Arch Linux: The Review Pros and Cons

Linux distribution reviews are a regular feature of linux journalism. Twice a year a new Ubuntu release sees the light of day and sometimes they are deemed worthy of writeups depending on how ‘big’ the release is, and also-probably how slow the newsday is. I suspect most people don’t read them as ‘consumer guide’ reviews like for films but more as a chance to reinforce existing opinions or just chew the cud.

Arch Linux is a rolling release and a DIY one at that so it poses a challenge for journalists. Whatever you’re writing about, it is not something that can be experienced by others. It’s your build at a specific moment in time. And since there really isn’t anything particularly Archy about the Arch gnome packages once they’re in place, that options is out as well. So most journalists tend to stay away.

I think the way not to review Arch is to review the process of installing it and then building your system. What you’ll in effect be reviewing is your own patience because Arch takes longer to install to the point where you have a useable system than a desktop-centric mainstream. The way to review is not even to report on daily usage because sometimes the thing works and sometimes it doesn’t. What is needed is to take the very long view and ask: Over a period of years of useage is Arch worth it compared to the mainstream distros? Because the time spent fiddling is only – if at all – recouped/compensated over that time period.

Of course this assumes that the primary purpose of the system is for it to work as a reliable working OS and not a hobby. You may gain hobbyist pleasures from your time spent working on it but that should not be the only or even primary aim.

I’ve been using Arch Linux for the better part of five years. I’ve tried to jump ship on a number of occasions but like a victim of domestic abuse I keep coming back. So to cut a long story short my answer to my own question is obviously ‘yes’. But with the caveat that I kinda wish it wasn’t. Which leads me to the first point of order.

Installation: Do linux distributions really ‘just work’™ nowadays?

My answer: No. I wish they did because then I’d find leaving Arch much easier. Fedora, Ubuntu, etc. all seem to hold out a reality in which you run the installer and add your own packages and then you’re set. I’ve never seen that promised land. There’s always something that crashes or something that gets assigned a shitty driver. And then you have to try and fix it using your wits and the internet. Is Arch any different? Yes. First off, you didn’t arrive at a finished product and found it broken; you hit a bump in the road of your own system building project. Even if the challenge was the same, the psychology is different. Which is reflected in the help you’ll find on the internet: If Ubuntu breaks, users whine. If an Arch build is tricky for the very same reason, users search for explanations and solutions. Second, I find Arch is easier to fix. I’ll have to rely on imagery rather than examples here because I don’t maintain an alternative distro. In Arch getting to the innards seems obvious and easy; in Ubuntu and to a lesser extent Fedora the innards are hidden away. It’s like the difference between an oldschool screwed together Thinkpad with a maintenance guide and a glued together Microsoft Surface. It’s not as bad as that, I’m sure, but that’s the general idea.

The most recent example I can think of is that I bought a USB wifi dongle for my desktop because the cabling was getting unwieldy. The linux kernel does have a driver for it which gets assigned autmatically but the driver is faulty and speed drops after a couple of minutes to a crawl. I tried in vain to find and install a replacement on an attempted Fedora install but gave up. On Arch the solution was easily found on the AUR. Which brings me to my next point.

Packages: Is it all there?

Arch linux has something mainstream distributions don’t have: the Arch User Repository, an accumulation of recipes for building packages not found among those maintained by the project’s developers, administrators and trusted users. It is a beautifully democratic and useful addition – without it the amount of software available to Arch users would be rather limited. In the end though the real question is: Does this mean that there is more on offer to Arch users than competing distros? I don’t know. I tried searching for Fedora packages for the ones my server gets from the AUR and found replacements for most but not all. In conclusion: Arch couldn’t do without the AUR but that in and of itself is not a reason to choose Arch over other distros.

Speed: Are we still doing this?

I’m only including this bit because it used to be a discussion. In the age of multiple CPU cores, SSDs and universal adoption of the same init this isn’t really something worth talking about anymore. Don’t choose Arch because you believe it is faster or leaner than other distros. It might be but you aren’t going to be waiting on Ubuntu anyway, and Fedora’s GNOME won’t eat any more or less RAM than Arch’s. I’m not running a performance box but I’ve still got 8 Gb of memory. Why? Because it’s not expensive and it was just lying about. I run up to five concurrent Firefox profiles just because I can and so can you.

