Review The Debian Project may not be that slow with new releases, but sometimes it feels like it. The project typically releases a new version "when it's ready," which seems to work out to about once every two years lately.
Debian 8, branded Jessie, in keeping with the Toy Story naming scheme (Jessie was the cowgirl character in Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3) had its feature freeze in November 2014 and there's a been a beta and RC release available for testing. It wasn't until the end of April when Jessie was finally judged range ready.
The Debian project has three branches available - Stable, Testing and the Arch-like Unstable. Ubuntu is built off the package base in Unstable. Debian 7, the previous Stable channel release (better known as Wheezy), will be replaced by Jessie, which was previously available in the Testing channel.
Jessie made headlines early in its development because it opted for Xfce instead of GNOME as the default desktop. Eventually, though, Debian went back on that decision and you get GNOME 3.14 if you accept all the defaults in the installation process.
Thanks to Debian's updated Tasksel app, though, it's pretty easy to install any of the major desktops. Want Xfce? Just check the box. That's right, Tasksel now offers a list of Desktop environments instead just "Debian Desktop Environment." Options like Print Server, SSH and Web Server are also still available for single click installs as well.
Long time Debian users will note a couple of new Desktop options in the Tasksel list. Debian 8 supports both the Cinnamon and Mate desktops out of the box. It's also still possible to build a very minimal desktop completely customized to your liking if you opt for the Debian Minimal CD and select all the packages you need yourself.
In that sense, the decision to keep GNOME as the default is something of a misnomer. When it's this easy to pick your desktop it's hard to say any one thing is the default.
For this review I tested Cinnamon, GNOME and Xfce and found all of them worked as expected. Once they were installed, that is. For reasons I can't explain the Debian installer is really, really slow, taking more than 45 minutes to install no matter what desktop I opted for (and no, I didn't use the netinstall option). Thankfully that's a one-time problem.
Of the three, Cinnamon is the most noticeably different from its usual look. Debian's take on Cinnamon is not quite as pretty as what you get when you install it via Linux Mint, but you could accomplish something very similar with a bit of custom theming. If you really want the Debian base with Cinnamon though, I suggest you use Linux Mint Debian Edition, which will be moving to Jessie in the very near future.
The GNOME and Xfce desktops are likewise not the flashiest you'll find, but that's not really Debian's out-of-the-box personality. Where some distros try to polish the desktop interface by providing highly customized themes, Debian seems to assume you'll tweak that to your liking so why bother? By extension if you want a flashy desktop out of the box, Debian is probably not the distro you want.
If, on the other hand, you want a stable, no frills distro, Debian makes an excellent choice. It is, bar none, the stablest distro I've ever used. The flip side of the stability coin is Debian generally does not include the latest and greatest packages.
Jessie does see GNOME bumped to 3.14, which brings with it a couple of new apps and some fairly major tweaks to the GNOME Shell UI. Most of GNOME's default apps have merged the window title bar with the toolbar, which makes things a bit more compact. There are also some new animations that happen when you switch applications and maximize or restore windows. The animations manage to strike a nice balance between boring and pointless.
The common desktop software that ships with most desktops has been updated as well. Iceweasel (the Debian branded version of Firefox which is the default web) is at the latest stable release. LibreOffice is upgraded to 4.3 and other common GNOME and KDE based software is likewise updated. The massive Debian package base continues to grow as well. Since Wheezy was released Debian has added some 12,253 new packages, for a total of over 43,512 packages.
There's one little package in the midst of those 43,511 that’s had quite a bit of attention during the past couple of release cycles. Yes, systemd has become the default init system. Systemd is a monitoring, logging and service management tool for sysadmins. Some love it, some hate it; I seem to be the lone person totally indifferent to it.
It works well enough in this release and even speeds up your startup and shutdown times by a few seconds, though be careful with the latter, it speeds up shutdown times by force killing processes if it has to, which can have unexpected consequences if you're in the middle of something.
Sysadmins upgrading to Debian 8 on the server will have a rougher time of things. The upgrade will change your init system without asking, which can have some catastrophic consequences if you're not careful. It is, thankfully, still possible to install Debian 8 without systemd, so if you want to upgrade, but put off the move to systemd you can.
If you're running Debian on a server you'll be happy to hear the legacy secure sockets layer protocol SSLv3 is disabled by default in this release and OpenSSL ships with all the latest (and seemingly never ending) security patches and updates.
On the hardware side, the updated kernel (3.16.0-4 in the RC ) brings support for all kinds of new things (see the 3.16 kernel release notes for details) and Debian 8 also ships with support for a couple of new chip architectures, most notably arm64, a 64-bit port for ARM machines.
Debian has a reputation as become something of a difficult distro for newcomers, but in my experience that's not the case at all. If you want bleeding edge software then Debian Stable is not for you (try Testing or if, you love bugs, Unstable). In fact, from installation to every day use I've found Debian Jessie easy to set up and a simple to use.
Debian is the seed from which many other distros grow so even if you never opt to use Debian itself, there's a pretty good chance your distro of choice starts with Debian. Ubuntu and Mint are probably the highest profile Debian derivatives, but there are dozens, if not hundreds of others based on Debian.
Because Debian forms the base of so many distros it's typically not a huge stretch to switch over to pure Debian. If you've used downstream distros, but have never given Debian a try, Jessie makes a great place to start. ®