Blog of Raivo Laanemets

Stories about web development, consulting and personal computers.

Low-distraction Linux desktop setup

I use Debian 11 (Bullseye) and decided to document my setup here. I have the same setup on my main PC and Lenovo laptop (T490s).

Hardware

Most of my PC hardware is pretty old. This is what I run right now:

  • CPU: i5-6600k
  • GPU: RX6600 XT
  • Motherboard: Z170A GAMING M3 from MSI
  • RAM: Kingston HyperX 16GB DDR4 4200Mhz
  • Monitor: Dell Ultrasharp 27" 4k
  • Disks:
    • Debian: Samsung SSD 970 EVO Plus 500GB
    • Windows 10: Samsung SSD 950 PRO 256GB
    • Data share: a 256GB SSD

Base system

I dual boot Debian 11 and Windows 10. They are on separate NVME drives. There is a common SSD drive to share data between them. I use motherboard boot selector for dual booting.

Debian 11 is a Linux distribution with good defaults. It is compatible with lots of hardware and software:

  • It still uses Xorg
  • Uses systemd and pulseaudio
  • Simple kernel updates
  • Large user base
  • Usable on desktops, laptops, and servers

Installation

I downloaded Rufus software to create a bootable USB disk from a Debian installation ISO file.

Rufus is a Windows software but it works. I have not found a reliable and easy way to create bootable installation disks from Linux.

I downloaded this ISO file: firmware-11.3.0-amd64-netinst.iso. It contains packages with non-free firmware. Installation disks can be found from Debian download pages.

The Windows drive was removed before installing Debian. This ensures that there is potentially no confusion between the drives during installation and no data on the Windows disk is destroyed.

Partitioning

I put everything on a single partition for easier backup later. I don't use RAID, Logical Volume Manager, disk encryption, or a swap partition.

Core system

The Debian installer includes Task Selector where you can choose a "role" for the machine and install various software. I chose nothing except the Standard system utilities. This selection installs the least amount of unnecessary packages.

There were couple of packages which I needed to install as soon as possible. The APT repositories file (/etc/apt/sources.list) should contain:

deb http://deb.debian.org/debian/ bullseye main non-free contrib
deb http://deb.debian.org/debian/ bullseye-backports main non-free contrib
deb http://security.debian.org/debian-security/ bullseye-security main contrib non-free
deb http://deb.debian.org/debian/ bullseye-updates main contrib non-free

Sometimes non-free and contrib tags are missing.

Update the package list (if there were changes in the list file above):

apt-get update

NTFS support to access the shared drive:

apt-get install ntfs-3g

Up-to-date kernel from backports (required for RX 6600 XT):

apt-get install linux-image-amd64 -t bullseye-backports

Binary firmware:

apt-get install firmware-linux firmware-linux-nonfree -t bullseye-backports

After this point I restarted the computer to make sure that I still have a working installation.

Sadly the available firmware in Debian is not enough to run RX 6600 XT. You need to clone the git repository from kernel.org and copy the contents of amdgpu directory to /lib/firmware/amdgpu.

The last action makes the system potentially non-upgradeable as any newer version of linux-firmware package upgrade would likely overwrite the working firmware.

Regenerate the kernel ramfs:

update-initramfs -u

and then reboot.

Graphical environment (KDE)

Install the minimal KDE environment:

apt-get install kde-plasma-desktop

Reboot and log into graphical environment.

KDE settings

Set up desktop scaling: System SettingsDisplay and MonitorDisplay Configuration. I use 200% scaling as it renders text and elements in "logical" FHD size on a 4k display.

Configure the "panel" height: right click on empty space in Task Manager and select Edit panel. Set panel height to 64. It does not scale correctly with desktop scaling.

Set up cursor size in System SettingsAppearanceCursor. Setting it to 48 gives a good visual size.

Task Manager configuration: right click on empty space on task manager and select Configure Task ManagerAppearanceGeneral. Untick:

  • Show tooltips
  • Highlight windows when hovering over tasks
  • Mark applications that play audio

Unticking the last option disables jumping of Task Manager items when they start or stop playing media (visually very distracting).

Fix the size of System Tray icons: right click on an empty space in System Tray (can be tricky) and select Configure System TrayGeneralPanel icon size: Scale with Panel height.

Set up icon sizes for 4k display: System SettingsAppearanceIconsConfigure Icon Sizes. Sadly it's very difficult to tell what exactly those icon categories are. Just increase everything by 2x.

Enable automatic login: System SettingsStartup and ShutdownLogin Screen (SDDM)Advanced.

Disable screen locking: System SettingsWorkspace BehaviorScreen Locking.

Disable clipboard app (makes System Tray less cluttered): right click on upwards arrow (▲) in System Tray and then select Configure System TrayEntriesSystem servicesClipboard and set it to Disabled.

Disable window grouping for the selected applications: right click on app on Task ManagerMore Actions → untick Allow this program to be grouped. This reduces the number of clicks to select a window.

Make KDE start with empty session: System SettingsWorkspaceStartup and ShutdownDesktop session and select Start with an empty session.

Enable autologin: System SettingsWorkspaceStartup and ShutdownLogin Screen (SDDM)Advancedtick Login Automatically as user and select your username.

