Why use Debian Stable on the Desktop?

Deep inside you know it makes sense

Attila Orosz
Why use Debian Stable on the Desktop?

Debian is one of the oldest Linux distributions around, and its stable version is well-respected as a robust and reliable OS for the server. When it comes to using Debian on the Desktop, however, the consensus seems to be that switching sources to Testing might be the way to go, one major reason being that Stable's package offering gets old as time passes after its initial release.

Stability-wise, Debian testing can be just about as good as any Linux distribution, at least theoretically. Many derivatives are in fact based on Testing. While some are even based on the Unstable branch, and get away with it, this is usually because there are (often quite huge) teams of developers fixing things before including them into their own distros.

While it can still be a solid and reliable experience, Debian testing is not necessarily ideal for everyone. Things are not exactly expected to break, but when they do, the inexperienced user might find themselves all alone, with no one around to help. Couple that with the pre-release freezes, when problematic packages might be left in a limbo or even pulled, and you see that Testing can be quite some work to maintain (although, again, it usually isn't). With that in mind, if you absolutely have to have more up-to-date packages, you might as well be better off with a derivative that builds on Testing, and applies the necessary patching, etc.

For the rest of us, there is always Debian Stable...

Debian 9 XFCE

Not only for the server

Stability is often undervalued, especially when it comes to Desktop computers. Server admins and corporate IT policymakers usually appreciate the stability that comes at the cost of "recent-ness", but the peace of mind it brings can benefit the home user just as much.

Imagine if you will, an operating system that you install once, then just let it be, yet it would continue to work at near-optimal levels for years to come, especially if you don't forget to apply the occasional (or as is the case with Debian Stretch, quite regular) security patches. When you come from another Linux distro, e.g. Ubuntu, this might be reminiscent of LTS releases, while if you come from e.g. Windows it might well be impossible to wrap your head around the concept. No forced updates (like Windoze 10), no nagging system upgrades every day (like Ubuntu). You install a system, and then let it work for you, not the other way around. Debian Stable is just like that.

While it's true that Stable's offering will be approximately three years old just about three years after its release, just consider for a moment, how exactly would it affect the home user to have e.g. Mousepad 0.3.0 (as in Debian 8 Jessie) instead of 0.4.0 (as in Ubuntu 17.04 Zesty Zapus)? That's right, it wouldn't.

Sure, Jessie is now "oldstable", and Zesty is not the most recent Ubuntu either but that is not the point. To make a meaningful comparison with older packages in Debian stable, Stretch is still too "young", and Debian Jessie was the stable version when Ubuntu Zesty came out.

For most intents and purposes, these "outdated" system packages are exactly what brings the legendary stability. Tested and patched, and tested and fixed, then tested again and patched again, until there are virtually zero issues, these old packages have proven to perform. Undoubtedly security issues are discovered with an alarming regularity, but Debian Stable does, in fact, get regular security updates as well, so that should only be an issue in the rarest of cases (where only a brand new version might solve a freshly discovered vulnerability).

Just ask any corporate policymaker. Large systems often seem ancient... but they are as reliable as the taxman showing up every year, so why not let the home user benefit from this too? The "new packages" and "bleeding edge software" hype is most just that: hype. "Bleeding edge" usually means in real life "buggy as hell", and new packages often come with improvements that are as invisible for the average home user as the kernel version in their system (unless they happen to run it on the newest or really rare hardware, but hey, we're talking about the average home user).

Newer software is often just a wee stretch away

That said, even the average home user might require software they use daily to be up-to-date, especially when said software is expected to keep up with technological trends, such as e.g. a web-browser. An outdated browser is not only less likely to correctly display pages or run web apps coded with the newest JavaScript fad, but can also pose a serious security issue.

Often enough you can access software from its developer's site, but even better, you might always use stretch-backports, offering a substantial upgrade on a lot of software applications, mostly benefitting the end-user.

To enable backports in Debian 9 Stretch, you need to edit /etc/apt/sources.list,and add the following line:

deb http://ftp.debian.org/debian stretch-backports main

then, as root, run

apt update

so that your sources will be in sync with the backports.

To install an application from the backports, you need to add -t stretch-backports to the apt command like so (as root):

apt -t stretch-backports install <packagename>

Browsers

Debian stable currently ships with Firefox ESR, meaning Extended Support Release, aimed at organisations and businesses. While that still does not make it some unmaintained old software, as it gets regular updates and patches as well, it does lag a little behind. (The current FF at the time of writing is version 56, while the next major version of ESR will be forked from version 59). That said, you can easily install the current Firefox on Debian stable straight from the Firefox Website, and it will even take care of upgrading itself, just don't forget to allow write access to its directory if you install it somewhere like e.g. /opt. (Same is true for Chrome, but why use a closed-source browser made by a notorious data-thief?).

