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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.
One thing Debian and Ubuntu share in common is the use of Debian package management and the tools that go with it. At a terminal level, apt is in use for package management.
Where things start to differ is with GUI package management, Ubuntu uses the Ubuntu Software Center by default and Debian uses Synaptic. For experienced Linux enthusiasts, this is actually preferred because Synaptic is a better software tool than the Software Center. However, newbies might find themselves missing the Ubuntu Software Center as Synaptic lacks the polish found with Ubuntu's default option.
The other side of the coin is Ubuntu's PPAs and Debian's backports. The idea with Ubuntu's PPAs is that you can keep up to date with the latest individual software titles of your choice. With Debian, users can have the same experience using Debian backports. Basically, these are software titles from Debian testing made available for Debian stable users. With both Ubuntu and Debian, user need to beware, as bleeding-edge software can sometimes introduce new problems. My advice is to avoid either approach, unless there is a bug fix or a feature you're gaining by using the bleeding-edge version of any given software title. While older titles might seem a bit boring, all too often, they're more stable.
Odds and Ends
One other area where Ubuntu and Debian differ is that most networking in Ubuntu just works out of the box. And in the event that a proprietary driver is needed, the restricted driver management tool will handle this with ease. By contrast, Debian isn't going to run many wireless devices out of the box. Granted, the needed blobs are available from the Debian repositories; however, it's up to the end user to install these blobs and enable many common wireless chipsets to work with Debian.
Some may argue that Debian is harder or otherwise more difficult to use. I disagree with this assertion, and instead would suggest that Debian is simply Linux without a safety belt provided. To mirror your Ubuntu experience under Debian, will require a little time with the Debian Wiki and adding a repository or two. But in the end, you will end up with a stable, responsive desktop that will put any Ubuntu installation to shame with regard to speed and stability. The secret to enjoying this benefit is that Debian requires a little bit of work.
A parting example of putting in the work with Debian would be installing proprietary video drivers. To an experienced user, the Debian way is quite straight forward. Simply browse to the appropriate page, add the needed repo, then paste in the install command for your driver. Ubuntu users however, have been spoiled (to a fault) by the proprietary driver manager. The real comedy is that in truth, the Debian way is actually faster than the Ubuntu method. Debian users only need copy and paste in the contents of two command boxes from the wiki. On the other hand, Ubuntu users depend on the GUI, which has been known to be far from perfect. Worse, if something goes wrong, there's no verbose reaction to look to without diving into the logs themselves.
The point here is Debian requires more hands-on user experience. Some folks will prefer this, while others may balk at the very idea of making Linux on the desktop a deeper experience.
So is Debian a solid alternative to Ubuntu? Yes, if you're willing to adjust your expectations.
For those users willing to learn how Linux works and who have no problem with spending a little extra time adding in needed repositories for additional hardware support, Debian is a fantastic option. Easier to use than Arch Linux, Debian still provides its users with a speedy, stable desktop you can rely on for many years to come.