Life on the cutting edge – ArchLinux

After a few months of using it, I finally feel I am confident enough to write a piece about one of the best, and I MEAN best, linux distros ever, archlinux. This distro is rather unique, and several things in it make it the ideal distro for the intermediate level linux user. The following is in no way a review or tutorial about arch, THAT part would need another post. Currently, I am focusing on its importance as a distro for the intermediate linux user.

i686 Optimisation

Archlinux has been optimised for i686 architecture to a very high extent. All modern 32bit capable standard x86 CPUs support i686. This is right from the old Pentium Pro CPUs to the new Nehalems. Its also optimised for modern AMD CPUs. For those who need a 64bit distro, there is an x86_64 (commonly known as amd64) variant for archlinux.

Unlike arch, most common distros are designed for i386, i486 or i586 architectures, which are architectures very few existing systems use and are long obsolete. So Arch’s i686 optimisation carries with it several speed boosts, and reviews commonly go that next to Gentoo and CRUX, arch is the fastest distro around.

x86_64 capability

Arch supports x86_64, which its original inspiration, CRUX, does not. And this makes arch the fastest binary amd64 distro available. Though arch does not boast of a very strong team of developers which large distros like SuSE, Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian, etc boast of, its partial geeky nature ensures that a good amount of its users DO use x86_64 seriously. Thus, it happens to be one of the better supported x86_64 distros.

BSD style init framework with rc.conf

Archlinux follows the BSD concept of different init runlevels defined in inittab. It also follows the BSD style configuration concept using .rc fines. The difference here is that arch uses a single rc.conf ALL major system level configurations. This results in simplicity and ease of use. A single text file with a few sections and lots of easy to understand comments can be highly helpful for an intermediate linux user.

High level of documentation

Archlinux has everything well documented. Its wiki is neat and clean, and questions can be asked in its forums or its IRC channel, #archlinux at chat.freenode.net. All its documentation is simple and elegant. For most tasks, there is a simple solution in archlinux. Not just external documentation, internal documentation in man pages and different text files for configuring arch is also vast and easy to use. This results in the next point, ease of use of commandline in archlinux.

Stress on commandline – text mode can actually be easier

One major flaw of newbie distros like ubuntu and opensuse is that they try to deny the existence of a strong commandline in linux. Configuring ubuntu via commandline is a painful task indeed for many novice users. On the other hand, the very nature of archlinux and its doccumentation, along with its install procedure make configuring arch via commandline a breeze. I originally wished for GUI tools when I was considering installing archlinux, but believe me, commandline on arch is AWSSOME. The fact that everything is centrally configured in rc.conf, and there are only a few other files that need configuring makes things even better.

KDEmod

Archlinux has a wonderful exclusive DE based on KDE. Its called KDEmod. Its compiled against an enhanced version of QT, and is quite modular. Currently its based on KDE4 series along with normal KDE, KDEmod is quite quick and zippy compared to classic KDE. Its even faster than Gnome. KDE’s overall neat interface and ease of use coupled with speed boosts from QTmod and archlinux make KDEmod one of the best DEs.

EDIT: Due to recent changes in KDE4 series, the performance difference between KDE4.2 and KDEmod4.2 is next to zero and even QTmod isn’t needed due to an upgraded Qt. And KDEmod 4.2 wouldn’t run on 256MB RAM anyway – it needs atleast 384MB ram for normal running, 512MB for multitasking and 1GB recommended as a minimum if you don’t EVER want to feel that the amount of RAM is less. So people with 256MB RAM are best left with KDEmod 3.5.9 – its much faster than gnome on such systems. Its also fully feature rich and is available as KDEmod-legacy. So in a nutshell: if you got 256MB RAM and want the power of KDE, get KDEmod 3.5.9.

Pacman

Arch package manager is called pacman. Make no mistake, this is no game. Its one of the fastest package managers out there. Though I personally feel it could have used some more apt-get like features, its still too good. It has insanely fast installation speeds. I could install 700mb of gnome in less than 5 minutes. Compare this now to the 15min windows xp sp3 installation time.

