This article is part of a series dedicated to Debian, a Linux distribution. Installing Debian from USB involves many aspects, which are elaborated on in the following articles:
- The installation process – Booting Debian and choosing a Desktop Environment (YOU ARE HERE)
Booting the Linux installer, installing Debian and choosing a desktop environment are all part of the last -and most important- step when installing Debian from USB.
If you stumbled upon this article first, I recommend taking a look at the other parts first (“the basics” and “the pre-installation process”).
Before you begin
Now that all the prerequisites are out of the way, it is finally time to install your OS. If your goal is an installation process that goes as smoothly as possible, I highly suggest having an ethernet connection ready. Make sure that you have an ethernet cable and that your computer or laptop has an ethernet port, especially if you opted for a CD ISO. If you downloaded the DVD ISO image, ethernet’s availability is not as crucial. For more information regarding the different Debian download files, read “the pre-installation process – Downloading the ISO file.”
By having a working ethernet connection before booting the install, you will be able to quickly add packages that aren’t already present on your USB key. Note that not everyone will need to fetch extra packages. YMMV.
Installing Debian from USB: Booting Debian and configuring your new OS
Once you are ready to begin, power off your computer or laptop, insert the pen drive, and restart your machine.
If all went as planned, you should see the Debian installer.
If instead you are redirected to your current OS, then one of the following happened:
- Your copy of Debian is unreadable (this can happen if you only partially downloaded the program using a torrent file).
- Your pen drive’s format is inappropriate (not all file types are suitable for all operating systems).
- If you did not burn the installer, installing Debian from USB will be impossible, as the file will not be bootable.
- Your UEFI settings are wrong. Make sure that you have set the #1 boot priority to USB, and that you have disabled fast boot and secure boot
Once you boot into Debian, you will find a menu similar to this:
Do not be alarmed by the extremely 90s vibe of the installer. It is visually outdated but has nothing to do with how your Debian operating system can look like once installed and customized.
As a reminder, this guide is not only for Linux veterans but also for newcomers who are installing Debian from USB for the first time. As such, we are dedicating the whole hard drive to Debian; it makes for an easier installation.
We are now ready to begin!
Select a language – After opting for the “Graphical install” option, you will have to select your language. Click Continue.
Select your location – Now choose a country. I recommend sticking to your current location. When using Debian you need to use location-based sources to fetch your packages. By selecting your country, you ensure that the servers used to fetch the files are physically located near you, thus ensuring higher transfer speed.
Configure the keyboard – Next, select your keyboard configuration. In the example below, I opted for “Canadian Multilingual” because I write both in French and in English. The choice of a keyboard will affect its keymap (QWERTY vs. AZERTY) as well as the availability of special characters.
Configure the network – The first step in this particular configuration is to choose a hostname. This will allow you to give a unique identifier to your system so as to easily recognize it within your local network. If you are installing Debian on a personal computer, then the hostname has no significant impact; type whatever name you like.
Configure the network – Next, choose a domain name. Unless you are setting up a business or educational network, chances are you do not have the need for one. In that case, choose whatever name you want. If you are setting up a personal network, however, make sure that you use the same one on all your machines.
Set up users and passwords – We are now setting up your “root” password; this step is crucial. Any and all major changes (including many app-related ones) in Debian involve administrator privileges, aka “root privileges.” As such, it is essential to know how to access root, which is done by typing up your root password within the command line or when prompted by an app. I do not recommend leaving the password empty. Doing so will prevent you from creating a specific root user and anyone will be able to become root on your computer by typing the “sudo” command. Ideally, choose a password that is strong (a mix of letters, numbers, and punctuation) and that you can easily remember. I cannot emphasize the last part enough; just as with disc encryption passwords, if you forget your root password, you will have a bad time.
Set up users and passwords – We are now setting up the user account. This is also an important step, as you will execute all non-root related activities with this user. Any program that requires your name, such as those sending emails and other apps displaying your name, will use it. Debian recommends putting your full name. If you don’t plan on using Thunderbird or other integrated Linux email services, then your first name or a nickname might work out for you; it is a matter of personal choice.
Set up users and passwords – This time, we are creating a username for your Debian account. Your name or nickname is a good choice. Just remember that it cannot contain upper case letters.
