As the few, but loyal readers of my blog now, I’m a big fan of Arch. It’s the Swiss army knife of Linux distributions, with the possibility to install as little or as much as you want. However, I’m also a fan of Ubuntu and when I install Linux on the PC of a friend who wants to try it, that’s the distribution I’ll use. These two distributions have two very different goals: Arch wants to give the user complete freedom over his install, Ubuntu wants to provide a complete, easy OS. But of course, both use the same, open-source building blocks.
Now, one of the reasons I love Arch is Openbox. Many Archers list it as their favourite window manager, and the monthly screenshot thread really showed me how beautiful it can be. What’s more, it loads much, much faster than GNOME, even when you basically use the same applications, and as a window manager it’s (in my opinion) far superior to Metacity or Compiz. Openbox has pipe menus, can keybind anything to anything, opens applications in the virtual desktop you want it to open, and lets you set borders that applications can’t overlap, which you can define to the pixel, which are all features I miss in GNOME’s default window managers. Arch’s excellent wiki, together with Urukrama’s incredible Openbox guide, helped me through the initial hurdle of editing the configuration files by hand, and afterwards I never looked back.
However, Openbox is available in other distributions too. I installed it in Fedora and Mandriva when I tested those (it comes as the default window manager of LXDE). I thought about copying my configuration files to Mandriva to compare it with Arch, but I don’t have that much interest in Mandriva to be honest. Ubuntu is another matter though, so I installed 9.04 on my spare partition, then installed Openbox together with wicd, galculator, emesene, conky, obmenu, leafpad, catfish, thunar, mirage, emelfm2, trayer, xcompmgr, gnome-player, gecko-mediaplayer, lxappearance, comix and audacious, which were all available in the repositories. Bmpanel I had to hunt down on getdeb.net, but sakura (my favourite terminal) proved to be a bigger challenge. In the end I settled for the Debian package. Not ideal, and it won’t be updated, but it works just fine.
Configuration was easy. I simply copied all the point directories from my Arch install, so all my settings were saved. Installing wicd automatically got rid of networkmanager. Replacing the totem-plugins with the far better gecko-mediaplayer (with mplayer as the backend) I had to do myself, but was easily done. Only the fonts were a bit messy, and the Arch lcd packages for font smoothing weren’t available. However, Ubuntu fonts look good out of the box, only subpixel hinting isn’t applied automatically everywhere in Openbox. A quick edit of ~/.fonts.conf took care of that, and after a bit of icon- and theme-tweaking I was all done.
So now that I’m using the same window manager and the same applications, what are the advantages of Ubuntu over Arch?
- Just as fast. Of course, Ubuntu has an unfair advantage here. It’s on an ext4 partition, while Arch is still on ext3. Furthermore, I tested all possible desktop environments, window managers and other kinds of software on that Arch install, and I shudder at the thought of all the clutter I must have left all over my system. Still, Ubuntu boots and feels as fast as my Arch install now.
- Less, and easier configuration. Of course, that’s an advantage Ubuntu has by design. Still, it’s nice to be prompted to install the nvidia driver, flash player, and various codecs, without having to do any kind of configuration afterwards.
- Kick-ass looking notifications. I don’t care how childish this is, those transparent black popups look sweet.
But of course, Arch still has many advantages too:
- Less is more. In Arch I would only have installed that list of applications I mentioned above. In Ubuntu, I have the entire GNOME desktop environment installed too. I probably could have kept things minimal, but for convenience sake, I started from a regular GNOME install.
- People install arch just because they want to be able to configure anything. Total control is important for an Archer.
- The rolling release model means I don’t have to worry about new releases breaking my system. Software’s more up to date too.
- Thanks to the PKGBUILDS, packages are much easier to patch in Arch. I can’t run my patched version of wine in Ubuntu.
In the end, it’s a trade-off…ease of use versus control over your system. In any case, my Arch install needed to be updated, because of the whole ext3 thing, and the fact that I just want to clean it after trying to install every possible open source application on it. Installing and configuring Arch still takes me something like an hour though, so I’ll stick with Ubuntu for a while. Knowing me, I’ll get bored of it soon enough.
Now for some screenshots:
It’s a world of difference!