Repositories

Archlinux has wonderful repositories containing binaries optimised for i686 or x86_64 architecture. You can find most common software here, and they are all pre-compiled for you and compiling again makes no difference since they are already highly optimised for your architecture.

AUR and ABS

Ah… the one thing that stands out here is AUR, or arch user repository. You can install any software in arch with ease, even if its not present in arch repositories. Its because of AUR, where users can submit their own install scripts for misc. software. Before I say how this works, I need to talk about ABS, or arch build system. Its a feature which allows you to run PKGBUILD scripts to compile software. Everything, including dependencies, is taken care of in this script and hence you need to do next to nothing to install a software via compilation. Now AUR hosts lots of these compile scripts. They often contain link to the sourceforge page of the software from where there is a download link to the source tarball, so that this too is taken care of by the PKGBUILD script. You get a binary pacman package in the end, which can be installed the usual way via pacman.

yaourt

This is an awesome pacman frontend, which has in built support for AUR. So you can install software from aur here directly without visiting AUR website. Its one of the most awesome piece of archlinux exclusive software available.

But personally speaking, getting stuff from AUR can also be fun sometimes. Yaourt is one of those apps which please many (Its especially useful for those who don’t have X and find browsing through a text-browser a pain in the @$$), while others just ignore it. So use it before deciding if you want to like it or not.

powerpill

An enhanced pacman front-end written in perl, powerpill is there when you need faster download speeds and multi-threaded downloads. I recommend all archlinux users to install this in their /bin directory.

Rolling Release

Archlinux is a rolling release distro. Meaning, there are no separate “releases” in archlinux. Instead, the latest snapshot of the[core] repository is offered for download as a live CD every month, and a simple pacman -Syu command upgrades your system to the latest cutting edge software. This means that you don’t need to download and install a new ISO every few months the way you did in ubuntu or fedora or suse. Even CRUX is not rolling release. With arch’s rolling release concept, you can install the distro once, and keep it forever. There are people who installed it the moment it was released and have had it for quite a few years till date without reinstalling.

Raw Speed

Last, but not the least, is the raw speed archlinux offers. Compared to most distros, arch is one of the fastest distros around. I recommend you use either ratpoison WM, or IceWM window manager, or Xfce4 for a DE or KDEmod for a complete DE if you want to experience arch in its full glory. Gnome should be replaced by Xfce if you want similar features but at the same time, no bloat and high speed, because that’s the arch way. Archlinux is a boon for users of older PCs like me, since its extremely fast on them. But its also awesome on new PCs, and infact, one of my friends uses arch on a Core2Quad Q6600 and is very happy with its performance.

CONCLUSION

If you have a decent amount of experience in linux, of say, 9 months to 1 year, or if you enjoy good commandline skills, and at the same time you want a distro with fast software install times and high speed and performance, archlinux is the one for you. I recommend it also for anyone who wants a distro which would help you LEARN more of linux. People who have no idea about linux but have used UNIX, Solaris, or BSD can also find arch impressive and it can teach them linux easily.

So what are you waiting for ? Head over to http://www.archlinux.org right now and download your copy today and install it. Trust me, its definitely worth it.

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42 Responses to Life on the cutting edge – ArchLinux

  1. nongeekboy says:

    I’m using Gonme on Arch and I dfon’t have any problems with it. Anyway, you’re so right about Arch, it became “the best linux distro” for my needs, too.

  2. federico says:

    I’am not English, but I thought that ‘documentation’ should be written with only one ‘c’.
    By the way I must say that I miss around with distros quite often and Arch has been the greatest discovery.
    I would be the perfect distro if only
    1)pacman was a little bit smoother with researches and had its own database
    2)PKGBUILDs in aur compiled without manual-editing…

  3. Gautham says:

    Hey, thanks for the correction. I have a horrible spelling, though my language is not bad.

  4. Maki says:

    Actually, you can compile packages without docs with blacklisting the docs option in the Options section in /etc/makepkg.conf like this

    OPTIONS=(strip !docs libtool emptydirs)

    As for pacman & database, you could try making an separate partition for /var & make it reiserfs or some other fs that is good with small files

  5. jacques says:

    like nongeekboy above, I wonder why you would avoid gnome on Archlinux. It works very well for me. I find it more easily usable than kde (more intuitive).