Set up users and passwords – Once you click Continue, you will have to choose your username password. This is the password you will need to type when logging into your Debian session.
Configure the clock – Pretty step explanatory; this step involves choosing your time zone. The choice between different time zones will depend on the location you selected earlier (which, in turn, depends on the language you opted for).
Partition disks – In this tutorial, we will opt for a guided entire disk installation with no LVM or encryption. Indeed, as mentioned earlier this ITgirl.tech series aims to be as welcoming to newcomers as possible, thus the choice of a simple disk partition scheme. For those wondering what the LVM (virtual partitioning) options do, here’s a detailed guide from the Debian wiki: https://wiki.debian.org/LVM. As for the encryption, it isn’t too difficult to add this option to your hard drive; follow the installer instructions, reviewing the official Debian instruction manual as needed: https://d-i.debian.org/doc/installation-guide/en.i386/ch06s03.html#partman-crypto (section 220.127.116.11. Configuring Encrypted Volumes).
Partition disks – We are now halfway through this ITgirl.tech step-by-step guide on how to install Debian on your computer! Choose the disk to partition. If you own a single internal hard drive, the choice is easy. If your machine has several, however, make sure that you are selecting the correct one. Otherwise, you might end up erasing the content of the wrong disk.
Partition disks – When installing Debian from USB, we get the choice between different partitioning schemes. You can opt for a single partition (the best option for new Linux users), two partitions (/home and the rest) or three (/home, /var and /tmp). Choose “all files in one partition.” Using separate partitions is in itself a good practice. For instance, by having the /home partition separated you get a machine where the user and configuration files are clearly split from the core Debian files. However, unless you plan on applying major and possibly OS-breaking changes to your system, the use of a single partition should be perfectly fine. Indeed, one of the main advantages of a split partition is that it allows for a smoother process if you need to reinstall the distro on your computer.
Partition disks – You will find an overview of the disk partitioning options you have selected. Make sure that you have chosen the appropriate hard drive. Once you are done reviewing the partition parameters, select “Finish partitioning and write changes to disk,” then click on Continue.
Partition disks – Debian will once again give you an ultimate opportunity to review your disk partitioning options. Once you click on “Yes” and “Continue,” you can’t go back. The changes will be written to your internal hard drive.
Configure the package manager – Here you can choose to fetch additional packages from another external hard drive such as a CD or DVD. However, one of the reasons why we are installing Debian from USB is that it allows you to have everything readily available from within your pen drive. That is why we have opted for a Debian CD or DVD ISO image in the ITgirl.tech article dedicated to the choice of a Debian installer. With these particular download files, and especially with the DVD disc image, you should not need to get any other packages from external peripheral sources. If you opted for the CD installation or an alternative such as the netinstall, have your ethernet cable ready just in case. Having to scan another CD or DVD is highly unlikely, so select “No” and click on Continue.
Configure the package manager – This step is important, as it will dictate the physical location of your Debian archive files mirror. If you live in a tech-friendly location, choose your country of residence. Otherwise, you might have to dig a little to figure out which nearby country provides the best Debian mirrors.
Configure the package manager – Another important step which involves selecting the actual Debian archive mirror. Your sources.list ports will come from the mirror you choose here. That means that all OS updates and other package-related configurations will use this mirror. The important thing to remember is that whatever option you choose, it should ideally come from your country or region to ensure an optimal internet connection. If no mirror rings a bell, don’t worry; click on the mirror Debian recommends (in this case, “deb.debian.org”) and click Continue.
Configure the package manager – This step will only be useful to those requiring an HTTP proxy to access the world wide web. If you don’t need to use one, leave this option blank and click on Continue.
Configuring popularity-contest – Debian’s tongue-in-cheek way of saying “user data collection.” Note however that Debian ensures the anonymity of your data and that the devs only gather statistics on your most used packages. By clicking “yes,” you help future Debian users by providing its devs with information regarding the packages that should be included within the main OS installer.
Choosing a desktop environment
When installing Debian from USB, one of the last things you will be asked to choose is the desktop environment. Unlike Windows or macOS, which come with a preset default desktop, Linux offers the possibility of selecting the type of desktop that best suits your needs.
