Great new stuff coming with Debian 4.0. Still, the greatest achievement of Etch is its stability, and the continuity in respect to past Debian releases.

Like ever, a big release. More than 18 200 packages. So lots of new software, nicely packaged, and very well tested. Every aspects of the desktop experience has been magnified, and most server components gained a few version numbers upgrade.

As I have been using Etch since January 2006 (when it was considered the “testing” part of Debian), Etch and I know each other just enough.

What comes out of all this? Let’s see.

  • On the desktop

Iceweasel (Firefox with a funky name), Gaim 2.0 and OpenOffice 2.0 are just a few of the great programs shipping on top of your preferred desktop, be it Gnome (at version 2.14.3), KDE (3.5.5), Xfce (4.4) or other more minimal alternatives. All that Jazz on top of a new X modular server (7.1), providing improved hardware detection and spectacular visual enhancements. With AIGLX and Compiz included, anything is possible in the aesthetic department. Beryl fans will be glad to know that the Beryl project provides official Etch packages.

A fresh installation of Debian Etch, featuring Beryl on top of AIGLX

Another improvement toward usability: NetworkManager, with its excellent wired and wireless networks management. Many new power-management tools have been introduced or upgraded, like Gnome Power Manager and KPowersave. Laptop users will also find the new X server very much widescreen friendly.

From the non-free section of the repositories, some very popular applications and drivers are present: both Ati and Nvidia proprietary drivers, Sun’s Java, Adobe’s Flash, Microsoft’s TrueType fonts, etc. Plus, the unofficial debian-multimedia packages (from Christian Marillat) provide the missing parts of the multimedia experience, mainly DVD and proprietary media formats related.

  • On the server and under the hood

Etch is the first Debian release officially supporting the x86-64 architecture. Many improvements not so visible to the end user have been brought in. The Linux kernel 2.6 series, first introduced more than three years ago, is now part of a default Debian installation, for the first time (though it was available as an option in Sarge). Similarly, about two years after the first GCC 4 series compiler was released, Etch is now build upon it (the 4.1 version).

Better hardware detection and hotplug support (thanks to udev), on top of a specially crafted 2.6.18 kernel. Several enterprise level tools are also present: virtual machines (Xen, QEMU, KVM and the likes), Apache 2, PHP 5, and the powerful MySQL 5 database management system.

An important new Debian application is also introduced: a shiny new GTK+ graphical installer (loaded by typing installgui at boot prompt), which really works in continuity with the old ncurses based one. The debian-installer now avoid reboots during installation, so the process is that much faster.

Additionally, much work was done on the classic Debian administration tools. The Advanced Packaging Tool (APT) has a great new security feature, namely the support for PGP signed repositories. The debian-volatile project is now officially part of Debian, providing regularly updated packages for rapidly changing applications (such as ClamAV and SpamAssassin). Non-English speakers will also like the use of UTF-8 character encoding by default, which is a definite step toward internationalization.

  • The verdict?

At the end of the day, Debian Etch delivers an enterprise grade system for less effort than expected, and for free. It presents itself as an extremely stable system, well supported with regular security update — for about the next three years (until one year after Debian’s next release).

For a server or production machine, that is indeed ideal. On the other hand, those simply looking for a fun and fully featured desktop, will probably get bored over time with this rock-solid release. For those people, Debian Sid (unstable) or Lenny (testing) are perhaps more appropriate alternatives.

If you are the type of person that demand stability, flexibility and choice, Debian Etch is the real deal.