    More importantly, I also love archlinux. and I love the fact that once it’s installed, you can forget about it completely, it is very unobtrusive and so easy to update!

    It has the best documentation written for any distro (on the wiki). it is clear, concise and well-written, all you need to get started is to print out the beginner’s guide, burn a CD of the latest install image, reboot and follow the guide.

  6. Gautham says:

    ^^Please don’t mislead people into thinking that you need to print out the guide. All you need to do is to read the text file provided within the live CD itself by opening a virtual console. :)

    About Gnome, yeah, its a love hate relationship for me. Gnome used to be my favourite in the 1.8 days, but since 2.0, I am noticing lots of performance related issues on my system.

  7. jacques says:

    Printing the wiki (beginner’s guide) is a *very* recommendable idea before starting installation in my opinion, when it is the first time installing arch. Besides I don’t think the live CD has lynx available, you wouldn’t be able to access the wiki easily during installation through a virtual console.

    Plus it has a reference of pacman commands in it, which comes useful after installation. It’s definitely a good use of paper.

  8. whitefort says:

    It’s totally OK if you don’t like Gnome, but it’s a bit unfair to Arch when you say ‘Gnome sucks on Arch’. I’m using Gnome and have no problems at all, and have everything running that I did on my Ubuntu setup.

    I could as easily say that for me, ‘KDE sucks on Arch’… but really that’s because I don’t like KDE, and not an Arch issue at all.

  9. bautz says:

    Great article!
    I used a lot of distro, but when I found Arch, one year and a half ago, I found my perfect distro.

  10. Gautham says:

    @jaques: you got me wrong. the installer guide is present WITHIN the Cd ;-)

    @whitefort: I don’t hate gnome. I just think that it sucks on *certain* distros, arch and ubuntu topping the list. Gnome is a thing of beauty when used in Debian.

  11. John says:

    Just curious, but WHY do you think that Gnome sucks on Arch?

    I’m using both Arch and Debian (with Gnome) and I don’t see the difference, let alone ‘the thing of beauty when used in Debian’.

  12. Jay says:

    Nothing sucks on Arch.Remember, “It is what you make it.” ;)
    And AFAIK, default Arch installation doesn’t have any man pages in it.

  13. chilebiker says:

    I’m not a Gnome fan myself, but why should it suck on Arch? If you want speed and configurability, go for Openbox anyway!

  14. Gautham says:

    Well then, I think I need to reinstall gnome to see how much it does NOT suck. But till then, here were my observations about gnome:

    1. The thing looks easy to use. But Xfce can look just like it.

    2. Gnome has several light weight apps. But they all have heavy gnome dependencies.

    3. Nautilus is quite heavy. I always end up using PCManFM on gnome because of this.

    4. In the 1.8 days, gnome was quite zippy and fast, and its speed was only slightly lower than Xfce. But today, its become quite slow compared to Xfce, to an alarming extent.

    5. And now, the reason gnome sucks on arch – I can’t uninstall it correctly. I end up in a dependency hell when I try to remove those 600MB of gnome packages. I had to do some manual tinkering with Shaman to remove gnome. This problem happens with no other DE.

    @chilebiker: OpenBox ? Its slightly buggy, and LXDE has this wierd issue. File copy speeds are as low as 1MiB per second, whether the file is copied from terminal via cp command or from pcmanfm or thunar. I am yet to find a solution, though I am searching hard for the root cause.

    edit: I have been quite unfair in claiming that gnome sucks on arch. I have hence edited my article to remove that part. Its just not right. Instead, I have reworded it to say that its better to use xfce instead of gnome if you need something similar but much faster.

    edit2: The reason I found gnome to be great on debian was that debian etch had gnome 1.8. Just realised it now. Sorry for any confusion.

  15. tmc says:

    Arch is a great distro and Gnome works well on it. After few month of use no one serious problem. Of course Gnome has it’s own limits, but no difference in behaviour compared to other distros. Arch is a solid ground for Gnome.
    Nice review for newcomers.

