Perfect Debian Gnu/Linux Etch Desktop

What is this?

This is the description of how to run you base Etch install so that you end up with a very functional KDE Desktop. I see a lot of hype out there about Ubuntu. I've been using Debian as a desktop OS for years (since Potato). I figured all Ubuntu really has is a couple non-free packages in there standard install and some standard settings. I figured I could get together a setup that would be at least as good plus have the power of the full Debian repository. Etch made this easier with its new desktop tasks. This install keeps you intimately involved in the whole process so that you get what you want and can see how it works.

Why Debian?

I came to Debian by way of Red Hat, Mandrake, and Corel Linux. They were terrible. Package management was painful, to this day when I see RHEL it think Rpm dependency hell. I don't know what they were thinking when they changed to such a terror inspiring acronym. Configuration management was a beast. linuxconf often disagreed with the way the packages wanted to be configured. If you edited the configuration manually some "convenience" tool would usually destroy your work. Upgrading was a nightmare. If I had a nickel for each time it failed me. I'd probably have 15 cents, but after three required re-installs even I learn my lesson. This taught me to set up my system right at install time and never modify it again. Not exactly fun for a guy who likes to tinker. After this mess, Debian was a thing of beauty. it just worked. Thinking back to the first time I used apt to install a new piece of software almost makes me tear up now. Each package is lovingly prepared to stand alone and integrate with the system. dpkg asks configuration questions to guide you thru basic setup, but in the end the configuration file that the software developers designed to configure the software is the default means of configuration. They do an excellent job listing the options and commenting there settings. I could go on, but I think on to the next topic. Note: kernel-package rocks

Why KDE?

When I was but a Linux pup, everyone's view of KDE was "yea it's a lot easier, but look at that license on QT." Then it went GPL. But it was too late most distros already decided on Gnome as default. GTK has a lot of nice features. LGPL is a better license for a library. The C based executable styles is brilliant. I actually use this feature because you can have GTK apps call QT widgets as there style. I think C is a poor choice of language for widget programming as the Object Orientated programming paradigm is just so well suited to it. I actually like the WxWidgets toolkit myself (More QT style object oriented application programming toolkit plus GTK license and technical benefits). KDE has better integration than Gnome. the parts seem to work better together. The big win though is configuration KDE control center and various settings windows present options that are actually extensive and useful. Gnome seems to limit GUI configuration to a handful of mostly useless options, and anything really useful is in there XML config files. A quick note about XML config files. They suck. Clarification: they suck to edit by hand. XML is great for marking up text. or keeping a inter-process protocol "human readable" yet easily parsable. If you are going to write a full featured configuration editor that saves the data in XML that's fine, but If you need to edit the configuration file in order to use a standard feature it is terrible. when you have a simple editor with the config file open just a list of parameter value pairs is the way to go. Easy to read. Easily commented. Relatively easily parsed.

What's the procedure?

You need to acquire a Debian install CD. Any version should work. I recommend net install or business card as we won't be using the packages on the disks possibly anyway. Remember choose install options with confidence. If you mess up, you just need to restart. It usually takes a couple tries to get the system how you want it, if you haven't done it before.

If you are manually partitioning, I like creating a swap partition on each disk totaling 2GB. Even though you shouldn't need it. Hard drive space is cheap. You can get some of this space back by mounting /tmp on a tmpfs file system.

My biggest disagreement with the default setup of Debian is the fact that it doesn't by default send its host name when it configures the network by DHCP. I like this because it allows my DHCP/DNS server to keep the host names and IP addresses synchronized, without my intervention. To get the option to send the host name to the DHCP server either:

Cancel DHCP network init.


If you miss it, when asked for your host name select go back.

When it comes to selecting which software task remove all tasks. We will select them manually later.

After reboot, login as root. The first thing we want to do is edit our package sources to include contrib and non-free. These group names are just a reference to the license on the source code. Just edit /etc/apt/sources.list. I prefer nano but feel free to use whatever editor you want (vi and ed should be installed).

