Arch is hard to replace

February 15, 2010

There’s a good reason I stayed with Arch for so long: it was simple, easy, behaved exactly as it should and it didn’t break. Until now.

The random plasma crashes are probably because of the recent upgrade to KDE 4.4, and I’m reasonably sure it would be solved if I delete the .kde dir or, in the worst case scenario, reinstall. In fact, I’m pretty sure the plasmoids I have installed from the AUR are the problem…

But the network problems baffle me. I don’t have these in other Linux distributions, but I don’t use them as much as I use Arch. The problem is only with the wired connection, my wireless LinkSys USB wireless thingamajammy could always connect (up until it fell and broke :/). I’m beginning to think the cable might be too long…grasping at straws here.

In any case, I started looking at possible replacements. Over the last couple of days, I tried quite a few:

I didn’t try out OpenSuse KDE, because I was curious about the GNOME version, there’s no Ubuntu because I already had Linux Mint, and I didn’t include Fedora although I wanted to, because I’m a bit worried about my download limit.

My requirements aren’t very hard, I believe.

  1. Relatively easy way to install/configure the nvidia drivers.
  2. I prefer KDE over GNOME, but will use both.
  3. List of preferred applications: nano, Pidgin, Chromium, Amarok/Rhythmbox, Transmission, audacious, k3b/Brasero, Comix, emelfm2 (or Krusader as an alternative), Yakuake/Guake.
  4. If KDE, I prefer the Smooth-Tasks plasmoid over the normal taskbar, and since I dislike the cashew, the I-hate-the-cashew plasmoid is a bonus too.
  5. Multimedia out of the box or easy to install/configure.
  6. No show-stopping bugs, crashes, or other unpleasantries.

So, let’s see what the various distributions are up against.

Arch:

  1. pacman -S nvidia && nvidia-xsettings. Okay, it’s command line, but for me, it’s as easy as that. Never fails.
  2. Arch only installs a base system, so both KDE and GNOME (and everything else) are easily installed. Arch’s packages are split, so you can pacman -S kde for the whole shebang, or pick and choose.
  3. Of those list, nano is installed by default. Everything else is in the official repositories.
  4. Both plasmoids are available in the AUR, so they’re “packaged” by volunteers. You need to be careful with these, but they’re easily installed.
  5. Many options. pacman -S gstreamer0.10-plugins && pacman -S flashplayer will be enough for most people.
  6. I guess the black screens after the latest KDE install and network problems fall in this category.

Now it’s time to have a look at the contenders:

Debian:

  1. Oh dear. While there’s plenty of documentation available, building the nvidia kernel module always failed for me without any helpful errors. I’ve tried this twice, but it just didn’t work. What I didn’t try is installing the drivers from the nvidia website…I didn’t feel like repeating that every time a new kernel came out.
  2. Debian’s repositories are absolutely huge, so both KDE and GNOME are available. The default CD1 installs GNOME, but KDE and XFCE editions are available.
  3. Everything I needed was either already installed or easy to install. Concerning Chromium/Chrome, Google provides a .deb package, but I heard these add their own repository to your sources.list, so use at your own risk.
  4. Not tested
  5. Not tested
  6. Not tested

OpenSuse:

  1. Easy One Click install is available. It’s not very fast, but it works well.
  2. I tried out the GNOME version based on this review.  Of course, KDE is available too.
  3. Again, huge repositories where I found everything I needed. Not all repositories were enabled by default, so this page was a big help. It searches for and installs software in a way familiar to Windows, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
  4. Not tested, since I used GNOME. However, smooth tasks is in the repositories. The cashew plasmoid isn’t, but in OpenSuse you can hide it by default
  5. Multimedia codecs aren’t installed by default, but can be easily installed here.
  6. OpenSuse was a bit of a surprise. I liked the looks very much, and it was faster then I remembered, especially Yast. However, I couldn’t get compiz to work. It would start, and I’d have wobbly windows for one second, then it would switch back. This happened on two separate installs.

