Xebian is the Marie Kondo of Linux distros – it's here to declutter
Clean, simple, quick, and an example of how less can give you more
There are legions of Ubuntu and Debian remixes out there, but most try to add stuff to the basic distro. Xebian is a refreshing change because it's simpler than its progenitor.
Xebian is a simple Debian-based distro with the Xfce desktop. It's easy to install, and has a pleasing, fairly minimal desktop layout, very much like that of Xubuntu – which is doubtless because one of the developers behind it, known only as Unit 193, used to be part of the Xubuntu team.
The distro is based on Debian's "unstable" branch, codenamed Sid, which means you get more current components than Debian's standard stable releases. For instance, it comes with the latest Firefox version 116 and kernel 6.4. The project released new installation images at the start of this month – both for x86-64 and x86-32, which is unusual in 2023 – so we thought we'd take a look.
In several ways, the distro reminds us of Ubuntu in the Noughties. For example, it features a fairly stock desktop setup with an attractive theme and wallpaper. The live medium is the installation medium, so you can try it before you commit to installing it. It uses a simple installation program so setup is fast, easy, and doesn't ask many questions. It includes the core tools most people will need, such as a web browser, a media player, image and PDF viewers, and so on. It defaults to a very simple disk layout with a root partition and a swap partition and nothing else.
Xebian's default desktop layout is about as simple as it gets: one panel, no dock, nothing else
All these things were hallmarks of Ubuntu in its early versions, before Unity or Snap or any of the many other controversial changes which have irritated its users and propelled rebuilds such as Linux Mint to success.
Obviously, it's not completely identical. Unlike Ubuntu, it doesn't have its own installer; instead, it uses the cross-distro Calamares setup program. The desktop isn't GNOME 2 or MATE; it's the latest Xfce instead, which is smaller and simpler than MATE has become over the years. Xebian has far fewer accessory programs than Xubuntu: there is no office suite, for instance, and no email or chat tools pre-installed. The default desktop layout is much like that of Xubuntu, with a single panel at the top. Rather than the stock Xfce application menu, Xebian uses the enhanced Whisker menu, which adds a Favorites list and integrated search box, eliminating the need for Xfce's separate App Finder. The menu contains buttons for logging out, rebooting and so on, so there are no pointless panel buttons for these actions. The only changes to the top panel are very conservative: a virtual desktop switcher and an update notifier.
A lot of frankly superfluous fripperies from many other recent distros are missing. It has no Snap or Flatpak, no app store, no extra package management tools, no fancy filesystems or snapshot tools or anything of the kind, and no trace of Wayland. In fact, apart from the desktop wallpaper and Xubuntu's muted Graybird-dark theme, there are no custom tools here at all, and no additional desktop icons.
However, because it is based directly off upstream Debian, you do get systemd and no choice in the matter. For better or for worse, it is the default Linux init system these days. The GRUB menu just says "Debian" and the splash screen says Debian 12.
Xebian comes with all the principle Debian repositories enabled –
non-free – and no extras of its own. We found it was easier to add extras such as the FOSS Virtualbox Guest Additions than on Debian itself – or Devuan, for that matter.
We tried some very modest tweaks, such as the Nala packaging command, which worked perfectly, and the handy Deb-get for tools not in the Debian or Ubuntu repositories, such as proprietary freeware – but sadly that complained about Debian Sid, so no joy there.
Even setting aside Ubuntu and its many remixes, there are a host of augmented Debian derivatives out there. Linux Mint Debian Edition brings a lot of Mint's extra polish, such as the latest Cinnamon desktop. Spiral Linux adds lots of optimizations and a fancy Btrfs-based snapshotting disk setup, which it shares with siduction.
Xebian eschews all that extra fluff. There are no extras here that you couldn't install yourself, direct from Debian's repositories – if you know what you are doing, and if you know how to tweak a Debian installation.
But most people don't know that, which is in part how Ubuntu grew so successful: it was Debian, but easier to install and more current. Hence the joke: Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning "I can't configure Debian."
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Over the years, as it's grown successful, Ubuntu has accumulated lots of extras, which is partly why back in version 18.04 it got the new "Minimal Install" option. (Bad news: there's a possibility that may go away again.)
Xebian doesn't even come with an office suite. Need one, or an email client, or a chat app? Install whatever you like – they're all in the repos
Contemporary GNOME polarizes people. Anyone should be able to get on with Xfce, though, and the built-in "Panel Profiles" tool makes it easy to switch to a simple Windows-like layout with a single taskbar at the bottom, or a GNOME-2-style layout with top and bottom panels if that's what you prefer.
Xebian isn't trying to be a minimal or lightweight distro. Debian Unstable, by nature, hasn't had much fine-tuning done to it yet. Xebian idles at just over 700MB of RAM in use, which is about the same as GNOME-based Ubuntu and a lot more than Xubuntu 22.04. Its disk footprint was a modest enough 4.4GB.
Because it's based on Debian "Sid," there is a small chance that an update could break something. That's the nature of rolling-release distros. The Reg FOSS Desk ran openSUSE Tumbleweed on our work desktop for a few years. What we learned was this: sure, Btrfs snapshots make it easier to get back to work immediately, but you still have to fix the issue at some point. However, we experienced far more problems due to Btrfs partitions filling with snapshots and promptly corrupting themselves than we ever did from broken software updates. What the combination of Btrfs and Snapper gave us was the need to reinstall every six months due to Btrfs self-immolating. After the third or fourth time, we just reinstalled on
ext4 and got on with our job. The real answer is to put up with the breakage, just keep updating, and in a day or two, the problem will very probably just go away.
If you want something bulletproof for your grandma, try Endless OS instead.
But if you want a simple, uncomplicated Debian-family distro, dead easy to install, with no fancy packaging tools and the absolute minimum of extras or fancy configuration, Xebian looks like a good option. ®
As fas as we can tell, this Xebian is unrelated to the very long-gone distro of the same name for the original black Xbox.
Thanks to Reg reader "brb.repo" for reminding us about Xebian. We had heard about it when it was new, back in 2017, but had totally forgotten it in the interim.