Remove Discover (software update app) if you use apt-get manually for updates later:

apt-get autoremove plasma-discover

KDE additionals

Install ark (file compression/decompression):

apt-get install ark

Konversation (IRC client):

apt-get install konversation

Firefox:

apt-get install firefox-esr

Krita (drawing app):

apt-get install krita

KDE Spectacle (screenshots):

apt-get install kde-spectacle

Gwenview (image viewer):

apt-get install gwenview

Boot jank

Remove plymouth by running:

apt-get autoremove plymouth

Plymouth tries to switch to graphical display as early as possible to provide eye candy. In my opinion it just hides possible important debugging text messages and delays boot into the actual graphical environment.

Other major software

  • Chromium
  • Visual Studio Code
  • Draw.io editor
  • VirtualBox
  • Valentina Studio
  • MongoDB compass
  • Docker
  • Microsoft Teams
  • Skype
  • Zoom
  • OBS-Studio
  • Postgresql 13

Visual Studio Code

Open settings: FilePreferencesSettingsOpen settings (JSON).

To make it easy to use on HiDPI screen:

"window.zoomLevel": 0.5

Disable checking for updates and auto-updates:

"workbench.enableExperiments": false
"update.mode": "none"
"update.showReleaseNotes": false
"extensions.autoCheckUpdates": false
"extensions.autoUpdate": false

Ignore automatic extension recommendations:

"extensions.ignoreRecommendations": true

Chromium

I use Chromium as my default browser because it's much easier to enable hardware accelerated video decoding for it than for Firefox.

I use pinned version of 100.0.xxxx since hardware-based video decoding is broken with every new release and requires different workarounds every time.

Version 100.0.xxxx required the following steps (these will likely not work for any other version or non-AMD GPU).

Edit chromium.desktop file and update the command to:

/usr/bin/chromium %U --enable-features=VaapiVideoDecoder --disable-features=UseChromeOSDirectVideoDecoder

You can use KDE menu to edit it: Applications launcher (start menu)Search chromiumEdit applicationCommand.

Install h264ify extension. The extension will force some sites (YouTube) to use h264 encoded files for videos. h264 hardware-based decoding support is most widespread.

Set Chromium as the default browser: System SettingsApplicationsDefault Applications.

Disable ads in new tab

Open chrome://flags and disable NTP Modules to get rid of the ads when opening new empty tab.

Disable KDE Wallet

Chromium and KDE Wallet do not play together. Chromium will lose all cookies and stored passwords randomly if KDE Wallet is enabled.

To disable the Wallet: Systems settingsPersonalizationKDE Walletuntick Enable the KDE wallet subsystem.

This makes the network manager not remember passwords but you can set the passwords manually under Systems settingsNetworkConnections -> Wi-Fi -> select networkWi-Fi Security.

Docker

Debian packages are too old for most use cases. I had to install Docker from its own instructions.

Same has to be done for docker-compose (not included in the Docker installation for some reason).

Skype

The Skype application will try to use Gnome Keyring to remember the account password. This will prompt for Gnome Keyring password every time after starting the app.

Gnome Keyring password can be disabled by installing seahorse to configure it and set the default password to empty string.

apt-get install seahorse

It can be started with command seahorse from the terminal. Click PasswordsChange password and set it to empty string.

Postgresql 13

Postgresql 13 is available from the system packages. However, the system is misconfigured for it. Running commands like psql or dropdb will emit an error:

perl: warning: Setting locale failed.
perl: warning: Please check that your locale settings:
... list of LANGUAGE, LC etc. system variables
are supported and installed on your system.

You need to run:

dpkg-reconfigure locales

as root and select which locales you need (I need en_US.UTF-8 and et_EE.UTF-8).

In the next step you can choose the default locale (I chose en_US.UTF-8). The system will "regenerate locales".

You must also set the default locale for Plasma desktop (as normal user):

nano ~/.config/plasma-localerc

and enter:

[Formats]
LANG=en_US.UTF-8

The commands should not show the warnings anymore.

VirtualBox

VirtualBox is not available in official Debian packages. It can be downloaded from VirtualBox homepage.

I downloaded version 6.1.34 for Debian 11. It can be installed using the command:

dpkg -i downloaded-file-name

It will report that package libqt5opengl5 is missing. This can be fixed:

apt-get install libqt5opengl5

Then system will complain about not being able to install necessary kernel modules. This can be fixed (you need matching package name for your kernel):

apt-get install linux-headers-5.16.0-bpo.4-amd64

and running:

/sbin/vboxconfig

The next step was to enable a workaround for the bug where Open File dialog in VirtualBox cannot select any files:

Applications launcher (start menu)Search VirtualBoxright clickEdit applicationApplicationCommand

and enter as Command:

KDE_FULL_SESSION= XDG_CURRENT_DESKTOP= DESKTOP_SESSION= VirtualBox %U

The bug is likely already fixed in the current release of VirtualBox.

Set display scaling to 200% (saves CPU resources): Open VirtualBoxFilePreferencesDisplayScale Factor.

And disable updates: FilePreferencesUpdatesuncheck Check for Updates.

VirtualBox Extensions Pack

Extensions Pack is required to enable hardware (for example, USB) passthrough to the guest system.

Extensions Pack can be downloaded from the homepage and installed in VirtualBox: FileExtensionsAdd.

You need to make sure that your normal user is added into the vboxusers group ( use your own user name):

adduser raivo vboxusers

This allows to actually bind devices from VirtualBox GUI to the guest OS.

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