Mandriva 2010:

  1. Installing the nvidia drivers has been a problem before for me, but this time they were already available after the installation. I didn’t have to do anything. Pleasant surprise.
  2. Both GNOME and KDE are available, I tried KDE.
  3. Mandriva is the only one of the distributions I tried which didn’t have nano installed by default. Considering how small this console editor is, I see no reason not to include it, but there you are. Chromium I found by enabling the backport repositories, and everything else was available too.
  4. Again a pleasant surprise: both plasmoids were available.
  5. In a way similar to Ubuntu, Mandriva detects if you want to play media which is restricted by copyright issues, and offers to install the necessary packages.
  6. There really isn’t much that isn’t to like in Mandriva. There were only two small issues: I found fonts didn’t look as nice on my monitor as they do in the other distributions, and the locale outside of X wasn’t configured properly: I still had a qwerty keyboard. Definitely a contender.

Sidux 2009.04:

  1. Installing the nvidia drivers is not very simple, but it works well. The documentation can be found here.
  2. Sidux comes with KDE as the default. XFCE is available too.
  3. When it came to software, the only problem was finding a Chromium package, but adding a repository rather amusingly called frickelplatz solved that issue.
  4. The cashew plasmoid couldn’t be found, but adding another repository named xadras made Smooth tasks available.
  5. As far as I could see, sidux played multimedia out of the box. I didn’t rest this rigorously.
  6. Some problems here. I installed sidux twice, and the first time everything seemed okay. The second time however problems arose. One boot everything would be okay, the second one the locale would be wrong and I’d end up with a qwerty keyboard. Also, the system didn’t register the first two keystrokes after switching virtual desktop. Extremely odd.

Linux Mint:

  1. Mint’s based on Ubuntu, so it detects automatically if you have hardware which needs restricted drivers, and offers to installs them. Never fails.
  2. Mint’s default is GNOME, but a KDE version is available too. I didn’t test this, because this version  is mainly the standard edition with KDE slapped on top, which makes it a 1,1 GB download.
  3. Everything I needed was already installed, except for Guake and Chromium. Guake was in the repotories, for Chromium I needed to add this PPA to the software sources, which was easily done.
  4. Not tested (GNOME)
  5. Mint prides itself on playing everything out of the box.
  6. I had high hopes for Mint: it provides everything I want, looks fantastic, and never failed me before. However, this time it did. I had no problems in the LiveCD, or right after install, but after the necessary updates, it no longer auto-mounted my USB stick. I installed Mint twice just to be sure, with the same result. I could see the USB stick when I opened “My Computer”, but had to double-click it to mount it. Installing gnome-volume-manager temporarily solved it, but then it reappeared. All in all, disappointing.

And the winner is:

Arch.

That may not be a surprise. There’s nothing much wrong with Mandriva, and I probably would have kept Mint if it didn’t have that USB stick bug, but after testing all those I simply installed Arch again. It took me 25 minutes all in all, KDE 4.4 is behaving now, and the network problems haven’t returned so far. Arch really is radically simple, there’s no substitute for /etc/rc.conf, for pacman, and for the stability that comes with a policy of not patching anything unless there’s absolutely no other way.

Granted, the rolling release model means that things occasionally break. Regular checks of the homepage are required before any major updates, to stay informed of possible issues. But in my experience, no distribution is entirely bug free. Non of them however, comes as close as Arch.

KDE SC 4.4 and Arch

KDE SC 4.4 and Arch

San


Sidux 2008-03

September 24, 2008

In my last post I goofed. I said to be looking forward to Sidux 2008-04, but apparently 2008-03 has just come out. In my defence, I based myself on the latest Distrowatch Weekly, which claims 2008-04 will be out next month, which won’t be very likely. In my defence, 2008-03 was late, because of a bug in the virtualb-ose package, and actually the release number doesn’t matter that much, because just like Arch, it has a rolling release model. More info at the website.

A quick introduction taken straight from Distrowatch: “The sidux distribution is a desktop-oriented operating system and live CD based on the unstable branch of Debian GNU/Linux. Besides full compatibility with its parent, the distribution also offers a custom kernel with support for a wide variety of modern hardware devices, KDE as the default desktop environment, a rolling release cycle, and compliance with Debian’s Free Software guidelines.”

