You have to hand it to the Chakra project developers: they sure have ambition. Don’t expect a remastered Ubuntu here, Chakra takes the do-it-yourself distribution Arch, and tries to make the installation easy, providing you with the latest and greatest KDE in the process. Chakra has more or less grew out of KDEmod, a modded and modular set of KDE packages for Arch. Apparently, the devs decided that they might as well slap an installer together and create a whole new distribution. Easier said than done…
I say “distribution”, but the Chakra people are apparently very modest and call it a distrolet. Their reasoning is that after the install, you end up with regular Arch, albeit with their version of KDE. Be that as it may, they also included their own tools: the installer Tribe, the package manager front-end Shaman, the system config utility Arxin, and even live media creation scripts. In my book, Chakra certainly qualifies to be called a distribution. I know many other projects certainly do, even if they’re just a glorified Ubuntu…
In any case, Chakra is still alpha software, and it hasn’t that many developers working on it, so it’s progress is rather slow. On the other hand, those devs are involved in KDE itself, so they have a pretty good pedigree. Still, bugs are to be expected, maybe even serious ones.
I grabbed the torrent from the website (apparently the servers were a bit overloaded after release), and copied it to a USB stick according to the instructions on the website. Upon boot, I was greeted with a few options, one of them including non-free software. I have a nVidia graphics card in this machine, so that’s what I chose. I booted into a nice looking, but default KDE. As far as I know, the only modification that has been made is the menu button, which is the Chakra swirly icon instead of the usual K. I was online, things looked good, so I clicked the “Install” icon on the desktop. Apparently, the installer checks for new versions of itself before running, which is a good idea, but unfortunately the newly downloaded version didn’t work. It got stuck, showing me a message “Setting up Tribe”. After a quick search around the forums, I learned that this is a known bug, and typing “sudo tribe” in a terminal takes care of that. The installer works fine after that, but it’s not a great start, really.
As you can see on the screenshots, Tribe looks fantastic. The various installation steps are visible in a list on the left, in a layout that reminds me of the openSuse installer. I especially liked the globe when choosing Language and Time settings. The disk partitioner on the other hand, was a bit confusing. You have to click the various options to change them (like mount point, filesystem, etc), instead of a general “Edit Partition…” button. It works just as well, it just isn’t that obvious. This part of the installation also took a very long time, to the point where I thought it had crashed. A couple of steps later and you’re installing the system, which happens very fast until you hit the part where the default mirror for the package manager is selected. You can’t choose from a list, instead Chakra uses the rankmirror script by default, which checks the five fastest mirrors in your location. It’s a good idea, but it takes a long time.
Eventually, there are a couple of configuration steps left to do, like creating the user (which you can grant Ubuntu-like sudo privileges), the root user, and installing the boot loader. You can choose the right partition, but you have to do it in grub-speak (hd0 for the MBR, hd0,0 for the first partition, etc). Again, this might not be obvious for everybody.
After a quick reboot you can enjoy your brand new Chakra system…well, you could, if grub hadn’t added hd0,4,4 to my configuration file, instead of hd0,4. This is such a strange error that I was wondering if I hadn’t made the mistake myself. I’m fairly sure that I didn’t. In any case, it’s quickly solved, but you need to know where to look. Another issue I had: the locale was correct, but the keymap wasn’t. Because I have quite a lot of experience with Arch, I knew I had to edit /etc/rc.conf and /etc/hal/fdi/policy/10-keymap.fdi, but I can’t imagine normal users knowing about this. Finally, upon reboot, I noticed that a couple of daemons failed to stop: networkmanager, avahi, and cdemud. I disabled the last two, because I have no need of them, and as far as I can see it’s not like there’s any trouble because of it. Still, it’s worrying to see that big red “FAIL” scrolling by.
A final minor point: a distribution that aims to look good, as Chakra obviously does, really shouldn’t have messages scrolling by at boot or shutdown at all. I prefer a nice scroll bar or animation, with the possibility to hit Esc or F2 for the more detailed messages.
Upon first boot into KDE, I was greeted with a very familiar sight: a popup asking me to configure Automatic Updates. It’s looks and like the Windows Updater, but upon reflection it really is the best way to handle Arch’s rolling release model. I am however very happy that “Download and install the updates automatically” is the last option available, and is clearly marked as dangerous. This is true for any OS but certainly Arch: look at what you’re about to install. Arch has been very solid for me, but occasionally things do go wrong. For example, the latest update of the KDE printer applet made it crash every time at boot. I knew what I had installed, I checked the Chakra and Arch forums, saw people having the same problem, and waited a day. The next update solved the problem.
This brings me to another advantage of Arch, and by extension Chakra: you’re running the latest software. KDE was updated from 4.3.1 to 4.3.2 less than a day after the official release. I’m running the latest and greatest, which from a security point of view, is always a good idea. Hardware detection was very good too: the nVidia graphics card was detected and configured properly, and so was my wireless USB dongle. This is something the Chakra devs had to add in Tribe, because I know I have to do these things myself in Arch. Cups however wasn’t added to the main configuration file (/etc/rc.conf), and I had to add it myself to be able to use the network printer.
I mentioned before that I installed the Minimal CD. The official release will be a DVD image, but in the case of the CD, Minimal means indeed minimal. You get a barebones KDE, with Kaffeine, K3b and Arora, but that’s it. Everything else can be installed with Shaman, the package manager. The upside here is that Chakra/KDEmod splits the traditional KDE packages, so for instance it’s possible to install just Ksnapshot, and not the entire kde-graphics package. I prefer to use pacman and the command line, but Shaman is a very good (easier?) alternative.
All in all, I’m impressed. As I said in the introduction, Chakra is still alpha, so the problems I encountered can certainly be forgiven. They can easily be solved by anyone with a bit of experience with Arch Linux, but for others they might be show stoppers. I’m pretty sure they will be ironed out at the time of the final release though, because it’s quite obvious the Chakra devs know what they’re doing. They wanted to bring the speed, stability, and rolling release model of Arch, combined with the elegance and beauty of KDE to the average user, and in my opinion they’re well on their way there. Tribe needs some work, but it works. Some configuration has to be automated even more, but most of it has been taken care of. Shaman is an excellent and easy front-end of the command line package manager pacman. The rolling release model makes very frequent updates necessary, which the Chakra devs have solved by including a sane Automatic Updater, which provides plenty of information both before and after install. They’re very much on the right track, and I feel confident to predict that Chakra will become a popular choice among Linux users when the first release hits the internet. I know I’m sold: I’m using it as my main OS at the moment.