if I understand Debian's naming convention correctly, the current unstable version is called "Sarge", and sometime, hopefully soon, Sarge will become the stable version.
stable = woody
testing = sarge
unstable = sid
Soon (on a Debian timeline, anyway):
stable = sarge
testing = etch
unstable = sid
Unstable is always sid.
can I safely assume that if I install Sarge now, once it does become "stable" there will be no reinstall needed? I should just be able to apt-get everything up to stable, yes? indeed I could be updating every day between now and Sarge becoming stable, as far as that goes. I think. right?
You never have to reinstall with Debian unless you truly want to, or truly fsck something up ;-P. All you need to do is change which branch you're pointing to in /etc/apt/sources.list and /etc/apt/apt.conf (if you use apt.conf) and then do apt-get dist-upgrade.
also, what's the best way to go about getting Sarge installed RIGHT NOW. I hear good things about this new installer, and I guess I'd like to give it a shot, because frankly, it can't be any worse than dselect.
Use the new installer:
It has much better hardware support for new stuff, and you can install a 2.6 kernel if you want. I recommend checking out the boot options, and you'll probably want to use the "expert24" or "expert26" choice... The new installer still includes dselect, but I think it may also include aptitude... I don't use either; I just use the installer to install a base system and then apt-get the other stuff I want.
I don't think I'll go to Debian for my own desktop use. I mean, the current stable version still uses a 2.2 kernel, for gosh sake! I believe even Sarge uses a 2.4 kernel, but that'll be good enough for the relatively low usage servers I admin.
You can install woody (stable) with a 2.4 kernel, it's just not the default from the installer. Kindly supply the "bf24" boot argument at the beginning of the install. ;-)
With the sarge installer you can choose 2.4 or 2.6, depending on what boot argument you give at the beginning of the install.
That being said, I personally think Debian sid is great for desktops. I run it on my main Linux desktop, and it has all the newest packages.
and I'm absolutely salivating over the fact that I can count on security updates for "stable" for a VERY long time (that is to say, I won't have to rebuild those previously mentioned servers until the hardware is obsolete!). anyway, can one of you Debian zealots set me straight on this stuff?
The thing that most people have a hard time with is choosing the right branch. Here's my breakdown of the differences between them (there are a bunch of docs on debian.org about it too if you want further info):
Debian "stable" is stable in terms of performance and uptime, as the name suggests - it is rock solid. Everything gets the crap tested out of it before it hits stable, because all patches, packages, etc. have worked their way down through the other branches. Really though, the name "stable" is in reference to the versions of the packages. Debian never changes the version of packages in stable - all security fixes are backported. This means you don't have to worry about any new "features" interfering with how the packages on your production server run. It also means you won't get any new features that you might think are cool in a new version from upstream unless you upgrade that particular package to the version in testing or unstable, or use someone else's backport. Stable is the only branch that gets security updates from security.debian.org.
Debian "unstable" is unfortunately named bc most people assume it crashes a lot, or has a lot of bugs. I don't think anyone would claim it's as bomb-proof as stable, but it's really called that because the package versions are constantly changing. So any new versions from upstream will be incorporated to your unstable system as soon as the package maintainer updates the package, and it works its way through initial testing in the "experimental" branch. Unstable is really what you want to use for desktop systems, but just remember to apt-get update && apt-get upgrade often because packages change all the time. Although security updates aren't gotten from the security.debian.org server (by the Debian security team), the unstable versions of packages generally get security fixes as soon or sooner than their stable counterparts. This is because they don't have to be backported or tested quite as extensively.
Debian "testing" is sort of a weird middle ground between the other two, and isn't usually the best choice to run on anything. It doesn't have the newest packages, or constant versioning, and it gets security updates last. What makes it an attractive choice *now* is that it has much newer packages than stable, and is about to become stable (but realistically, give that a couple months). What I've been doing for machines that I want newish packages on but don't want to run unstable, is make all the references in "/etc/apt/sources.list" point to "sarge" rather than "testing". This is just so that when sarge does become stable, I won't accidently apt-get dist-upgrade to etch. Once the change happens, I'll change everything that says "sarge" to "stable". You might consider doing that, if that's the kind of outcome you're looking for. It should start getting updates from security.debian.org soonish (before it becomes officially "stable", actually).
You can run a mixed system without problems if you're careful. I do this for some packages. Since Postfix tends to get new and wonderful features pretty often, I like to run the version from unstable even on my otherwise "stable" systems. Let us know later on if you want more info about doing this.
Hope that helps!