consistently manage that, why can't I expect Debian to do the same?

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    1. My experience with LiveCD/USB performance is extremely different from yours. I have never found any LiveCD/USB with performance even remotely as good as a normal install (except for the ones which load entirely into ram, but even then the time required for that initial load is much slower).

      Bluntly, stop using this method if you want to be taken seriously. No one else expects LiveCD/USB performance to be reflective of normal install performance, because no one else's experience is that it's reflective of normal install performance.

      Anyway, Debian has traditionally not had any LiveCD option at all. The purpose and focus of Debian LiveCDs is not, evidently, what you seem to expect it to be. For most users, the more important thing about a LiveCD/USB is for it to be able to reliably function even if the computer has little RAM. That lets it function as a rescue environment or troubleshooting environment. Performance is not the focus. For better or worse, the Debian project does not go out of its way to try to "sell" itself. People come to Debian because it's the biggest and the most stable, not because it has the latest and greatest flashy stuff.

      If your concern is keeping the OS updated and without vulnerabilities, then there's nothing better than Debian Stable. After a Debian branch is released to Stable, the focus is almost entirely on security updates.

      Flash is a bit of special case because it gets both security updates along with other updates...just the nature of the thing. It's non-free software which means the Debian project has no access to its source code. As such, it's impossible to fork out just the security updates. The updates, including security updates, are handled by Adobe and Google (for their PepperFlash plugin).

      The choice for the Debian project is to either:

      1) Freeze the non-free software at the point of release, meaning NO SECURITY UPDATES

      or

      2) Update non-free software with all of the upstream updates - meaning security updates along with all other updates.

      Well, that choice is a no-brainer.

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  5. This is why everything on the net has become "Stupid" because every "I have a degree" or "I know something" passes as the truth like gospel. well MR "I know something", you know nothing if you want to complain about the speed of the system using the USB method....please stop writing your thoughts...its poison to the world

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  6. In my experience Debian is faster in regular use than any version of Ubuntu or Mint. When you have lots of resources, it's just as fast as Lubuntu or LXDE. When you start to run short, it tends to be faster, at least as long as you are running the same desktop environment.

    When I have hardware that's too weak for even Lubuntu to run well on it, I switch to Debian. I run Debian 9 on a ten year old netbook with an Atom N270 32 bit processor and 1 GB of RAM.

    If you had problems with speed I have a lot of trouble believing it's a problem with Debian 9. Your USB drive would seem a more likely culprit.

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  7. @Isaac Ji Kuo: Your comments are totally fair, and in that context, I have edited the post to address the broader concerns you and other commenters have raised. Additionally, I intended the note in my review about the issue with Adobe Flash to simply point out where issues with stability may arise, and say that the strict adherence to stability and free software in Debian being incompatible with the vulnerable proprietary Adobe Flash makes it unsuitable for me personally; that is not at all meant to generally denigrate Debian. I would encourage you to check out the update to the post, as well as past reviews I've done on this site.

    @Anonymous: Congratulations, for that was a singularly useless comment, with no constructive thoughts and with all of the poison that you claim I spread. I'd recommend you start by fixing those issues, and if you instead keep up with those sorts of comments, I may choose to simply ignore them henceforth (though as a policy, I don't delete comments except for obvious spam or accidental duplicates, so if you wish to continue venting, feel free).

    @CFWhitman: I can certainly believe that Debian, once installed and configured properly on a hard drive, could run quickly even on old hardware, especially given how many versions of Debian exist specifically for more obscure processor types. I've addressed this in an addendum to this review, and if you stay tuned for another review that I'll have out soon (hopefully tomorrow), I can further assure you that this is neither a problem with my USB port nor my flash drive. Given that Debian seems to consistently run fast once installed, the question then becomes why the live system for Debian is so noticeably slower, when other distributions don't exhibit such noticeable discrepancies.

    Thanks for the comments!

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  8. Totally agree with you! This is my review.

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  9. Other distributions optimise for the liveCD demo, but Debian optimises for long-term use ;-) For a Debian distribution that uses the Mate Desktop and is optimised for liveCD use I'd give Parrot Security OS a try. And yes, I will read your review!

    That said, I'm about ready give give up on reading "reviews" that are in effect clickbait...eg: just a liveCD demo that is not of what it's like to use for a week or two. LiveCD/USB/etc should be in the title of the page imho.

