After using Ubuntu in a dual-boot setup with Windows Vista/7 for several years, I decided it was time for a change. The constant (figuratively speaking) installs every six months were a pain in the neck and upgrading, as opposed to fresh installs, never seemed to work 100%. I could have stayed with an LTS, but I appreciate having new software available without having to manually hunt it down on my own. The other issue which drove me away from Ubuntu was Unity. I don’t necessarily hate it and I certainly liked some aspects of it (the upcoming HUD, in particular, looks really cool), but overall it just got on my nerves — and I’ve used it since it first came out. The whole bar on the side thing became very annoying, especially because you can’t (easily) change much of anything about it. There were also many frustrating little things which all added up over time. For example, if you have exactly one instance of an application open and you click the icon, you expect it to minimize the window if you’re a Windows user (not so with Mac OS X I hear). However, if you try this with Unity, nothing happens…absolutely nothing. Apparently, this isn’t consistent behavior. Fair enough, but I–and many other users–would appreciate it if there was a choice to toggle this behavior. We know it’s possible, because some guy already created a patch to allow for this behavior.
That being said, I still like certain things about Ubuntu. It’s very user friendly, as Linux distros go, and it has a wealth of applications, tools, etc. available. When you go to download Linux versions of software from different sites around the ‘Net, you’re probably going to find an Ubuntu .deb version. In addition to these plus points, Ubuntu has a very large community. This generally translates into easier problem solving when you encounter a bug or missing piece of software or what have you.
The first distro I tried was Linux Mint Lisa (GNOME). It was pretty nice and almost everything worked out of the box, but I encountered terrible lag when using Gnome Shell. I actually liked Gnome Shell with Mint’s extensions better than I did Unity, but I didn’t want to waste yet another few hours, days, weeks, etc. fixing the stuttering. Next up was Linux Mint KDE. The experience was pretty similar to the GNOME version, except KDE actually ran smoothly, with the exception of nasty blips of 2-3 seconds of lag here and there. I didn’t used to like KDE v4, having tried it earlier, but it seemed very slick, polished, and user friendly this time around. I should point out that with both of these distros (and Unity, on occasion) I had terrible trouble getting the right monitor in my dual monitor setup to be designated and remembered as the primary monitor. Applications kept launching on the wrong side or the DE would forget the settings after a reboot and start mirroring the monitors again. I did eventually get both GNOME and KDE working correctly, but only after I got the right version of the graphics drivers and did some additional tinkering. However, I felt both Mint versions were a bit…bloated. Not excessively and certainly not as bad as a five year old Windows system, but it just didn’t feel 100% snappy. On to the next.
I then considered other smaller distros like Crunchbang, Chakra, PCLinuxOS, Fedora, Linux Mint Debian (which I installed, but then uninstalled after again having problems with lag, update issues, and multi monitor woes), Xubuntu, Bodhi, and Lubuntu (also installed this one, but I didn’t really like using it on a day to day basis, even though I installed it on an old PC for a family member’s use). Eventually I got around to Arch, Gentoo, ArchBang, and Sabayon. I quickly dumped ArchBang and then decided to start at the bottom (source-based distro) and work my way up. Gentoo appeared…well, imposing and cool, at the same time, but extremely time consuming. The learning aspect of using Gentoo was definitely a plus point, but the simple fact was that I did not want to blow time on compiling the majority of my software just because I could. The 5% or whatever increase in speed that I might have gotten was simply not worth it to me. Also, I had no intention of sitting there and stripping out components from software like VLC; when I want to install VLC, I want everything.
Sabayon, for this reason, was very interesting. It had both binary and source code versions of programs available and was compatible with Gentoo. However, it just didn’t click with me and I got the impression that the distro was still being polished and wasn’t quite “there” yet. I would still like to explore Sabayon in the future, however, even if it’s in a VM.
That, of course, leaves Arch. Oh, I should point out that I eventually decided on a rolling release distro to avoid the reinstalls and to have access to the latest software, hence the shortlist of Arch, Gentoo, ArchBang, and Sabayon. I had heard that Arch could be pretty tricky to install and configure and was basically like Gentoo, but with binaries. I put these rumors aside though, when investigating Arch, in order to form an opinion from a neutral starting point.
