Saturday, June 7, 2008

Arch Linux - The Third OS (Here To Stay)

An intro to Arch Linux:"Arch Linux defines simplicity as a lightweight base structure without unnecessary additions, modifications, or complications, that allows an individual user to shape the system according to their own needs. In short; an elegant, minimalist approach." (taken from their wiki). Essentially it installs a CLI (Command-Line Interface) and offers little pre-installed apart from core apps required for the system to run. The system is then built up by using pacman (arch's package manager, however, it is unlike yum or yast or apt-get/aptitude since it does not install from binary files like .deb or .rpm, instead it installed .pkg.tar.gz files, which are created using source packages and a PKGBUILD file), and by editing daemons and modules in your rc.conf file, and many other text-based configuration files are accessible. It is also a rolling release distro, which means that the ISOs on the server are updated periodically with updated packages.

Well, this week gave me a few extra hours on Wednesday evening, so I decided to give Arch Linux a try. Burned the ISO I'd used a few times in VirtualBox to a CD and booted to it. First surprise: it was trying to start the wireless network card, but was unable to (broadcom bcm4311 rev 2) and hung at that point until I tapped the power button, it then cancelled that and continued booting. This time I made it to the terminal, and was able to start the setup, and set up my Arch system with a (previously made) 9GB ext3 partition for /, my 20GB /home partition that Ubuntu also uses and the 1GB swap partition I also use in Ubuntu. Installation ran off without a hitch until I reached the package selection screen, where I missed out an important package, which led me to have to re-run the setup after it was complete and to add that one package to my system, however, all in all it was a pretty fast and painless setup, as long as you knew what to enter into the config files (or knew enough to get it to install properly and enable you to fix whatever problems you may have caused with faulty config files, like I did).

I had hooked up my laptop with an ethernet cable on the first boot, it was recognized and activated on boot (due to the fact that I set it up to use dhcp in my /etc/rc.conf file during installation) and began to update my system using
pacman -Su
from a root shell (no sudo available) and I also set up the user account I was planning to use (lswest) using the useradd command, and it automatically began using the /home/lswest folder as it should. After a quick reboot I began to configure my system, first by installing sudo, adding my lswest user to the group wheel and uncommenting the line in the sudoers file to gain sudo abilities, and began to install alsa, xorg, video drivers (Nvidia) and had trouble deciding which WM (Window Manager)/DE (Desktop Environment) to use. I did not want to use GNOME again (DE) or to begin using KDE (DE) and XFCE is just not what I was looking for (DE). Instead I looked at some simple WM interfaces, such as fluxbox/openbox. However, I then remembered Enlightenment 17 (still heavily under development) and decided I'd try it. It was easy to install just a simple
sudo pacman -S e17-cvs e17-extra-cvs
installed a nice default enlightenment 17 interface, and was easily configured into this:

Quick statistics on my desktop:
running e17-cvs (enlightenment 17 from cvs)
theme: night-bling
wallpaper: War of the Depths by Lswest (me) (available on gnome-looks and in the post before this one)
running apps: enlightenment configuration menu, pidgin, xmms.

Also, each of my 8 workspaces (virtual desktops) has a different one of my wallpapers, and I may decide to merge them into a slideshow later on, but so far I have not seen the need. There are a number of things you need to do in config files to set up your Arch system properly (my main problem was remembering what daemons to add to the rc.conf file, or which were modules and which were daemons). However, I now have working wireless (ndiswrapper + bcmwl5 drivers, just like in Ubuntu), wicd, amsn, pidgin, skype, 2.4, e17, firefox, xterm, etc. etc. On a side note: the guides on were very useful, particularly the Beginner's Guide while I was configuring my system, and helped me solve problems that I encountered (often because I had forgotten to add a module or daemon to rc.conf, or had added a module to the daemon array and vice-versa).

In conclusion I'm happy with the system I set up, only missing a notification area (I found one for e17, but it's buggy and does not display properly most of the time) or a window list to tell me when new messages arrive in a chat program (unless they're minimized, then they flash in the list in the shelf), but that may just be some configuration option I missed. Definitely going to keep it around, not sure if I'll completely replace Ubuntu with it yet, though I do enjoy how pacman installs programs from source and the whole package management system (along with the AUR) makes it very easy to install packages or apps that are in development (e17, for example, is a lot easier to install than the installation within Ubuntu or debian/red hat based Linux systems). Of course, the repo ([community]) that contains these apps are handled by members of the Arch community, and there are delays in uploads/updates, but definitely not worth mentioning.

Installation: 3/5 stars

(due to the required amount of knowledge when editing the configuration files during install and at the package selection screen)

Stability: 5/5 stars

(it's been up for a while and no segfaults or so that can be attributed to Arch Linux (there was one on Enlightenment's part, but that's not the focus of this review))

Usability: 4/5 stars

(Easy enough to use once you get over the first hurdles, requires you to be comfortable in a CLI though)

Performance: 4/5 stars

(It's fast, stable and fun to use, but there are a few issues that I've had with it slowing down and with battery usage, may be my fault though)

Overall: 16/20 The installation and required prior knowledge is a set back for users who are inexperienced for the OS, but overall it is a fairly stable and effective system.

Disclaimer: Any and all statements within this review are only my opinion and by no means should be taken as flaming, I readily admit that some of the things that bother me or caused it to get marked down may be my fault.


Anonymous said...

Cool article you got here. It would be great to read something more concerning that theme. Thanx for sharing that data.

Anonymous said...

You can't blame Arch for the need of knowledge to install it and use it, since its target isnt newbies.. its just a caracteristic of the distro.

Lswest said...

I never said that it was a fault of Arch that it requires a certain amount of prior knowledge, but simply noted that it's probably not suitable for inexperienced users. I ranked it lower in the installation set up because, at the time, I felt that it could have been done slightly better (compared to a few CLI-based installers like Debian and Ubuntu Server that I'd used). The only thing that still really bothers me is the use of cfdisk by default instead of fdisk, but if I spent some time learning my way around cfdisk that would be fine. That being said, I've used Arch as my main OS ever since, and installation is a snap now. If I reviewed it again I'd probably give it a full 20/20, but this review really is about 2 years old.