    To be fair, sometimes the installed system can be slower than the live one due to background processes like file indexing daemons. ex: Nepomuk and aKonadi. How a distribution configures such things in an actual installation says more about the experience of using it and more about the values of the project than any liveCD.

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  10. Thanks for your review! It was an interesting read. I have a few comments though.

    > if I'm going to be using a version of Debian reputed for its stability, then I simply don't feel comfortable taking the leap to enable the unstable repositories, especially with all of the warnings surrounding them

    If you enable only the non-free section of unstable repository, you are unlikely to have troubles, as only a few packages will be upgraded to their unstable versions.

    However, Debian package manager allows to solve this issue properly by assigning priorities to repositories. If you create /etc/apt/preferences.d/default-release.pref with the following content:

    Package: *
    Pin: release n=stretch
    Pin-Priority: 990

    -- all stable repositories will have a higher priority over unstable ones, so when you apt-get install something, it will come from stable by default. In order to install something from unstable, use apt-get install something/unstable -- and it (and only it) will keep upgrading from unstable from then on.

    > The rest of the application collection present is fairly sparse, and some of the choices seem a bit weird. For example, multiple terminal applications are present, including multilingual and Thai-language terminals, along with a Khmer character converter

    Debian Live systems contain all languages support. That's why these applications are there. Most of these won't be in the installed system if you choose, say, English as the default language.

    > Speaking of that, I was able to use it without any issues to install Mupen64Plus, Redshift, Cheese Webcam Booth (for testing my webcam), and VLC

    Please keep in mind that when in LiveUSB, all packages that you install reside in RAM, slowing down your system.

    > Slowness was the name of the game for my experience with Debian. Although it only used 413 MB of RAM at idle according to the command "free -m", the MATE System Monitor showed a much higher RAM figure, and that seemed to jibe more with what I felt. In particular, clicking on menu items, opening dialog boxes, scrolling, and doing things of that nature all had a noticeable (though still relatively short) latency period

    I have a guess why this happened. Debian has a strong policy about non-free components, and certain firmware blobs, which Debian considers non-free, are split from the kernel and reside in the non-free section of the repository. However, some hardware may need these firmware blobs to work at its full potential. For example, Radeon cards without firmware will degrade to vesa driver, which lacks hardware acceleration and hence is very slow. Probably, this is the real reason behind lagginess you experienced.

    There are, however, images which include these firmware packages. You can find them here: http://cdimage.debian.org/cdimage/unofficial/non-free/cd-including-firmware/ Give them a try!

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  11. @DarkDuck: I saw your review too, and while I didn't have the same issues that you did, I do agree with your assessment too (based on what you experienced), and appreciate the solidarity.

    @Anonymous 1: I appreciate the tips about alternative distributions. That said, I would like to point out that in every review that I've done on this site, I have made clear at the beginning and through the tags whether the review is through a live USB (as in the vast majority of cases), a live CD/DVD (as was the case early on), or an actual hard drive installation (in which case it's a "Long-Term Review"). Perhaps you and others would be better served by having this information included in the title itself, which is a fair point, but in my view, if I'm clear at the top of the body of the review how I conduct the review, then it isn't as fair to complain about clickbait. Additionally, I do respectfully disagree with your other point about a distribution's priorities. My introduction to Linux was with live media of distributions that prioritized ease of use, especially for those coming from other OSs, and one of the goals of the live medium was to as accurately as possible render the user experience such that a user could be confident about what the installed experience would be like. I realize that isn't possible or even desirable for every distribution (for example, Arch Linux), but in distributions that put out live media, unless there are very obvious and sensible restrictions on what can be done and the installation expectations are otherwise made clear, I find it rather sketchy for a distribution to hide behind the promise of an amazing installed experience to cover for a subpar live experience.

    @Anonymous 2: I appreciate the tips about package update prioritization and nonfree firmware. While I do not have an AMD/ATI GPU in my computer (so your specific example isn't exactly relevant), there may certainly other related issues of which I'm unaware, so I'll try to give those alternative live media a shot at some point. With regard to your point about RAM usage with respect to installing programs in the live session, I should point out that the slowness in Debian was something I experienced even before I performed those installations (and was not exacerbated afterward); additionally, other live distributions have not had such issues with slowness after installing the same programs.

    Thanks for the comments!

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