#nano /etc/apt/sources.list

I usually comment out (precede with a #) or remove any line for the CD or deb-src lines. Where main appears in the deb lines add contrib non-free. Such that:

deb etch main
deb-src etch main

Would become:

deb etch main contrib non-free
#deb-src etch main

If you are upgrading from an older version of Debian, you can just change the sources.list file to point to etch rather than the previously installed version (sid, stable, woody, sarge, etc). A reasonable default sources.list file might look like (with the country code properly replaced):

deb http://ftp.(country code) etch main contrib non-free
deb etch/updates main contrib non-free

After saving this file and exiting (Ctrl-X does both in nano), update the list of package to include the repository changes that we made.

aptitude update

Now we install the first package to make sure that everything worked. I usually use localepurge. It doesn't need many dependencies and the earlier you install it the better. The localepurge package will cause package installs to delete unused locale data, this could same a reasonable amount of space on a machine that other wise would just be used up by data in languages you don't understand or use. If you are reading this how-to then you probably want en and en_US.UTF-8 to still be generated. Make certain they are on the list. It should default to the locale you chose at install, but it doesn't hurt to make sure.

aptitude install localepurge

Next we update the rest of the packages in the base install to make sure they are up to date. In the initial release version of etch there was a kernel bug. This will be updated at this time.

aptitude dist-upgrade

Next we reboot so the new kernel can be loaded. This isn't needed if the kernel version didn't change, but it doesn't hurt, either way.


If you rebooted, log back in as root. Now we can start to install the bulk of the packages. We do this by going in to aptitude's interactive mode.


Aptitude commands

The interactive aptitude command list's most import commands are: | Key | Command | |--------|-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| | arrows | Move selection around package list | | enter | Expand/collapse tree view | | / | Search for package(When searching I prefer to change to the Flat package list view | | ? | Help | | + | Mark package for install | | - | Mark package for uninstall | | g | Go downloads, installs, removes any packages that have changed state |

First go thru the tree to the list of task add all of the following tasks. If they are expanded when you select the task you should see all of the sub packages become selected. Then the contained packages that aren't really wanted can be removed.


Now that we have the high level task selected, choose a list of individual package we want. I usually first go to the menu (Ctrl-T), and change the view to flat package list. Then I search for each package I want in alphabetical order. I install most of these packages below plus any hardware specific ones that are needed.


Common Hardware Specific Packages

Once all the packages are select hit g to go. Aptitude will download and install all the selected packages. During the install aptitude will ask questions about the packages as it installs them usually just accept the default.

I usually select to update WINS settings based DHCP

Once all the packages are installed exit aptitude (q will back you out). Next we can look at some of the things aptitude does for us. Look how much space can be freed by removing old packages and unused config data.

aptitude clean
aptitude purge ~c

Now that we verified some basics of the install lets configure some of the new packages.

Un-comment the block about bash completions in bash.bashrc

nano /etc/bash.bashrc

Prelink needs to be enabled after it is installed. You can do this by editing the configuration file /etc/default/prelink. Enable prelinking by setting PRELINKING to yes.

nano /etc/default/prelink (set PRELINKING to yes)





Next we need to verify our X configuration.

less /etc/X11/xorg.conf

The X server configuration can be changed either by reconfiguring the package:

dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg

or by directly editing the configuration file

nano /etc/X11/xorg.conf

Next make certain that audio is properly configured. Running alsamixer can verify that the HW was detected and setup good levels.


After the levels are set, save them away so that the will be restored on reboot.

alsactl store

If there is a problem with the audio device, you can run alsaconf to attempt guided sound detection.


You should now be ready to start X(/etc/init.d/kdm restart), if you want. It might be easier to just reboot though.


If everything worked you should see the graphical login screen. If not, back to X config.

Login. The following KDE setup may be a little light on flash, but give good performance even on older equipment. During the initial login wizard, when you get to the eye-candy-o-meter, slide it down to the fewest effect. Then expand details and enable Smoothed fonts.

After the login completes, you will want to get familiar with the Control Center in the K start menu. Expand Sound & Multimedia. Select Sound System. Under Auto-Suspend, set the idle timeout to 0 seconds. This prevents the KDE sound system from colliding with other applications. If sound still acts wonky set Enable sound system to disabled. Changes to the control center should be committed or cancelled before changing where you are in the tree. It will remind you of this if you try to click away. The Control Center also let you edit some system settings. Under System Administration, select Login Manager. Hit the Administration mode button and it should ask for your root password. This lets you change configuration that as a user you wouldn't have permission to. Under the shutdown tab set your boot manager to whatever you are using. This is probably Grub if you followed the normal install. If you don't know you can just look at the next time you reboot. Leaving it on none works, but we want more than just works.

If you are planning on using the 3d OpenGL acceleration, you should test it out first.


This will display the supported OpenGL features. The key is to look for the line towards the top that says Direct Rendering. It should say Yes, meaning that the graphics hardware is doing the work. you can do a simple test of performance using:

glxgears -printfps

That covers the basic install. Feel free to experiment. You got it running once, you can do it again. Using aptitude you can search or browse for packages that contains software that might interest you.

What are some fun debian game packages?

Everyone likes a good game. Here are a couple voted popular over at Linux Game Tome that I like as well.


Other packages of interest