Anyway, yesterday I grabbed the iso and installed it. There’s a choice of iso downloads: a full KDE LiveDVD (2GB), and two LiveCDs, one with KDE-lite, and one with XFCE. Both are fairly small, between 400 and 500 MB. I like my operating systems to fit on a single CD, so those were more interesting to me. Choosing between KDE and XFCE wasn’t hard…I don’t like XFCE. I just find the configuration tools confusing, which is of course a very personal thing.

The LiveCD ran just fine, and it would have surprised me if it hadn’t. There’s nothing exotic about my hardware, and Sidux has the reputation of being rock-solid stable. There was a nice surprise right at the GRUB menu, which was the inclusion of Dutch as a possible language. A look at the website taught me that this was a new feature for 2008-03, and also that it’s only supposed to be included in the LiveDVD. Obviously, this is because of space restraints: there’s simply no room on the LiveCD to include all possible translations. Sure enough, almost everything was in English. Since I deliberately chose kde-lite, I was fine with that.

Performance of the LiveCD was great. It must have been the fastest boot of any LiveCD with KDE I ever tried, but even more impressive was the snappiness which the applications opened with. I had heard that Sidux was very fast, and it didn’t disappoint.
Same thing happened with the installation: after filling in all the information it just took 4 minutes to finish the install. Four minutes! That’s lightning!
The install program itself has been kept simple. It exists out of a single window, with tabs. There’s a detailed overview of the whole installation available at the Sidux website, but the installer on 2008-03 has a prettier theme than the one on the screenshots there (Qtcurve). All in all, it’s pretty easy.

It looks okay too, without being exceptional. As a said, the style is Qtcurve, with a colour-scheme called “Invisible Light”. The icons are standard Everaldo SVG, and the moise pointer style is DMZ-Black (same style Ubuntu uses, only, well, black). There are two pieces of artwork custom made for Sidux. One is the background, which is…trippy. It’s the winner of the Sidux wallpaper contest in August, and it can be found here, together with the other contestants. The other is the KDE splash screen, which is based on the background. As I said, it’s decent enough, but it doesn’t wow me.

After the install, I was online, my screen had the right resolution, and my printer was easily added. However, everything still was in English. The language itself wasn’t a problem, since the Dutch KDE packages are easily installed. However, Sidux assumed that because I speak Dutch, I am Dutch, and I’m not. I’m Belgian. And us crazy Belgians use another keyboard layout. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Belgium and France using an azerty layout while the rest of the world uses qwerty is kind of crazy. But almost every Linux install I did asked me what keyboard layout I wanted, and Sidux didn’t. Even switching KDE layouts, which is easy enough, doesn’t solve the problem, because as soon as I dropped out of X I zqs hqving +qny difficulties, like this. This also affects KDM, and since my password contains numbers and other special signs, I had some trouble logging in. Lucky for me that I have used qwerty before, but I can’t imagine this being easy for everyone.
After some forum-searching I found the right commands to fix this (dpkg-reconfigure locales && dpkg-reconfigure console-data), but even after that I had to edit xorg.conf to get the layout right in KDM. As you can see, I had to do a lot of CLI messing around to just get the keyboard layout right, so Sidux definitely is aimed at more seasoned Linux users. Previous Debian experience is a plus.

Now for my next test. As I said, Sidux booted into the right 1680×1050 resolution, which is rare, but I still wanted the nvidia drivers . I had already looked at the Manual how to do this, but for good measure, I fiddled around in the Sidux Kontrol center, and sure enough, I could change the driver from “nv” to “nvidia”. Of course, since I hadn’t installed the drivers, I expected a black screen upon restarting X, and sure enough, that’s what happened. It was easily fixed, but it would have been nice if selecting the nvidia driver would have automatically installed it.
Anyway, installing it involved downloading and installing a script, which then downloaded and installed the nvidia driver. It worked just fine, but it’s not really obvious.
Just for the hell of it, I decided to install compiz-fusion. I don’t really care for desktop effects, but I wanted to see how easy/difficult it was. As it turns out, it’s the same story everywhere: you can do it, but it involves the command line, it takes some trial and error, and in the end, it works. Soon my windows were wobbling all over the place. For those interested, this site helped me a lot. It’s in German though. The best thing? After switching to compiz as a window manager, I didn’t notice a drop in performance at all. It’s blazingly fast.

As a matter of fact, even installing software is done with apt-get, and not the usual Synaptic. Actually, using Synaptic is strongly discouraged.

