I started using Debian in late 2002, today I am a Debian package maintainer and use it full time every day at my job as a Debian Sysadmin. On the flip side I’m also an Ubuntu enthusiast and now an official Member of the project, I use Xubuntu (XFCE version of Ubuntu) on my desktop, work extensively with the Ubuntu community, and attend and help organize events with the Ubuntu team here in Pennsylvania. My work with Debian trickles down into Ubuntu, as almost all of the work in Debian does, the packages I maintain end up in Ubuntu repositories, the tools developed for Debian are adopted by Ubuntu.
With the release of Debian Etch as stable a couple months ago there have been several articles circulating comparing these two distributions (such as: Debian as a desktop system: A good alternative to Ubuntu by Yousef Ourabi). I’ve also found myself in conversations with several people of various backgrounds about this, including Don Crowder, a hobbist who recently wrote Slowly Closing Old Windows (Living On The Etch).
The result of all this discussion has been pretty much as I expected.
Most agree that with the release of Debian Etch, with its very intuitive installer that even makes things like setting up LVM and software RAID a breeze, there is now a stable Debian distribution that is close to the usability level of Ubuntu as long as you have well-supported hardware and don’t mind using slightly older software. The age of packages is an important consideration for people, and this can go both ways. Some people prefer the older, thoroughly tested packages included in Debian Stable, others want the similiarly stable but consistently newer packages in Ubuntu Stable. Speed is important as well, a couple people I spoke with were unimpressed with the “bloat” that a full default Ubuntu install brings along, and at times expressed that newer desktop environments were slower and heavier in general than the older ones, thus creating a preference for the older packages in Debian.
Today I continue to use Xubuntu on my desktop, I did a server install which decreases much of the previously mentioned bloat. I did switch back to Debian on my laptop for a couple reasons, I wanted to consolidate my Debian development onto one machine, and I fell into the old hardware camp where the older version of XFCE in Debian simply ran faster than the version in Xubuntu. The wireless on my Debian laptop gives me some trouble, and requires manual configuration, but it’s something I can live with and is part of the “well-supported hardware” caveat.
So, as usual with Linux, which you decide to use boils down to what you need and want with a system, give them both a whirl! See what works for you. I know I’ll be using both distributions for the foreseeable future.
Finally, perhaps more important than these comparisons, is the fact that people are finally starting to take Linux on the Desktop seriously. Dell is now offering consumer-level PCs and laptops with Ubuntu, the company I work for now has a client that uses Kubuntu (Ubuntu with KDE) desktops rather than Windows. A recent local Ubuntu event at a primarily Windows and Mac-based Computer Society in my area created a buzz that the group’s president told us was quite impressive, and has invited the Ubuntu team to return. This is very good news for all of Linux.