Step-by-Step Install of Debian 8.4 on my old NetBook: A successful but too-long Odyssey

My NetBook is a Acer Aspire D255E with an Atom N550 and 1GB RAM and 260GB HD. It is about 5 years old now, with a BIOS date in late 2010.

I put Win 10 on it and stripped away some cruft and its runs pretty well, similar to Win 7, but I don’t like the extra rubbish MS have packed into Win 10, especially the way it handles updates. Since I use Debian at home and RHEL at work, and most of what I do on the NetBook uses programs like LibreOffice and LaTeX, which are open source, and cygwin, which imitates Unix/Linux, I thought the time had come to toast the HD and put Debian on. Having said that, this is Debian using systemd, which is new to me and has been controversial. I shall be interested to see what changes, if any, are apparent. If Slackware 14.2 was out I would seriously consider that.

Issues: Where I am, I cannot access the network without logging in through a pop-up-enabled browser.  Thus I cannot do a network-based install until I have a working browser.  As a result, I first downloaded and burned the eight (8!) CDs in the Debian disk set (here, at UNSW in my case) — I am using an external USB CD drive for the install media, an ASUS SDRW-08D2S-U

Step by step.

  1. I downloaded the disk images and burned them to CDs using a desktop (Windows) machine. Windows 7 and up comes with an iso burning tool, easily accessed through right-clicking on an iso file in the file manager. A distinct improvement.

  2. I put disk 1 in the USB CD drive and rebooted the NetBook, hitting F2 to bring up the BIOS menu. Went to ‘BOOT’ options and moved the USB CDROM option to the top. (BIOS recognised the CD drive — very helpful.)

  3. Saved and exited and let it boot.

  4. Selected ‘install’ from the boot menu.

  5. Selected language, time zone, key map.

  6. Waited for a bit, then chose the wireless network interface.

  7. Problem — I normally have to log into the network through a browser. So…

  8. Oh well, chose Do Not Configure at This Time and went on.

  9. Created root password and a user.

  10. Set time zone in detail.

  11. Manual partition. The partitioner was pretty easy. Selected things by hitting enter, chose options by arrowing up and down the menus. I have 250GB to play with, so I decided to be generous (that is quite a lot relative to what I intend to use the old machine for — it is not like I am going to be editing videos).  So I wanted 40GB root, 5GB swap, rest as /home. I won’t come close to using up these amounts of space.

    1. Deleted existing partition structure (nothing is done till I choose to write anyway).

    2. Created 40GB ‘/’ (root) partition. Set as ext4 file system and bootable. Selected ‘Finished setting up partition’.

    3. Created new partition in remaining space — 5GB — ‘use as’ select swap. Done.

    4. Set up the ‘/home’ partition by selecting defaults, then said, yes, write it to disk! This removes all data from the hard drive, so I made sure I backed up anything I wanted beforehand.

  12. It then installed the base system from the CD.

  13. Said Yes, I want to select a mirror.

  14. No internet, so chose to install ‘standard system utilities.’

  15. Installed GRUB to the HD.

  16. Removed CD and rebooted. Did not get a GUI. Logged in at text console and tried…

  17. Xorg -configure

    …failed.

  18. Used apt-cdrom add to add the CDs in the disk set to /etc/apt/sources.list.
  1. Thought maybe installing more bits of X would automagically cause the dependency-fixing tools in Debian to sort things out. Tried reinstalling xinit but not good, so, what if I try installing a big X-based package and see if it drags in all the dependencies for me (I am no expert; seemed worth a try)…

    apt-get install mate
  2. No good — ‘Dependency problems’ … how can that be when I have not installed anything but from the install media using the approved tools? I have never had issues like this with Debian before…

  3. Tried

    apt-get -f install
  4. It seemed there was no display manager installed…? Huh?

  5. Well, tried typing

    xinit

    got a very bare X terminal. But it was X. That meant I might be able to run a browser and therefore log into the WiFi (no text browsers that I know of can log in to the network available).

  6. apt-get install iceweasel
  7. Errors – why? Dunno.

