Arch Linux – a distro collector’s pick

[ Monday, 16 March 2009, Adam M. ]


Are you tired of frequent seeking or all these mega-piles of CDs constantly growing on your desktop? Is there any place left out there? Do you really need to wait another six months to update your software or get the feature you expect? Well, what I want to tell you is that there is a solution! Let me introduce to you, Arch Linux.

In this article I would like to encourage you to give it a try, especially if you’re a beginner since the advantages of using the distro are really worth your effort. I also realize that it might be somewhat problematic to some of you, but you’re not alone – there are tonnes of resources out there on the net, so you can safely accomplish the installation and eventually enjoy one of the best desktop distros available (in my opinion).

Why me?

As stated above, Arch Linux will probably change your Linux habits. I have travelled among an uncountable number of distributions, and it was a painful experience when you couldn’t get what you really needed. I didn’t find myself very comfortable with the lack of fresh package updates that I need in my everyday job. It definitely exceeds my sense of good taste I also haven’t found any distro that suits my needs completely, as there was always something that forced me to switch to another, and another… until now.

Frustrated?

Wait a minute, as I said, there is a solution. At this point I have to honestly warn you – it probably won’t be as easy as ”close the cd tray, reboot, and click next a few times to get it working” but – believe me – it is just a beginning of something far better than you have possibly experienced before, so why don’t you just try?

The recently released image allows you to pick one of several installation methods. You can use the most common FTP installation media which will download all base packages from the net, base installation, that contains all above on a single CD, or you can use a special image file, which can be used with USB sticks. The FTP installation will allow you to have the most recent packages, which you will have to update anyway when using a base-install CD, so it would be the best option to use this media in installation process.

For Linux newcomers, it is usually a good idea to check out the Wiki entries to get familiar with Arch philosophy, and make some initial touches. You can choose from a variety of different language versions, so probably you can even find your native one. This is helpful at the initial phase, where you have to set some things manually. You can now switch to the preferred timezone, set a keyboard layout, terminal font and more. Still there?

If you are an unexperienced distro-traveller, please don’t be afraid of installation procedure, since the setup tool that Arch Linux comes with is really straight forward. You are, however, likely to know some Linux basics to go on with that. It shouldn’t be too complex though. You can safely rely on the offered default settings, and you won’t break anything, I promise :) . In case I was wrong, just visit Arch Linux Wiki page to find some desired information.
As you can make a package selection one by one, you can build your system to meet your requirements as much, as you wish. You can even build your own packages with ease using a community developed tools.

When everythings done you can proceed with the package installation.Again, it’s highly recommended that you rely on the default selection, to avoid possible future issues. It is also good to download some extra stuff while you are in live cd mode. You can for example grab a web browser. That will allow you to surf the web resources while installing – all you need to do is simply switch to another virtual console. It is also very important when you get stuck for some reason. Installing stuff in Arch Linux is just as easy as:

pacman -S packagename

Please refer to our articles to get know what pacman is and how to use it.

Black magic

Everythings installed? What now then? Well, your new Linux OS is set up and running :) . It offers no more, no less, but terminal screen, so you have to push things forward a bit to make it a desktop distro.

You shouldn’t forget to create a new user, so that make Arch more secure. Please refer to the Xorg setup guide and Arch Linux Desktop Guide to set up your environment properly. Arch has a great online documentation, and a friendly community, so even if you get confused, you’ll get a helping hand. It is also worth to mention, that in view of the strict and simple structure that meets the KISS philosophy, you can also benefit from the contribution of other communities, like Gentoo or PLD for example. The power of Arch documentation is behind its strict form. I have rarely met with the statements like „If it doesn’t work, please do something, and if it fails, please do something else… if the ‘something else’ fails, please follow the instructions here, but…”. It’s so common in other distros! In Arch there are no such things. Well at least they are not so common. Everythings straight and usually works with a given solution, without any „buts”.

If you encounter a problem, you can simply resolve it by reading a corresponding Wiki entry, that’s all.