  16. Randy says:

    As far as accessing the beginner’s guide during installation, as Gautham said – it’s on the CD. This is from the Beginner’s Guide on their wiki:

    The guide you are now reading is available on the live system. Change to vc/2 with +F2 and do:

    # less /arch/beginnersguide.txt

  17. Gigi says:

    Arch is tougher to install compared to *buntu or Fedora but far easier to maintain. In my opinion, arch is perfectly suited for the install once and forget it setup ;-)

    The only gripe I have had is in downloading 300+ MB of updates every two weeks or so :-(

  18. Lamnk says:

    @Gigi: lol, so true. But that is the price you pay for living on the bleeding edge

  19. Pingback: Josh Kampmeier » Blog Archive » REPOST: Life on the cutting edge - Arch Linux

  20. Rastloser says:

    About KDEMod: For power users that need features or programs not yet present in KDE4, KDEMod has a “legacy” repository with KDE 3.5.10 packages. And this is where KDEMod really shines. They have modified KDE to be highly modular and rather fast, adding an absolutely beautiful theme to it. It will probably be around for quite some time still, but developers (KDEMod as well as upstream) are moving to KDE 4 so support will likely worsen over time.

    KDEMod has, however, also been where Arch’s cutting-edge philosophy has caused problems in the past: Around September, they moved to KDE 4, but did not provide a good migration path. Users that could not yet switch were forced to invest quite some work to alter their KDE 3 installations to accomodate the new repository structure and contents.

  21. stuffjeff says:

    I have to say I’ve used arch since 0.7 and I’m loving it more and more. Before arch I was a total commandline noob (now I’m a wee bit more knowledgeable).
    Even without basically any cli experience the arch install and updates were a breeze.
    And though I like how the DE’s can look I’m in love with my fluxbox.

  22. dimstog says:

    I’ve been using Arch for a month now, both at home and for light office work.

    I think this article is quite on the spot, but I would add some points of my own.

    1. Being a total newbie in Linux (but quite knowledgeable in computers) I did not have have but a couple of minor hickups during the installation and further use of this distro. Just follow the guide to the letter, found in the Archlinux site.

    2. The install guide is included in the LiveCD but it is kinda pointless because once you reboot to the hard disk installation (in text mode) it’s quite impossible to read it from the install CD (which is an image of somekind). So printing out the install guide is kind of mandatory for the inexperienced. However, if you happen to have a second computer with a web browser online, even a monkey can install and configure Arch all the way to his favorite DE without breaking a sweat.

    3. I’ve initially used Gnome on both my machines but then changed to KDE 4.1.3. Gnome runs fine and fast in Arch (QuadCore q6600, nvidia 9800GTX+, 4GB RAM), but I like KDE better. The comment about not being able to completely uninstall Gnome is kinda valid, not sure if it’s an Arch-specific ‘feature’

    4. As I said, Arch is the first distro of Linux I ever got in my PC apart the occasional LiveCD and ever used in general. It’s as newbie friendly as it can get, as long as you take the time to search the wiki and google-search. And command-line interaction comes to you naturally in a couple of days. Suffice to say, after installing Arch on my computers, I have only booted in Windows a couple of times over the last month to play Fallout 3 (and I do spend a lot of time at the PC).

    One more point I would like to make, is that Arch is probably one of the mos stripped-down distros application-wise you can get. It might sound as a negative, but for a newbie to Linux, who doesn’t know exavtly what to expect, that’s a huge advantage, since you get to install and find out for yourself how things work in Linux.

  23. albert says:

    “commandline on arch is AWSSOME”

    Yeh, and on other distros comandline SUXX because the don’t have bash, ls and less!

    lol

  24. albert says:

    s/the/they/

  25. albert says:

    s/the/&y/

  26. Gautham says:

    @albert: Read more carefully. Commandline on archlinux is awesome because its very easy to manage via commandline. The installation acts as a tutorial to the files you need to edit. And rc.conf really blows things away because 50% of the configuring can be done on a single file. On other distros, like ubuntu and centos, due to the extremely simplified install procedure, you would have to scramble about on google search to learn the commandline configuration procedures.

