Also see: Debian vs Ubuntu: Which is Best for You?
Long before Ubuntu ever existed, Debian was a major player in the Linux space. To put a finer point on that statement, Debian is a distribution of Linux that has made countless other distributions, from Knoppix to Simply Mepis, a reality. This is similar to how Ubuntu relates to Linux Mint by providing Mint a base from which to develop.
In this article, I'll examine how Debian compares to Ubuntu and whether or not it can make for a solid Ubuntu alternative.
Even though Ubuntu is built upon a Debian base, it's not going to present the exact same installation experience. For example, Debian allows you to try KDE, GNOME and other desktop environments, while Ubuntu itself effectively provides for Unity only. Granted, there are Ubuntu spins available that provide alternative desktops, but Debian does this officially under the Debian banner. This is something Ubuntu lacks.
Another item to note is how Debian installs. You have the option of either using a standard installation ISO or a Live ISO that also comes bundled with an installer. I used the Live ISO in order to see how the installer on this version handled. To my surprise, it was not only very simple to follow the GUI installer, Debian even suggested I consider a dedicated home partition. That was a nice benefit, considering Ubuntu is still one of those few distributions that lacks this suggestion.
Ubuntu also offers a great GUI installer; however, I've found the lack of a suggested dedicated home partition frustrating, as it would only benefit users in the long run. I'm sure the Ubuntu developers have some mysterious reason for forcing users to opt into this manually, but the lack of this simple radio button vexes me greatly.
Another thing to consider is that Debian's installation asks questions that newer users probably aren't going to understand. For example, questions about package mirrors and where to install GRUB, are best left to intermediate and advanced users. This isn't to say that newbies can't figure this stuff out—rather that most people aren't willing to take on the learning curve to find out what these things mean.
One other area where Ubuntu differs is with the visual effects that take place during the installation process. Debian's GUI installer lacks the various scrolling graphics found on Ubuntu's installation process. This isn't to suggest that one is better than the other in this area; rather, it outlines how Debian is best perceived—as a distro without any fluff.
Once installed, both Ubuntu and Debian provide a standard desktop environment offering an applications menu, a desktop and various applets. With Debian, I elected to use Gnome, and so the desktop I ended up with was by choice. With Ubuntu, you're going to end up with Unity.
Ubuntu comes with Firefox, whereas Debian provides the non-branded Iceweasel browser instead. It's the same browser as Firefox, minus the trademarked branding that Mozilla owns the rights to.
The Gnome desktop I chose came with a standard Gnome experience. And since I was running this in a virtual machine, I ended up with a speedy fallback mode since performance wasn't an option on my test machine. To be blunt, when running on a machine with lower resources, Debian with Gnome blows Ubuntu out of the water in terms of performance. Visually however, Ubuntu wins in terms of aesthetics.
Both distributions use pulseaudio upon a default installation for its sound server, which is surprising since most Debian users aren't likely to want to use pulseaudio because it is considered a bloated technology by many Linux users.