The Arch wiki was one of the most important reasons for why I chose this distro. Apart from some pages in Ubuntu’s wiki and other sites here and there, I had never seen such good documentation. After reading the installation guide, I started wondering why people thought it was hard to install Arch. The entire process is practically handed to you on a plate. The attention given to frequently used software and system components is excellent. There’s stuff on system time, ALSA, window managers, browser plugins, codecs, fonts, system administration, system services, compiling software, installing software from the AUR, etc. Basically, if I could think of it, I could find it in the Arch wiki. One of the best things is the troubleshooting tips. On almost every page, there’s a section with stuff that can go wrong and how to fix it. I recognized several problems I had had in the past that could have been solved by reading the wiki. Even better, since Arch uses vanilla versions of software, those tips apply everywhere that piece of software is used, unless it has been customized by your distro.
I had never installed a Linux system from scratch and built it up from the core set of system components, but it certainly sounded like it would give me what I wanted–a fast, constantly update-to-date system–and it sounded as though I could do it easily.
I ended up installing Arch three times, which sounds like a lot, but in actuality it wasn’t really a pain (and I learned a lot). The first time, I got stuck at the partition tool the Arch installer uses. I just wasn’t getting the hang of it. To make sure that I didn’t botch something, I just exited the installer and used GParted Live to do it in a couple minutes. The second time, I got a GNOME 3 setup up and running. Everything worked flawlessly, but after a reboot I had a lot of trouble getting my ‘Net connection back (this was on Ethernet). I had to visit a page, wait for it to say it couldn’t resolve the DNS whatever, and then refresh the page to get anything (this process had to be repeated for every new page). Pacman wasn’t working either. I decided to give KDE another shot (I had been aiming mainly for GNOME distros and setups until then).
One wipe and another install later and I was back in business, this time with no networking problems, no graphics-related problems, and a ridiculously fast KDE 4.8 system. I should point out that by this install, I could breeze through everything in under five minutes. By the way, the core install of Arch is so fast that if you get up to blow your nose, it’s already done. No joke, no exaggeration. You still have to install the DE and software, but if you install the meta packages, the system just goes on autopilot and you can kick back and relax for a few minutes while it does its thing. I had almost always used Synaptic or the recently introduced Software Center in Ubuntu for managing software, but Pacman…talk about speed. Let me just say that Pacman is extremely fast.
Multi-monitor setup? No problems. Network connectivity? Done. Development packages? Got it. The latest everything? Yup. Dropbox? Not in the main repos…oh wait, it’s in the AUR, no problem. The AUR has everything under the sun, basically. One of the things I had worried about was the availability of packages in another distro compared to Debian’s repos or Debian-derived distros like Ubuntu or LMDE. I needn’t have worried. The only issue I encountered was a problem with sound playback. ALSA was acting up and either not playing sound at all, playing KDE login/logout sounds, but nothing else, or playing sound in only one application at a time. I fiddled around in the config files for a while, following the wiki, tried phonon-gstreamer instead of phonon-vlc (which helped a bit), and finally installed alsa-oss, which fixed the one-application-at-a-time sound. However, upon rebooting, I still get notifications from KDE, seemingly randomly, that a sound device has stopped working. This problem is also mentioned in the wiki and I think I’ll be able to get it sorted eventually and learn something in the process.
There were three other problems, but there were solved almost instantly by posts in the Arch News feed and the forums, which are filled with very knowledgeable people.
- https://bbs.archlinux.org/viewtopic.php?pid=1075880 (this popped up after I switched to Grub2 from the default Grub that the Arch installer uses)
Other than the sound issue, I’ve had no problems with my Arch install. It’s wicked fast, faster than anything I’ve ever used, and I finally get all my updated software as soon as it’s out, instead of playing Manual Install: The Game, like I had to do with GCC for C++11 support a while ago in Ubuntu. In addition, I actually have some idea of what the heck is going on in more parts of the system. This is in contrast to other distros, where it really seemed like a black box for most of the time that I was using them (not completely, you understand, but enough that it can be frustratingly opaque). Unless I really screw something up, have a sudden, insane desire to install Gentoo/Sabayon, or find a distro that merges with my brain, I don’t think I’ll be leaving Arch for a while. That being said, I’ll most likely still use Ubuntu and/or Lubuntu for my family’s machines when needed, since they need their OSs to “just work,” and I don’t want to spend extra time maintaining their systems for them. I wouldn’t suggest Arch Linux to someone completely new to Linux–Ubuntu or Mint would take that honor–but for someone who’s used one of those two or another popular, user-friendly distro and who has some programming/OS knowledge, I would say go for Arch. Someone completely new to Linux could use Arch Linux, but they would have to read all the instructions very carefully and really take their time to learn something about OSs and related topics. Most people won’t do that, but it is possible.
tl;dr: Arch Linux is awesome, try it! 🙂