It’s obviously not enough for any modern desktop OS nowadays, however it is a fact, that at this point you’ll get a fully functional system which you can even use with some fun despite the fact that it’s only running text mode. If this doesn’t satisfy you, you’ll need to install the X server, and the desktop environment of your choice. At this stage Arch doesn’t force you to use any specific desktop environment. It gives users a choice so they can select and use what they really want to use. There is no any ‘default environment’ – you get what you like.

If you prefer KDE, you can either get it from the official repos, or use external KDEMOD repository, which I personally recommend, as it is much more clearly organised.

Arch Linux running latest release of KDE
Pic.1 Arch Linux running the latest KDE release

Give me more

What I love the most in Arch Linux, is that it’s relatively easy to manage. It doesn’t come with any graphical wizards, but all you need to do is to edit some configuration files. These are very clean and well described so it won’t take ages to understand what they do.

Generally there are two places, where most of the administrative tasks can be made in Arch Linux. One is /etc/rc.conf, where you can set many aspects of your system, and its behavior, like a timezone, the modules loaded at boot time, network specific settings and so on. The second is /etc/pacman.conf which holds all information about repositories, mirrors and some other useful options like showing a total download progress while getting the software.
Once you get familiar with the configuration files, you might even forget they exist :) .

What differentiates Arch from many other distros out there, is that it really gives you freedom. Of course the freedom is occupied by many difficulties for new users, but once you manage to install Arch Linux, it might serve you for years. If you can sacrifice some time, you can note with some surprise, that it’s faster to set up a ‘raw’ Arch Linux environment, and then add what you need, than install some ‘user friendly’ Linux and then spend weeks on removing what you don’t since Arch is not overloaded with unnecessary things. It comes with some essential packages only and you’re the one that decides what to include, and what not to.

Another noticable highlight is Arch’s speed. As it is dedicated for 686 machines, all the packages are optimized for it, what affects in overall system speed. It’s a really nice feeling to have a system that boots within just few seconds. It’s fast, responsive, and stable, despite being a rolling release. I haven’t had too many problems with it, and even if there were, I could easily find a solution on the website before I’ve even updated a critical package.

The most important thing is that Arch is one of these „burn and forget” distros. Once you had burn your CD, you won’t have to do it anymore since the install CD serves mainly as an installation media. Burn once, use forever. Of course they provide many new possibilities every release (ext4 support in current release for example), but generally it is used only at boot time, since everything else is updating constantly. You can then save some space at your messy desktop :) . No CD stacks anymore! Additionaly. the ease of maintenance of the distribution, what else would you need?

Arch Linux with fresh packages installed
Pic.2 Arch Linux – fresh packages every day

As you can see from the screenshots, Arch comes with plenty of new and hot packages, and even if you think that there are less packages than in Debian, there is a special community repo called AUR that holds many more. Personally I didn’t find any package that wouldn’t be there, so I think it makes Arch a very complete distribution. Also in a terms of package availability. Every time a new software is released, the Arch Linux developers are working hard to provide it for you. You don’t need to wait any longer since the software you need is already there (generally it takes a few days or hours). It may lead to a situation, in which I get to know about a new release from the Arch Linux website :) . Weird, eh?

Closing thoughts:

Having a ten years experience of using various Linux distributions I can say with all responsibility, that Arch Linux is one of the most complete Linux desktops I ever used. Moreover, if you care about expanding your computer knowledge, and you’re ambitious, it is just what you need. I wouldn’t say it would be easy from scratch, but, well, what is? Especially if you do care about your undermined nerves and mental health in general, Arch Linux is just for you too :) . There was no other distro that I could get as much knowledge while using it. Of course there are many with similar objectives, but I find Arch Linux very balanced, so as to make newbies as comfortable, as it’s possible, and leave more experienced users as free as they expect. Gathering numbers of so called ‘user friendly’ distributions also taught me that you may spend much more time on fixing problems if this is what you have been imposed. Why don’t you use the time for enjoying your Linux journey? You decide.

About the Author

Adam Mrówczyński

Lousy IT specialist based in Poland, Warsaw Currently PolishLinux.org's editor in-chief. Always busy graphic designer as well, and a true believer of FLOSS and Linux. Happy Arch Linux user, an (more...)

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