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Beginner's Guide to Debian Etch

Wednesday 11th April 2007

Categories: Guides, GNU/Linux, FLOSS


Debian is one of the most common distributions in the world. With a possible total of twenty one CDs, it is also one of the biggest. As you may have gathered from the fact that this guide exists, Debian is not the easiest distribution. However, anybody that is relatively competent with computers should be able to use Debian (after all, I am!). This is not a guide to every detail of Debian Etch - instead, it aims to get you going, so you can start tinkering away!

When you go onto the Debian website, you will find three possible versions you can install. At any point, there are three main choices: stable, testing and unstable. Stable is regularly released, with the packages staying the same throughout that particular release, apart from security updates. This is best if you want the versions of packages to be consistent and, unsurprisingly, if you want absolute stability. The current version is 4.0, otherwise known as Etch.

Next up is testing. This next version is named Lenny, and the packages within are regularly updated, and should be relatively stable - I use packages from testing, and my system never seems to crash! However, on occasion, especially after a release of stable, you can find serious bugs in testing. Finally, we have unstable, which is always called Sid. In case you didn't realise, these are all characters from Toy Story, with Sid being the 'unstable' kid next door. This guide focuses on Debian Etch, but much of it should be applicable to later versions and unstable versions.

To give you an idea of which of the three versions is best for you, knowing the relationship between the versions helps. New and updated packages are put into unstable. Once they have been there for a given amount of time, and have few enough bugs, they are moved into testing. They stay here until the next update of the package, or just before a new stable release. Before a new stable release, testing is frozen, and a bug fixing frenzy ensues. This results in the release of a new version, most recently Etch.

Getting Started

Before we get going, there are a few things we need to do. The first is to make sure you have enough free space for Debian (or that you're happy to destroy a partition or two). I personally try and make sure that Debian has at least 10GB, although it's perfectly possible to run it on less.

Once you've found a spot for Debian, you need to start downloading Debian. At this point, you may start panicking about downloading twenty one CDs. Panic not! You only need the first CD to install Debian. This contains the most common packages, while the rest can be grabbed from the web. You can also download a CD for both stable and testing that contains only the basic packages (called netinst), and grabs the rest of the packages from the web during installation. It doesn't really make much difference which CD (or DVD) you choose if you're just installing it onto a desktop - you'll have to download the packages at some point. If you have a slow network connection, you might want to download the entire first CD now, rather than netinst - you can stop and start ordinary downloads, but its more difficult to do so during an installation.

If you're just downloading the first CD, you have the extra option of CDs designed for KDE and XFCE - if you don't know what this means, then don't worry about it - the ordinary first CD will be fine.

Once you've picked your CD (or DVD) and burnt it, you can begin. Stick the CD in the drive, reboot and make sure your CD drive is the first in the boot order. You should be presented with a black screen with a Debian logo, and the prompt:

Press F1 for help, or ENTER to boot:

At this point, we can choose between a text installer, or a graphical installer. If you want the good ol' text installer, just hit enter, otherwise type installgui and then hit enter. This guide assumes you're using the text installer, but the graphical installer is virtually identical.