  8. Tried

    apt-get -f install

    (again)

  9. Now seemed ok. Iceweasel ran. Tried to set up mirrors and log in to network. But there was apparently no network. Well, in fact there should have been wired and wireless.

  10. Installed synaptic to help search for available programs to help me out! Thought maybe if I could get onto a current mirror I ccould get it to sort itself out. I wish Slackware 14.2 was released.

  11. But for the moment I was restricted to using the disk set… tried installing MATE through synaptic… Nope, problems. ‘Dependency problems’. Are there more disks?

  12.  apt-get -f install

    again, then MATE again – seemed to be working, as if through repeated applications of ‘-f’ I was cycling back and forth towards a working system.

  13. Tried a reboot.
  14. Logged in (text console) then ran

    xinit

    then in the resulting terminal window typed

    mate-session
  15. Seemed to run. Used synaptic to install network-manager (still restricted to using the disk set). Seemed to work.

  16. Rebooted.

  17. Installed wdm to given some kind of display manager —  for some reason the MATE install did not depend on that! wdm is a good one as it has very few dependencies compared to kdm or gdm.

  18. Reinstalled xinit, xorg (just because I could). Rebooted.

  19. Now had a graphical login prompt (wdm) and logged into MATE and… I was on the (wired) network!

  20. But… ifconfig did not show a wireless adapter. Should it? I am no guru.  Oh, whatever. I have other things to do.

  21. But first, reinstalled mate-applets, since I could not find the network manager applet.  Still could not find it. Turned out…

  22. …There were dependency problems: installer could not find python-gtk2 and python-glade2. That figures, it would be Python. How I hate it. But since I now had wired network, I should have been able to ensure the installer can find whatever it needed by setting up a mirror, so added a mirror to /etc/apt/sources.list — I used the UNSW mirror.

  23. Reinstalled wireless-tools, since I am now in the habit of reinstalling things. Ran apt-get -f install again out of habit.

  24. Then

    apt-get update

  25. Then

    apt-get if install

  26. Then

    apt-get autoremove

  27. Then

    apt-get upgrade

  28. Then

    apt-get install network-manager-gnome

  29. Then rebooted, and it found the wireless networks ok. So looked promising.

  30. Now, smaller issues: The card reader did not work, and sound did not seem to be working either. Found this very helpful page on the web: http://blog.dale.id.au/ene-technology-inc-sd-card-reader-ub6250/ and then installed the (non-free) firmware. Turned out that the driver had been added to firmware-linux-nonfree in ‘Jessie’, the current Debian (‘8.4’, I prefer to call it), so:

     apt-get install firmware-linux-nonfree

    which worked without any issues.

  31. Rebooted, and the card reader worked. At some point sound also started working. Webcam works too… guvcview, fswebcam take care of that.

  32. Installed LaTeX according to my own instructions, using tlmgr rather than Debian packages. That needed installation of Tk, which was fine.

Conclusions: Now that it is done, I am glad. For two reasons. One, it is over and it was much more trouble than I expected. Two, the machine is faster and more responsive than when it ran Windows, whether Win7 or Win10. Linux does a better job of managing the battery (it could tell that my old battery only works at about 40% of original capacity, and warned me as such) and seems to drain it more slowly. Boot time is about halved and I can interact meaningfully with the desktop almost immediately. The install seemed to need a lot of going back and forth between installing stuff and ‘apt-get -f install’ to fix it and then back again, and using disk sets was a pain; swapping the disks in and out of the external optical drive repeatedly was tedious, and something about the disk sets seemed to be incomplete and I could only finally get things working by gaining access to a network mirror, suggesting that the best way to install would have been to use the ‘netinstall’ media and find a network elsewhere that the install program could access directly without my having to log in through a working browser (I have used network install in the past, where you boot from a smaller CD image that then downloads everything from a mirror, and never had so much trouble). Installing the non-free firmware seemed to be the only ‘tweak’ required, though.

So very good but does not dovetail well with WiFi networks that need you to log in through a browser session. Perhaps an install from a live disc would have worked better, since they give you a working browser…

I am very happy with the combination of MATE and Debian. Took a bit longer to get there than I had hoped, is all.

And it’s done.

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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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