About a week ago, I noticed that the music I have on my second 80GB hard drive doesn't fill even half the space. So I did what any self-respecting geek would do; I installed Debian in the free space. As usual, I had a couple of false starts before I got going.
Debian proved to be challenging to install and configure. This may have been due, in part, to the quirks of my Dell GX270. (Linux has historically had trouble handling the USB controllers in certain Dell machines.)
Initially I installed the 2.4 kernel. But when I discovered I could have chosen the 2.6 kernel instead, I decided to try it. It didn't work so well. Every time it reached a certain point in the boot sequence—presumably the point at which the USB controllers are probed—it would encounter a "control timeout on ep0in". The Xserver wouldn't start. I searched all over the Internet but was unable to find any information on this error. I found more users with the same problem, but no one had a solution. Frustrated, I decided it wasn't worth the trouble. The earlier kernel didn't support a hardware abstraction layer (HAL), but at least it didn't break my Xserver.
Having finally settled on the 2.4 kernel, I realized Debian doesn't have the same set of packages as Ubuntu does. This wasn't a huge surprise per se, but I was annoyed to find that many of the packages I easily installed via Synaptic in Ubuntu 5.10 were nowhere to be found. In particular, the NVIDIA drivers were absent. Luckily Andrew Schulman, a statistician and programmer at the EPA, wrote step-by-step instructions for installing the drivers in Debian. The key point I gleaned from reading them was that the drivers aren't available in the same kind of monolithic package found in the Ubuntu repositories. With Ubuntu, I didn't have to choose between different kernel modules; there was one package called "nvidia-glx" and that was what I installed. Debian has a different package for each kernel (e.g. nvidia-kernel-2.4.27-2-386 for the 2.4 kernel on the Intel 386 architecture) plus the nvidia-kernel-common package. Once I realized that, I had no problem installing the drivers.
Maybe this is just my machine, but sometimes the Xserver doesn't seem to start with the correct display settings. It happened in Ubuntu as well. I hear the sound telling me the login screen has loaded, but I see only a blank screen. When that happens, pressing Ctrl+Alt+Backspace to restart the Xserver usually fixes it.
I should have mentioned this right up front, but installing playback support for proprietary multimedia formats is a pain in the rear in Debian. Either rip all your music in Ogg Vorbis—or FLAC, if you have a small collection or a large hard drive—or get used to the idea of installing a ton of unstable and/or experimental packages from unofficial sources such as Christian Marillat and RareWares. Getting AAC support in XMMS was, by far, the most difficult task. It seems I've almost completely repressed the unpleasant memories. I do recall the necessary plugin being in a package called something like "xmms-aac" or "xmms-faad".
After fussing with the AAC plugin, I didn't feel like doing much else. I downloaded a Debian wallpaper I like better than the default one. Now I'm eyeing a different one, though. But these decisions are hardly momentous.
I'm impressed with Debian, but I don't think I'd give up Ubuntu for it. Ubuntu makes it easier to add the features I want without jumping through a lot of hoops. Even so, I imagine there's a reason so many university CS labs use Debian systems—I just haven't found it yet.