Arch linux – not just for geeks?
Well… I’m back after a lengthy respite from this here blog. Hehe, seems my last post was a tirade of sorts against the general state of linux; suffice to say that shortly thereafter I saw the error of my ways and have been 99% Windows free for the last several months. Today I’d like to share a few thoughts on one of my favorite distros, Arch, and along the way say a few things about KDE – my favorite DE. As I’ve written before, I’m no techie/guru/geek – just an average joe that has accumulated a fair amount of experience installing and troubleshooting linux distributions, so as always, this will be from that perspective.
Arch linux has the reputation of being for the hard-core linux enthusiast, and this is largely accurate. It can be a pain to install in particular, but the documentation is insanely detailed and helpful, so anyone that can read and follow instructions should be able to handle it. That said, Arch is remarkably simple to maintain once installed, and there are several reasons that even the relative newcomer to linux may want to give it a try. The first and perhaps most compelling reason to try Arch is that it is a true “rolling release”. What that means is that once you install it, you should NEVER have to reinstall it, as is necessary for most other distros, especially those aimed at the linux newcomer (Ubuntu, Mint, Fedora, etc). Your entire system – kernel, DE, tool chain (yeah I know – that makes me sound like a geek) and all applications are regularly updated to the newest possible versions. That touches on the second reason to maybe try Arch: bleeding edge software. You will get the latest version of Firefox, GIMP, Chromium, KDE, Gnome, whatever almost immediately upon its release into the wild. Days or weeks before other distros get ‘em – if they get ‘em at all. The third reason to love Arch is its package manager (pacman). It’s immensely powerful, easy to use (once you learn it), and FAST. The only thing it lacks currently is delta updates – the ability to save bandwidth by downloading only the difference between the old and new package. Fedora’s yum package manager uses delta extensively and it can cut your download bandwidth significantly. My understanding (I could well be wrong here) is that pacman has the capability to do it, but it hasn’t been implemented widely as of yet.
My adventure with Arch began after growing bored with the sameness of the major distros. I started reading the Arch wiki pages and soon downloaded the install iso. From there I followed the infamous Beginner’s Guide almost to the letter. I was stymied somewhat by the internet setup step, as I rely on WPA-encrypted wireless, and the guide wasn’t entirely clear as to how to deal with a provider name (essid) that includes several words and numbers. I did eventually figure it out, but I’d hate to have to figure it out again. So I had it installed, and I now had it connected to the internet, but I was (as is the Arch way) left with the choice as to what to install next. Let me back up a bit. A fresh install gives you a command line interface – no nice pointy clicky windowy goodness. This is by design. You are left to choose which desktop environment (DE) to install (if any), as well as which programs to install. Before I chose my DE, I installed the wonderful wicd – a program that greatly simplifies connecting to the internet. No more fighting with my provider’s name via command-line trickery!
The choice of DE was a rather easy one for me. After a few years of being a Gnome person by way of Ubuntu and Mint, gnome decided to morph itself into something I found – and still find – less usable. This would be the infamous switch from gnome2 to gnome3 – or more accurately, to gnome-shell. I hated it then and hate it now. I had dabbled with Xfce and kinda liked it, but it seemed a bit limited. KDE had always seemed a bit intimidating to me up to this point. I’d used it and liked it, but there was just so MUCH of it. And OMG – every little detail of every included program was configurable to a degree that was… well, it just seemed like a lot is all. I can’t actually recall the distro that finally opened my eyes to the greatness of KDE. It was most likely either Mepis or PCLinuxOS. Or maybe openSUSE. Anyway, by the time I was installing Arch I was just over the learning curve of KDE and really liking it. Again, the choice of DE for me in Arch was easy: KDE, and since I had a fairly big partition to devote to Arch (20Gb), I installed the whole freakin’ KDE kit and kaboodle.
It should be noted here that there were several steps that I had to go through before my behemoth download of the entirety of KDE was up and running upon each boot. These steps are very clearly explained in the hallways of the extremely well maintained Arch wiki – any question I had was easily answered with copy-and-pastable clarity. It’s basically a matter of editing a surprisingly few files. I mean like 3 or 4 files. Easy as pie, and it really gives you the feeling that you are in control of what your operating system is up to, as opposed to wondering why something runs at boot time (or when – or if – your DE starts) or not. All part of the “Arch way” – simplicity, but not simple as in click-click-done. More like simple as in “here are the files that control everything – and here’s what’ll happen when you do this… or this… to them”. Within a very short time I was up to speed with the basics of the Arch way and into taming the beast that is KDE.
KDE is indeed a huge pile of stuff, with an even huger pile of ways to configure it. No other DE even comes close in this regard. One look at the System Settings app can be unsettling to say the least. Workspace Appearance, Desktop Appearance? There’s a difference? Huh? To say nothing of Window Behavior and Workspace Behavior. I’d played with all these before, but now I was determined to actually understand and make use of all the gazillions of settings. It’s all second nature now, and I can have any KDE distro set up to my liking within a few minutes, but to the uninitiated all the options may seem – ummm… like too many questions. I’m not gonna go into detail here because there’s just too much to cover, but I will recommend a few things. First, if you want to speed things up a bit and use fewer system resources (memory mostly), turn off Desktop Search entirely. Along with that, disable the dreaded akonadi server. Instructions as to how to do both of these are strewn amongst the fora of almost any linux distro, and probably somewhere in the Arch wiki as well. Many folks also like to disable Desktop Effects as well, but I like ‘em and I find they don’t really slow me down even on my little HP Mini netbook (1Gb RAM). Also look into Startup and Shutdown under Service Manager and disable stuff you don’t need – for me there are 6-7 things to disable here. All these will result in a far snappier KDE using less memory than even your typical Ubuntu or Mint install.
Which brings us back to Arch. Because you have so much control over what runs (or not) by default, Arch with KDE tends to be among the fastest KDE’s around. On my old Compaq sr5510 with 4Gb RAM and Nvidia GE 240 video, 64 bit Arch/KDE idles at around 280-320Mb RAM usage. That’s lower (for me) than the big boy distros with KDE, and only my Gentoo/KDE install does better. But that’s a story for another day. To sum up all this rambling, I guess my point is that with a bit of reading and determination, anyone can have an Arch/KDE setup that will never need to be reinstalled/upgraded. A simple “pacman -Syu” every week or so will keep you using the latest and greatest linux software that your Ubuntu-using buddies will be ever-so-jealous of. Or something…