I kept hearing about Arch Linux from time to time. Every time I gathered courage to try Arch, I would be lost in the amazingly great Arch wiki. There is so much information there that at times it’s intimidating – it’s hard to find what you are looking for.
However, thanks to a guide from Life Hacker I was able to install Arch on my test machine. The system broke after two days, that was my mistake, and I almost gave up on it. But then decided to give it another try — I installed it again; it broke again. I installed again, and this time everything worked as expected. I was so impressed by Arch that I took a plunge and moved ahead to install it on my main PC (which I usually never touch, it runs openSUSE 12.2 and is extremely stable.) I did come across a few hurdles (I actually struggled to set-up Samba server for couple of hours before turning to the community for a solution), but the amazing Arch community on Google+ had answer to every single question that I raised. This experience with Arch encouraged me to share my experience with my readers.
My GNU/Linux journey
I started using GNU/Linux back in 2005. It was some Fedora machine. The magazine I used to work for offered a very poor Linux experience (that would make everyone hate GNU/Linux). I had become friends with the IT guy and he would tell me about the benefits of GNU/Linux. When one virus wiped images from my hard drive, I was forced to try the latest edition of Fedora thanks to that IT admin guy. I was part of the LINUXASIA event 2005 where I met the luminaries from the Linux world, and understood it deeply.
The a new journalist joined the magazine and he was a hard core GNU/Linux guy, Atanu Datta, and he introduced me to ‘better’ GNU/Linux. I tried PCLinuxOS and then Mandriva. It was Debian that became my first ‘stable’ OS. Then I moved to Ubuntu and stayed a loyal Ubuntu user till Unity happened.
In all these years I spent a lot of my time and resources in advocating and installing Ubuntu on user’s PCs (I was not getting paid to do that.) So when Unity came I did not show any knee-jerk reaction, I embraced it. I adopted it from the alpha days (knowing Unity was going to be the future of Ubuntu and I am an early adopter).
Ditching Unity and Ubuntu
While I loved Unity initially some components of it started to come in my workflow. Some bugs never got fixed and instead of enhancing my productivity, Unity became an obstacle — it started to come between me and what I wanted to do with my system. I thought that things would get better, but gradually I realized that these obstacle are the ‘design’ decisions which are going to stay forever. I gave it 2 releases but the arrival of HUD and no progress on some bugs that annoyed me gave me hints that things are not going to go in the direction that suits my workflow.
I was interested in Gnome Shell but there was no stable Ubuntu distro back then which could have been used so I looked at KDE. My rule with any new technology is to not judge it after using it only for couple of minutes. I spend at least a few weeks using a new system technology before I decide if it’s good or bad for me.
I downloaded openSUSE and started using it with KDE. I was very much impressed with the over all experience. openSUSE’s Yast compliments KDE as it offers complete control and management of your system from one place.
KDE is everywhere
I have devices in different form factors and each runs an OS optimize for that form factor – I have Android smartphones, tablets, eBook readers, Chromebooks and even Dell Mini netbooks. When I sit and work on my main desktop which has a huge monitor and powerful hardware, I don’t want to make any compromises. I don’t want an ATM UI running on my desktop. KDE turned out to be a great technology for my Dell Mini netwbook which has limited screen real estate.
I was very much happy with my openSUSE + KDE setup. There was no reason for me to look for an openSUSE alternative, but I was intrigued by the idea of a rolling release as I find less and less time for re-installing a distro every six months. I wanted to give Arch a try to just taste it once. It’s like wanting to go to Oktoberfest if you are living in Germany or trying Waffles or Mussels or Fries if you live in Belgium…it’s kinda must do if you have been using GNU/Linux for the last 8 years and plan to stay. openSUSE has Tumbleweed, but I find its packages to be older than one would expect from a rolling release and when Greg KH, the maintainer of Tumbleweed, wrote praise for Arch, I was compelled to try it.
The Life Hacker guide makes it really easy to install Arch Linux as removes all the additional information that the official guide provides. However, there is a short version of the installation on Arch Wiki, which may make it easier for anyone to try Arch.
The most important question is why do you need Arch? Can you handle the installation? If you are someone who wants to work with Linux as a career or who wants to understand how GNU/Linux systems work then you should try Arch, even if the installation looks a bit intimidating from a distance. Once you manage to cross the first hurdle, you will get comfortable with Arch and once you understand how it works you won’t be locked into any one Linux distribution as you will be able to use almost anything and everything.