  27. ravster says:

    Hello,
    I have been using Arch for about 4 years now, but haven’t been on the forums lately. Thank you for talking about powerpill, it seems to be just the thing for me.

    Thank you,
    ravster

  28. Gautham says:

    Don’t thank me, thank Xyne, the guy who created powerpill. His site is at xyne.archlinux.ca and he has his own repository for some of his nifty little scripts including powerpill. The repository is a big boon because I hate manually downloading powerpill and replacing the copy in my /bin folder.

  29. vigneshwars says:

    Hi Gautham.I’d really appretiate it if you managed to put a few screenshots of arch linux in your post.
    please try to get both ‘gnome’ and ‘kde’ screenshots , and if possible ‘xfce’ in both

  30. 2handy says:

    @vigneshwars:
    I personally see no reason why there is a need to see pictures of DE/WM on Arch. They look the way that people configure them, having Gnome or whatever installed on Arch makes no difference to the way Gnome looks.

    @Gautham:
    Great blog article, thanks. :-)

    Arch is a very comfortable, educational & efficient distro’ with all of the pluses mentioned above. I run Arch/Xfce on a 24″ alu’ iMac, & much prefer to use Arch instead of Leopard. I also have Arch/Openbox on a home built box.

    It feels nice to know that most of what is on your computer, you put there yourself to meet your personal requirements; as opposed to having loads of stuff put on your computer to meet everybody else’s possible requirements.

  31. vigneshwars says:

    @2handy
    i understand. Looks dont matter as much anyways. Thanks.

    @gautham :)

  32. Killa B says:

    I wanted to add that Openbox and Arch Linux mix perfectly. They’re both about working perfectly, with no bullshit. Openbox is the lightest WM I’ve ever found that still looks good.

  33. kgas says:

    I switched from legacy OS, to GNU/Linux in Jan08, starting with Ubuntu 8.04 in Acer Travelmate 291Lci. Now I am using Arch Linux with gnome. I could feel the difference in speed.
    In my opinion all Linux Distros are good in one way or the other.
    First time my arch installation took more than 4 hours and in the second instance it was only 12 minutes to boot the system with base installation.
    I feel that after a roll up since all applications are not tested some applications fail to work and always go for the work around. Any how currently I am sticking to Arch and hope we will make it better.

  34. akuma says:

    i have a Intel QuadCore (2.4 GHz per core) w/ 3 GB of ram – I will be running 64bit Arch very soon

  35. I’ve just switched to Arch64, from a nice ubuntu 8.04 installation I had… I’ve chosen to stick to Gnome, even If I plan to try lighter DEs (I’m on a Athlon X2 2200Mhz per core, 2GB ram and radeon 3870, gnome isn’t sluggish, but speed is always welcome).

    In a couple of days I’ve managed to configure and install all, from flash64, to the 64 java plugin, catalyst drivers, compiz, and all the programs I use.

    But NOT those I don’t need… and the services and daemons I wont ever need. And the speed is really repaying the little more effort during the installation.

    Should I call it effort? It’s been Fun. As I suppose it should be for an intermediate linux user, coming from usual out-of-the-box distros.

    I don’t think I’ll feel the urge to look for something different… maybe to try another DE, but still in Arch.

    Thanks for the article =)

  36. Pingback: Hibernation Error (Ubuntu 8.10)

  37. RaiulBaztepo says:

    Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language ;)
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  38. mssmotorrd says:

    It’s the first time I commented here and I must say you share us genuine, and quality information for bloggers! Good job.
    p.s. You have a very good template for your blog. Where did you find it?

    • Gautham says:

      Thanks for the Appreciation.

      BTW I use the theme Garland. I took it and changed colors using built-in color chooser. That’s all.

  39. Pingback: distro of choice: arch linux « Platyhelminthes

  40. looking2shift says:

    Hey Gautam,
    Came to ur blog reading abt sidux and saw you moved to Arch? Why what happened? Ain’t sidux good enuf. Pls share your experience in case u mv to Arch and dropped sidux and why.

    thanks.

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