These days, Debian seems to be enjoying a modest comeback among experienced users. Hardly a week goes by when I don't hear on social networking sites of two or three people giving Debian another look.
This renewed interest may reflect a growing disillusionment with Ubuntu, the Debian derivative that has partly replaced Debian in popularity among Linux users. Almost certainly, it reflects a growing willingness to experiment with distros after the last two years of user revolts against GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's Unity. As one of the oldest distributions—and one specifically focused on user choice—Debian looks reliable in the middle of such uncertainty.
Still, many users hesitate to switch to Debian. The distribution is surrounded by myths, many of them adding to an impression that it is an expert's choice and almost as difficult to use as Gentoo or Linux from Scratch.
However, most of these myths are either out-dated or half-truths that need to be heavily qualified. As in any distribution, the user experience in Debian comes as much from the applications as the distribution. If you are comfortable with KDE or LXDE in Fedora or Mageia, you should be just as comfortable with them in Debian. To the extent that any of the myths are true, none of the more common ones are any reason for not at least giving Debian a try.
True, Debian was one of the last distributions to have a user-friendly install, let alone a graphic one. However, a revised text-based installer came into use in 2005 and a graphical version in 2007, both of which are serviceable—although far from slick.
What may be intimidating is that both versions of the installer require significant input from the user. If you want, you can fine-tune them endlessly. However, even if you have no idea what Linux is, you can still install Debian successfully by sticking to the basic level of detail, accepting the installer's suggestions and reading the help.
Have you ever resorted to Ubuntu's expert installer? If so, you've already used a version of the Debian installer, and can judge it from firsthand experience.
Many people are aware that Debian has three main repositories: Unstable, Testing and Stable. Most are also aware that a package enters Unstable after meeting basic standards, then passes to Testing and finally to Stable when a general release is made. However, potential users worry of committing themselves to a repository unsuited to their preferences.
By contrast, experienced Debian users know better. Users who are setting up a server or require maximum reliability for some other reason generally stay with the stable repository. However, other users, especially on stand-alone workstations, mix and match the repositories to produce hybrid systems.
These hybrid systems do require caution. Generally, you want to avoid mixing and matching packages for the core system. The exception is kernels, since the bootloader usually stores multiple kernels, so that if a new one doesn't work, you can still reboot your system. In the same way, if you have multiple desktops, problems with one will still leave you with options for a graphical interface.
By contrast, desktop apps are usually safe to update from unstable, because, even if problems occur, your basic system should still boot.
In other words, so long as you take some precautions, you are not confined to using a single repository unless you choose to be.
Yes, the Unstable repository is unstable—by Debian standards. But that means that, by the standards of most other distributions, unstable packages are generally usable. In fact, Debian-derivatives sometimes borrow directly from unstable in order to give users the latest package versions.
However, the Unstable repository does go through periods when you are better off leaving it alone. Since the packages meet only minimal standards, some in Unstable may have dependency problems that break the package management system, leaving you unable to install any other packages until the problem is solved.
However, such problems are usually righted when packages are debugged. You can also have a number of options for fixing your own system.