As I stated above my first installation effort failed, but I did not give up and eventually succeeded in installing Arch on my test machine. The installation on my main machine went much smoother than I expected, given that it has Nvidia GPU. So, I would say installation gets better with more installations. So if you fail try it, over and over again unless you succeed
Preparing your system
When you install KDE on your Arch system you get pretty much a basic working machine. But you will need to install some applications and packages that don’t come with the standard KDE install. Arch has a lot of applications in the main repository, but you can install almost every app on the planet (available for Linux) thanks to AUR – Arch User Repository.
AUR is maintained by individual users who make these applications and packages available for other users. AUR needs you to compile applications manually, which may look cumbersome from a distance but it’s extremely easy. There are only three steps.
1. Download the packages from the AUR and extract it in a folder
2. Use the terminal, change directory to that folder and build the package using this simple command ‘makepkg -s’ which will create a package with .xz extension.
3. Once the package is built done run this command as root “pacman -U /path/to/pkg.tar.xz”
Simple, isn’t it? It can actually be made simpler by something called ‘yaourt’. It’s available in AUR, and you need to compile it using the above steps, which is very well explained here on the wiki page. Once you have installed yaourt, your life is much easier. Just open the terminal and run the command yaourt with the name of the package you want to install, for example, ‘yaourt avidemux’ and it will show all the packages available with that name, just select the number and it will begin the installation.
Yaourt also installs the packages from the main repositories. But you can always use the ‘pacman -S package_name’ to install any package. You can also install Apper which can manage updates and installations with greater ease though a GUI. Apper, however, can’t install packages from AUR; you need to use the yaourt command to do that.
Are there enough apps?
In my experience so far I have found almost everything that I was looking for in Arch – whether it was setting up the Plex media server, making my Nexus work with it, samba set-up or popular apps like Steam for Linux, everything was just a few clicks or commands away.
Support for proprietary hardware and software
You may often hear some distribution taking credits for the work actually done by others and claim that it works out of box with proprietary hardware. The fact is it’s the work done by Greg KH and the Linux kernel community who work with the hardware vendors to ensure that their hardware is well supported in Linux.
Arch benefits from the work of kernel developers as much as any other distribution and you can install drivers for your non-free hardware under Arch with greater ease. I was even able to use the kio-mtp package to make my Android 4.x devices work under Arch, which is still a ‘struggle’ under Ubuntu, which is supposed to be a ‘consumer-grade’ distro.
Installing Flash or non-free codec was also a breeze under Arch, as easy as it was under openSUSE or Ubuntu. So, support for non-free software and hardware is a non-issue under Arch Linux, in my case so far.
The good thing is once everything is set-up properly you wont have to re-install it every six month or learn new tricks to do the same old things.
Latest and greatest apps
One of the greatest advantages of using Arch Linux is that you are running the latest versions of the great apps without breaking or bloating your system. You don’t have to wait for the next release to keep your system updated with the newest technologies. The apps get updated constantly. I am currently running KDE 4.10 with greater ease and comfort. KDE 4.10 and Arch has actually surprised me as when I was on Ubuntu 12.10 I would often see the ‘error’ dialogue reporting some crashed app. I have not seen a single crash report in my 4 day’s usage so far. That’s even more surprising as I am using KDE 4.10 which is in testing stage. In my opinion you can’t get better than this.
Arch has a very comprehensive wiki, which will give you every possible information that you need. If you need support for something, there are many venues. There is a very active and friendly community on Google + and I had a solution within a few minutes of posting my queries there. That’s the kind of community you would want to contribute to or be part of.
The KDE experience
Arch gives you the similar kind of KDE experience as you get on openSUSE. They complement each other as Arch also allows you to configure almost every aspect of your system. I installed KDE 4.10 from unstable repository and it’s been running really well. The version brings quite a lot of improvements so if you have not tried the 4.10 builds, you should. KDE, in my opinion, is the most advanced desktop environment. When your run it on your system, you don’t make any compromises. You get the most out of your system.
Everything was just one click away.
Using Arch is like building your own bike, you are responsible for the parts you put in there. You can’t take it to Honda workshop and expect them to fix it. Yes, there is some investment initially, but once everything is in place, it’s quite stable. Once everything is stabilized, it’s your system. If you are someone who wants to understand the guts of Linux systems, if you want to master it and want to use a system which is being developed by the community, I think you should give Arch a try. If you want to make your PC personal again, you should give KDE and Arch a try, you will never be at the mercy of a company who tells you ‘my way or the highway.’