It’s taken some time, but here it is, the spankin new, fresh from the press Arch release, ambitiously called “Overlord”. In this review, I’ll have a look at it, and discuss a bit of the Arch philosophy in general.
So, when the new release appeared on the ftp servers today, I quickly grabbed the latest iso, burned it on a CD, popped it into the CD tray, booted up, and clicked on the “Install Arch” icon…
No wait, I didn’t. What I did was booting into my existing Arch installation, ran “pacman -Syu” (more on that later), and one minute later, my Arch was as recent as possible. You see, a new Arch release doesn’t mean as much as say, the newest Ubuntu or OpenSuse. It’s a Linux distribution with a rolling release model, which ideally means you install once and then never again. New software will be in a testing repository for a while, and then transferred to the main ones. That means that, if you update your system every day, it stays current. If I installed “Overlord”, I’d end up with the exact same system as I have now.
So then, what’s the new release for? Well, every now and then, the Arch devs are good enough to provide a snapshot with all the current packages, so you don’t have to update too much. That’s pretty much it.
Okay, almost it. There are some changes to previous install CDs, but despite what the announcement says, they’re not major, and they aren’t many (certainly not when you compare them with an Ubuntu release). They’re just very nice. From the announcement:
– ‘base’ category is always installed
– Use of UUIDs for persistent device naming
– Availability of USB disk images alongside traditional ISOs
– True live Arch installation environment
– Inclusion of the beginner’s guide from the wiki
– Documentation updates
– Includes the current stable kernel, 126.96.36.199
The possibility to install from a USB-stick certainly will make some people happy, and the inclusion of the beginner’s guide from the wiki even more. See, no matter what people say, installing Arch is difficult. Yes, I know some people won’t agree. Okay, I know your girlfriend was able to install Arch from scratch. Congrats, mine could never do it. In fact, I couldn’t even do it when I tried it about a year ago, but then again, I had tried it without reading the beginner’s guide. If that means I don’t pass the girlfriends test…great! ;)
Let me repeat, installing Arch isn’t easy. Certainly not the first time, definitely not if you don’t want to spend some time figuring things out, and it’s downright impossible if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want from your installation, or if you don’t know what kind of hardware is in your PC (especially graphic cards). But if you do know all that, and you know what you want, and you have an afternoon off, and you have the beginner’s guide or the official install guide near…well, it shouldn’t be a problem. That’s why I’m thrilled with the inclusion with the guide on CD.
The Arch installer is ncurses based, which means it’s graphical but looks like crap. It works very well though, and asks you the same questions you get from a standard Ubuntu install, but be sure to change your keymap first if you don’t live in the US. It’ll want to know where you want to install and where the swap partition is, what file system you want to use, what packages groups you want to install (hint: all of them, that’s easiest) and then ask you if you want to run hwdetect. There’s a quote about this on the beginner’s guide:
Advanced users who are thoroughly familiar with their hardware, required modules, and who are able to manually configure /etc/rc.conf, /etc/mkinitcpio and /etc/fstab, etc. from scratch may wish to choose ‘no’. (Needless to say, this option is very involved, beyond the scope of this guide, and therefore is not covered.)
To me, that means “you’re a noob, run hwdetect now”. So I did. I must say it’s as reliable as the hardware detection of any major Linux distributions now, and I never had any problems with it.
Then, you have to edit some files, which contain the configuration of your timezone, locale, network, processes that should be started at boot, etc. It’s the hardest part of the installation, but there aren’t many things you’ll have to edit, because most of the defaults are just fine, and you don’t have to worry about processes until later anyway. Again, check the beginner’s guide. Everything you want to know is in there, and a lot of things you don’t want to know are in there too. Everything else is standard fare, like picking a root password, and choosing an ftp-mirror close to you.
The install itself is very fast…ten minutes or less on a decent system. And after those ten minutes, you’re greeted with your new, shiny, slick looking…command prompt?
That’s right. You won’t need the install cd any more, but there’s a lot of tinkering left to do. See, when you’ve arrived at this point, you don’t have anything even remotely resembling what most people would consider to be an operating system. You don’t have a user account, just root. You don’t have sound. Most of all, you don’t have a graphic environment. You’ll have to install and configure those yourself.
Many people would consider this a turn-off, but I think it’s one of the biggest advantages of Arch: it’s incredible versatility. Sure, you’ll spend some time getting things just right, but after you have, it’ll be exactly what you want. You want the newest KDE? No problem. Or maybe you want XFCE with some delightful Compiz effects? You got it. Or, you shudder at these screenshots, and you like something a little more sparse. You have it. Maybe something else? Gnome? PekWM? XMonad? Awesome? Fluxbox? Openbox? It’s all there, and it’s all well-documented in the wiki. But you’ll have to do everything yourself, and I do mean everything. Making sure your fonts look good. Install and configure Alsa. Install and configure X, and the right drivers. Install and configure your favourite software. It takes some time, and some effort, and much reading of the wiki, but the payback is that you end up with a system that’s exactly as you like it.
So you see, the normal review criteria don’t apply to Arch. If you want to know what the default application for downloading torrents or burning CDs is…well, it’s the one you choose to install. Does it have a nice configuration center like Yast? Are you kidding me? No it doesn’t! Does it play multimedia out of the box? Er…no. It doesn’t do anything out of the box, except providing you with a very solid base for you to build your perfect desktop system upon.
Now, at this point you may think that Arch Linux is some kind of Linux From Scratch, where you have to do everything yourself, but that’s not exactly true. Arch does provide some very useful and unique features, like pacman and the wiki.
Pacman is Arch’s package manager, and it’s one of the best out there. It has all the features a package-manager should have, and it’s fast. In my experience, faster than apt-get, much faster than any rpm package manager. Yes, it’s command-line only. There are graphical front-ends like Shaman for those who are used to Synaptic or Adept, but command line is faster. I mentioned the command “pacman -Syu” earlier, which is all that’s needed to keep your system up to date. the “y” refreshes your repository databases, the “u” upgrades your system. For everything else, you’ll need to consult the wiki.
Ahh, the wiki. I once read that a distribution’s wiki (and not the forums) should be the first stop for users looking for help. In the case of Arch Linux, that’s certainly the case. The wiki is clear, easy to use, and huge. If you have a problem, chances are the solution is in here.
There are other nice features, like the AUR, the repository of community-driven, unsupported packages. It adds to the already impressive number of packages available in the official repositories. And if that’s not enough, there’s always ABS, Arch’s build system if you want to build packages yourself.
Basically, Arch is a do-it-yourself distro. That’s a totally different philosophy than the one used by Ubuntu, or OpenSuse, or Mandriva, or any other distribution that wants to provide an off-the-rack, works-for-everyone experience. There’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes, despite all the effort, things don’t work for everyone. Most of those times, the solution isn’t very hard, but getting under the hood of those distro’s isn’t always simple.
Arch is simple. It’s not easy at first, but it’s simple…and “simple” has the knack of becoming “easy” when you’re used to it. After the install, you end up with a system that has everything you want it to have, but nothing more. That means it’s light-weight, and fast, and unique, and very easy to maintain. After the initial hours of configuration, there’s not much left to be done. Upgrade the system every day. Sit back. Relax. Enjoy. I know I will.
PS: All screenshots were found in the monthly Arch Linux Screenshot threads, are used without permission, but because I liked them.