For a simple and convenient way to install the latest Firefox, you can use the below script, that will do the heavy lifiting for you.

It will...

  • Download the latest stable version of Firefox appropriate to your system architecture,
  • Unpack and copy the files to their final location
  • Create a desktop launcher, and
  • For global install only: Create ffupdate user group to manage updates, and add any number of users you specify to it
  • Optionally get rid of Firefox ESR, if you no longer need it (only if running as root)

Download and run

You can download the script from below. (A verison of this script is also available from the WLAdmin tool available from the Downloads Page on The Way of Debian)


...unpack the tarball...

cd ~/Downloads
tar -xvz installff.tar.gz

...then run it:

bash installff.bash

Running the script as normal user will create a local installation, while running as root will install it for all users.

Productivity

Office software gets a similar treatment. Currently LibreOffice 5.2.7 ships with stretch-backports already offering version 5.4.2, which is almost as recent as if you were to download the vanilla .deb builds from the LibreOffice website (which is 5.4.3 ATM), with the added benefit of Debian devs maintaining the packages for you.

To get a newer LibreOffice, enable backports (see above), and run as root:

apt remove libreoffice
apt -t stretch-backports install libreoffice

Others

The list could go on for near-infinity, afer all there are tens of thousands of packages in Debian, but let's not forget, we're still talking about the average home user, who will, for the most part, either use a browser (to play stupid facebook games), or some office suite, watch videos, or play games While games have never been the strong side of Linux, the usual multimedia software (Kodi 17.1, with newer versions of which sometimes even making it to backports, and VLC 2.2.7) should be more than adequate, on top of the already mentioned browsers and office applications.

Some drawbacks (not really though)

Yes, there are drawbacks, there always are, and unless one is trying to sell something, one is bound to acknowledge them. But hey, perfect would be boring wouldn't it?

Desktop Environment versions are here to stay

On one hand, there are the DEs. You'd better like what you're getting because they're in for the long-haul. Desktop Environments tend not to get the backport-treatment, as they would need too many packages and their dependencies backported, and they are usually not so easy to install from sources or vendor binaries either.

XFCE 4.12 and GNOME 3.22 are both a great compromise between the super-mature and the new and shiny. Both are modern enough, yet stable and usable. Fortunately for KDE users, Debian 9 finally comes with Plasma 5 (most notably the LTS version 5.8, which is already good enough), so you will not be stuck with a major version lower, as was the case with Jessie, which just missed out on the then-new KDE Plasma 5 release.

Naturally, there will be those who will lament over not being able to use a particular newer widget, or be able to have snowflakes falling across the screen diagonally, etc, but for everyday use, these DEs are more than satisfactory. If not, there's also Cinnamon 3.2.7, Mate 1.16, and some other less mainstream DEs to choose from.

One common theme is the lack of theming. (Pun intended.) Debian doesn't do any fancy branding, does not apply any fancy plugins OOB. All DEs will look and behave pretty much how their original developers intended them to, which of course might mean some will provide the aesthetically sensitive with quite a challenge, but of course, everything can be tweaked to one's liking.

That said after you've finished all your modifications, and tweaks, changed the ugly colour schemes and the uglier icon sets, you will pretty much have a desktop for years to come, that will be familiar, predictable, and most significantly productive.

User un-friendly installing process

Yes, then there's that. Not so much a difference between different Debian versions, but between Debian and more UX-optimised systems, like Ubuntu, or Mint, or even Deepin with its two-step installer.

Debian is all about choice, and it lets you choose... almost everything (not as much everything as e.g. Gentoo, but quite a lot still.) The good news is, the installer had improved a lot throughout the years, it also explains every step in plain language; the bad news is, it might still seem intimidatingly long and difficult.

The best news is, The Way of Debian, offers step-by-step hand-holding for even the least experienced users so they can hit the ground running when using Debian or even Linux for the first time, (right before they drown in the sea of clichés they read here). How wonderful is that? And so, there are no more excuses about Debian being difficult.

In conclusion

If you are a notorious distro-hopper, too young to care about real productivity or like to install a different set of DEs, themes and plugins disguised as distributions every month, so that you can feel like a power user, Debian Stable might not be the right choice for you. Neither is it a good choice if you really rely on some cutting-edge technology, e.g. doing fad-development with the newest JavaScript libraries, or some serious development work that needs the latest of anything else.

But if you mainly use your computer to browse the web, read and edit documents, and watch videos or listen to music, (or if you are a real power user doing important stuff) Debian Stable might be one of the most underrated and overlooked home environments that is predictable, reliable, hassle-free and productive or, in one word: stable.


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