As you can see from the screenshot above, Debian offers many options; choosing one will depend on mainly two things:
- What you plan on doing with your Debian computer or laptop
- The specs of your machine
It is possible to choose to install more than one desktop environment. To do so, check the box of each desktop environment (DE) you want. Deciding to use more than one DE will depend on whether your hardware is powerful enough to sustain concurrent desktops, and if you need more than one desktop. Indeed, it is possible to have multiple workspaces within a single desktop environment when using KDE or GNOME, for example. As such, if you thought about running two desktops to divide your workspaces, sticking to a single DE will give you the same results.
Note that Debian will not prevent you from fetching all the desktop environments if you so wish, regardless of your hardware. FYI, please don’t do that; it will more than likely break your OS.
For the pros and cons of opting for the installation of more than one desktop environment, as well as a guide on how to choose them, I highly suggest reading this ITgirl.tech article on the subject. In it, you will find a thorough breakdown of the different characteristics of the most popular Linux desktop environments. Because installing Debian from USB does not allow you to get a preview of the different DEs before fetching them, this article will also prove useful. In it, you will find reference pictures of the stock version of each desktop presented, as well as user-customized variations to give you an idea of the versatility of each DE.
You will find below a summary of each desktop environment offered in the Debian installer.
The different desktop environments you can find within the stock version of Debian
- Debian desktop environment: Debian uses GNOME 3 as the basis for its default desktop. If you choose to include it, do not add “GNOME” as it would be redundant to have both. If you want to get a feel for the most authentic Debian experience, I recommend installing this DE. Debian’s developers have altered this desktop for the Debian distribution.
- GNOME: Somewhat heavy but highly customizable, with a default desktop that is streamlined and looks polished. GNOME used to be especially popular amongst Linux users, but nowadays, KDE seems to be preferred. Be aware that GNOME is highly configurable but that only some of its settings are available in the Gnome Tweak Tools. If the configurations you want aren’t available from it, you will have to use Google to find the right extensions. Notwithstanding this caveat, GNOME is ready to use out-of-the-box.
- Xfce: A fast and lightweight DE, perfect for those working with older computers or those looking for a no-frills desktop. Not as visually catchy as GNOME or KDE, but it does the job well and is way less taxing on your hardware than the two other alternatives mentioned.
- KDE: KDE is the desktop environment I’d suggest getting if it is your first time using Debian or Linux. If your computer is relatively recent and you only want to use a single desktop environment, KDE is all indicated. It is less cumbersome on your hardware than GNOME and also comes with all the settings one expects to find in a standard desktop. The fact that it is more visually similar to what we are used seeing on a Windows PC makes it a great “transition desktop” to those new to Linux. You can also change most of its settings in the default GUI System settings. KDE’s customization has a gentle learning curve and provides more features than most desktops. Note, however, that KDE is somewhat resource-hungry (especially when compared to lightweight desktop alternatives (LINK)).
- Cinnamon: Based on the GNOME 3 desktop environment, Cinnamon is the default desktop environment of Linux Mint. Its development is the result of the developers looking for an alternative to the standard GNOME 3 desktop. You can read more on the reasons as to why it was deemed necessary to create a fork of the GNOME 3 desktop in this ITgirl.tech article. Cinnamon is easy to use and offers a user experience that will please those new to Linux. Its design remains somewhat conservative and reminiscent of Xfce.
- MATE: MATE is a lightweight desktop that is a fork and continuation of GNOME 2. It was created, not unlike Cinnamon, due to many users showing dissatisfaction with the new changes implemented in GNOME 3. Note that it is not because MATE is a fork of an older DE that it is unmaintained or relies purely on old technology. On the contrary, MATE continually aims at improving its design and functionality and incorporates new technology as it sees fit. The advantage of a desktop environment based on GNOME 2 is that its components have been tested and used for years; as such, it is highly stable and fast. Note that a result of this use of an older DE as its basis means that MATE offers a traditional Linux design. In other words, this DE is streamlined and fills-free, but not as pretty as other “heavier” desktop environments.