All in all, Sidux leaves me with mixed feelings. On the plus side, it’s very fast, it works, it’s relatively stable (logging out of KDE caused a crash every know and then, but otherwise it ran just fine), plays mp3s out of the box, has excellent hardware support, and looks okay. It’s probably the best and easiest way to run Debian unstable. On the other hand, it’s definitely not for the new Linux user. If you want to run this, you will have to dive into the wonderful world of the command line, and start learning to edit those configuration files. The Wiki and the Manual can help you there, but they’re a bit random, so you’ll need the forum too.. There’s a bit of a learning curve here, and I’m sure that it easier along the way. Don’t pick this as your first Linux distribution, but if you love Debian, and you want to run recent software without too much hassle, I’d say this is the distro for you.

San

PS: Next up is Vector 5.9.1 SOHO.


Distributions I’m looking forward to

September 21, 2008

I’m back. Since I’ve spent a week outside visiting castles, ruins, museums and bookshops, there isn’t much I can write about…I haven’t tinkered, not even a single little tink. But I am looking forward to the upcoming releases of some distributions, some of them old favourites, some of them I’ve never installed before.

Debian 5.0

I have never installed Debian before, which seems crazy even to me. I think my reasoning was “Well, I’ve installed Ubuntu, and Ubuntu is Debian, right? Right? Hello? Anyone?”
Anyway, since I’ve installed almost any well-known Debian derivate, except the all-father itself, that’s what I’ll do when it comes out. That should be this month.

Mandriva 2009

Mandriva has been a favourite of mine. As a everything-and-the-kitchen-sink, I thought it came very close to Ubuntu. That’s why I tried a few betas of the next release, and to my surprise I didn’t like them at all. Installing software proved to be impossible, and using the nvidia driver didn’t work either. I hope these issues won’t show up for me in the final release. It’s scheduled to show up on the servers early next month.

Ubuntu 8.10

This one’s a given. As I mentioned before, I think Ubuntu does the best job in providing an OS for the “normal” PC user. By that I mean someone who doesn’t want to know about computers, and instead just use them. Unlike previous releases, I haven’t tried a single alpha. If any of the betas have the final new artwork, I probably will install that. Ubuntu will hit the download mirrors somewhere in the final week of October.

Sidux 2008-04

Another one I haven’t tried yet, but a distribution that seems to have a very loyal fanbase, at least judging from the comments on various newsboards. On the surface, it doesn’t have any special feature that really grabs my attention, but it’s said to be fast and stable. We’ll see. Like Ubuntu and Mandriva, it should appear somewhere next month.

Fedora 10

Fedora Core 1 was one of the first Linux distributions I ever installed (and messed up completely). Since then, I switched to other distributions, vor various reasons. One is the love of Fedora for bleeding edge software…I like a bit of stability on my PC. Another is the fact that it’s RPM based, which to me has always been slower than pacman or apt. But since it’s been a while since I tried Fedora, I’ll probably give it a go when it comes out, which should be November 18th.

PCLinuxOS 2008

Ah, the distribution that is slowly becoming legendary by not appearing. In the last month, I’ve noticed quite a lot of grumbles about the delay, which is a change of pace for the once fan-favourite number one of the Distrowatch rankings. Of course, PCLinuxOS is supposed to be a rolling release OS, but downloading a 600+ MB ISO, and having to download an additional 600 just for updates isn’t really everyone’s cup of tea. Apparently, it’s “very close to release”, but it has been very close to release for a while now. Fingers crossed.

And last but not least:

TinyMe 2008.1

Interesting, because it’s based on PCLinuxOS 2008 (or 2008.1?), which doesn’t exist, and even more interesting because it offers LXDE, which is Openbox made easy. There aren’t many distros that offer Openbox as the default WM, because, let’s face it, Openbox is for geeks 😉 LXDE tries to make it a bit easier while maintaining the obvious Openbox advantages of simplicity, configurability and speed. I’m curious to see how TinyMe holds up against my own Arch + Openbox configuration (which I think is absolutely perfect for me, but did take some time to get right).
The first alpha release of TinyMe has just appeared, so I guess the final release is still some time away.

In any case, I have some busy months ahead of me 🙂

San