Debian Installation

The Problem

Oh man. Being the most careful person on the planet, I accidentally formatted my drive this past weekend. Honestly, if I didn’t do weekly backups, I’d be so much more screwed. I tried to recover the lost data in vain, so reformatting and using the backups seemed to be the fastest option. I used to run Ubuntu 20.04 on my Dell XPS, but I decided to go with Debian for a change.

Note to the reader:

On these write-ups, I normally divide the sections up into a “things I tried that didn’t work” and a solution, but for this one, I’m finding it easier to just write it as a story. If you do intend to use this write-up, make sure you read the whole paragraph before jumping the gun.

The Installation Process

As most installation processes go, I started by flashing a USB with Debian Buster, with the standard image (so no desktop environment was already installed). After that, the process is fairly simple: once you’re at the boot loader and find your USB, go to the installer version. It’ll walk you through the rest. On a side note, being connected to Ethernet is pretty much vital. I suppose you could do it without, but I just don’t recommend it, since you’ll be messing around with more drives and stuff.

I went with most of the default settings. There is one critical step that I messed up the first time I tried to install Debian (spoiler alert: I screwed up twice): it’ll prompt you to load the firmware. Take a picture of this or note down the respective packages if you choose to continue without loading the firmware right then. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how to load the binary files onto another USB.

Debian, by default, does not include certain firmware (including most wireless firmware) if it’s not FOSS. Since I wanted WiFi, I needed to get this firmware. Making a note of which files are needed at this stage kinda makes things easier down the road. Also, during the installation, there’s a bit where they tell you to remove the USB. Make sure you actually do that, as I didn’t, and had to install it all over again. This takes like 10 minutes, but those were 10 wasted minutes.

My Struggle with the WiFi

I have another write-up to my struggles with getting a working WiFi connection on Arch, and I tried a lot of the same methods to no avail, before realizing that I was missing some drivers. The lspci command, once again, was pretty useful, especially after grepping for “Wireless.” After posting on Reddit, I found the journalctl command to be pretty useful for finding out what was missing. Based on that, I found that I have Atheros 10k blah blah. I’m not 100% certain what that’s about, but at least it told me to get the ath10k drivers.

Remember when I said that by default, Debian only includes FOSS stuff? Well, we’re going to have to change that to get the right firmware. You’ll need to edit the /etc/apt/sources.list file as root. What I wound up doing was just adding the word “non-free” after “main”. Again, if you have syntax highlighting enabled in your editor, you’ll see it light up, so you know you’re on the right track. After that, you should be able to go ahead and install your firmware. In my case, I typed

apt install firmware-atheros

(add sudo if not root). Did this work? Maybe. After a second installation, something magically worked, maybe it had to do with this, maybe it didn’t. I’m still not sure why, but I don’t think I have the emotional space to investigate. However, if you did keep track of the files earlier, like was recommended, theoretically, you can just download and work with those. I couldn’t figure this out though.

A Graphical Interface

Having access to a graphical interface was quite important to me (how else can I watch my Say Yes to the Dress?). That said, I really wanted to try i3, mostly because my friends have it. Again, I tried installing it, but that came to a halt when it couldn’t figure out what to do with my display. I tried setting it to a variety of things, mainly just combinations of zeros and colons, but nothing worked. I gave up, and moved on. Again, I might come back to this, but right now I have midterms to study for.

Since I’m not cool enough to go that minimalistic, I decided to go for a desktop environment, Cinnamon, a GNOME derivative (I want Cinnabon. I want Cinnabon. I want …). My experiences with this one live in a write-up about desktop environments. Anyway, Debian has a nice utility called tasksel, which deals with the nasty business of installing it yourself.

That’s all, folks!

After this, it was all about making this environment feel like home. Since this write-up is long enough, I’ll talk about my personal preferences and things I can’t live without in another write-up.

Also, my laptop seems to be performing way better since I moved to Debian with Cinnamon! ReactJS didn’t work out of the box; I had to adjust the package.json file a bit to get stuff to work. On the whole though, the performance makes the tradeoff certainly worth it, for now at least. Zoom, Skype, and similar applications work terribly on both Debian and Ubuntu. CLI helps, though. Future thoughts: might put a Kali VM on this one :)

Thank you for reading to here! Happy hacking!