- LXDE: LXDE is a lightweight desktop aimed at those using older technology (and the old-school types out there looking for a bare-bones desktop vibe). It is the least resource-hungry of the desktop environments available in the installer. To be so lightweight, however, its default packages differ considerably from what you can find in most other desktop environments. If your goal is to do specific tasks on a lightning-fast desktop, then LXDE might be for you! I am not kidding when I say that this DE is fast. Indeed, it uses below 250 MB of RAM upon system launch. An important caveat exists regarding LXDE. Its leading developer is currently focusing his energy on LXQt, another DE that uses the Qt toolkit. LXQt will eventually replace LXDE, so be aware that at some point, LXDE will no longer be supported.
If there’s one thing to remember from the descriptions above, is that Xfce, MATE, and LXDE are lightweight desktops and better suited to those using older hardware. GNOME, KDE, and -to a lesser extent- Cinnamon, on the other hand, all require more resources and thus decent hardware components.
It is also important to mention that if you opt only to install the default “Debian desktop environment” and use an amd64 or i386 architecture, you will get GNOME. For all other architectures, the default DE will be Xfce. Note that if you choose both the default Debian desktop environment and GNOME (or Xfce, depending on your architecture), the additional choice will override the default DE. So you won’t have to worry about getting two instances of the same desktop environment.
As for the other options mentioned in the Debian installer, namely “web server,” “print server,” “SSH server” and “standard system utilities,” they are not desktop environments per se. Instead, they are configurations specific to certain machines. Indeed, Debian is not only used for computers and laptops but also for servers. So if you ever intended to learn how to configure and use one, you’re in luck as what you have learned about Debian through this guide might come in handy later.
Even though the options above are not desktop environments, I will still describe each one of them. If you plan on working in IT, the learning process never stops; the more you know, the better!
- Web server: pretty self-explanatory, the webserver option is for those intending to, well, configure a web server using Debian. There is no use selecting it unless you are currently installing Debian on a home server.
- Print server: You will see that Debian selects this option by default in the installer. Your system usually uses print servers to configure a computer or external piece of hardware to organize and queue printing commands (think businesses with multiple printers). Even though we are installing Debian from USB on a single machine, I still highly recommend keeping this option check-marked. Debian uses this option to add many printing-related packages and allows the set up of a print queue. All the extra files it fetches make it so that your printer is almost guaranteed to get its appropriate driver.
- SSH server: A Secure Shell (SSH) server allows to operate network services securely over an unsecured network by creating a secure channel in a client-server architecture. It is typically used to log into a remote machine and execute commands. As you might have guessed, no use in selecting this option for this how-to guide.
- Standard system utilities: last but not least, Debian selects the “standard system utilities” option by default. It allows for the inclusion of a multitude of basic packages (think core components like python, openssh-client, aptitude, reportbug, install-info, whois, and more.) These packages work behind the scene and show themselves the most when using the command line. Keep this configuration check-marked.
Configuring lightdm – By default, the installer highlights “lightdm.” This is the preferred option for our Linux distribution. Unless you have specific reasons to want to use “sddm,” stick to “lightdm.” You can find more information regarding display managers within my Ubuntu desktop configuration article.
Install the GRUB boot loader on a hard disk – Because we opted for an entire disk installation, this step will prove to be easy. The GRUB boot loader is the process that allows you to boot into your OS. As we are not installing Debian on an internal hard drive that already contains another operating system, you can click “Yes” without worrying about potential dual-booting issues.
Install the GRUB boot loader on a hard disk – We will now install GRUB on the master boot record of your machine’s first hard drive. Debian should select the appropriate drive by default. Click Continue.
Finish the installation – The last step of this installation tutorial! You completed the Debian installation. Click on Continue to reboot your system into your brand new OS.
There you have it, folks! You are done installing Debian from USB. You can now remove the pen drive and enjoy your Linux distribution!
When you take into consideration the new concepts you need to learn when installing Debian from USB, you can see how a guide like this can come in handy. I created this ITgirl.tech series because I wish that I had been able to come across such a guide when I decided to install a Linux OS for the first time. Indeed, the knowledge one needs to learn when coming straight from Windows or Mac is a somewhat steep learning curve, especially if you opt for Debian of all distributions!
However, by learning through executing concrete steps, there’s a high chance that you will remember the knowledge you acquired. That is why I am not against Debian as a first-time Linux experience. All you need is a desire to learn, curiosity, some patience, and a backup OS in case things don’t go as planned!
Now that your computer is running its new OS, take a look at the best way of finding which Linux apps to install on your Debian distribution!