Updates and maintenance: Bleeding edge my bloody ass

You will occasionally come across Arch users that smile annoyingly at you and claim that ‘fixing’ their system is just issuing the command: ‘Pacman -Syu’. Smile, nod, walk backwards, don’t break eye contact. These people don’t know what they’re talking about. ‘Bleeding edge’ means that Arch Linux breaks with updates. This is supposedly a feature., something to set it apart from Debian. Occasionally a longstanding glitch that you had trained yourself to ignore will disappear with an update and you’ll go ‘well, that’s nice and progressy’. Mostly though, updates break stuff. When it’s good, you get a forewarning from the developers. When it’s bad, you’ll spend that afternoon on bug fixing instead of writing, gaming, writing code or whatever else you had planned. When it’s really bad, you go get your work laptop running Windows. Yeah, I know. My shameful Arch secret is that I dream that one day I’ll have a bugfree system that nothing can bring down. And then I’ll look over my shoulder and then… I’ll stop updating. Please don’t tell the developers because admitting you don’t update is llike telling your dentist that you don’t floss.

Example: Sometime in spring 2014 I updated and got a new nvidia driver. The new driver might have been an improvement on some counts. I only saw that it played havoc with some Gnome component not clearly identified. For some three or four months I had to make do with the open source nouveau driver which meant that gaming was out. In the summer I could bring back the official nvidia driver as now the result was only glitchy, not havocy. As of today – January 2015 – you can still wait for a couple of seconds for nautilus to display the files in the directory and Firefox tabs have a weird non-updating glitch.

Would it have been better if somebody had spotted this problem and withheld the Nvidia update? Yes. Much yes. Would that have been more likely on a mainstream distro? I don’t know but I think so. We might kid ourselves but nobody really needs the very latest and greatest. No feature is that important that it’s wort sacrificing daily performance and peace of mind for.

Customization: The sweet spot

Arch is what you make of it, they say. And in this regard, they are for once speaking true. People considering Arch will most likely be those with a deepseated interest in customizing their OS to within an inch of it’s life. And with DIY building at it’s core Arch caters to that desire. The question is do you really need Arch for that? Couldn’t you just as well start hacking away at Ubuntu. I cannot say for sure. I found it more difficult at the time I was using Ubuntu but I had much less linux experience back then. I suspect that one of the main problems with the ‘hacking away’ approach as opposed to ‘building from the ground up’ approach to customization is that even if you know what you’re doing to e.g. a daemon – stop, start, disable etc. – it’s hard to know exactly what function it serves in the original designer’s vision. And so you’ll probably break the very things that is supposed to make the pre-built distro more appealing than the DIY distro.

The fact that most Ubuntu derivatives I have seen are shit seems to imply that customizing Ubuntu isn’t as easy as all that, at least when you’re working directly against Canonical’s directives. The old one-man project Ubuntu Gnome Remix is springs to mind (please note that this has since been adopted by Canonical and has probably improved as a result)

What is beyond doubt is that Archers benefit from a community that favours customization to a higher degree than Ubuntu or similar. The wiki is renowned and the forums tend to be better at producing actual help than those of say, Ubuntu.

Learning linux: Arch FTW

Arch Linux is brilliant as a way to learn linux. It is honest about what’s beneath the bonnet but it still allows even beginners to get results within a reasonable amount of time. In the context of learning the taste of succes is akin to salt. It shouldn’t be sprinkled to liberally but without it there’s no joy in eating/learning. Some people might insist that you need to take the plunge and go for Gentoo or LFS in order to ‘properly’ learn linux. Yes, when you’re ready for it there is without a doubt valuable lessons. But not as the next step up from mainstream distros. I wouldn’t recommend Arch to a complete novice but it should be compulsory reading if you want to get to intermediate levels. If linux is LEGO, then Arch is Technics, and there comes a time when Duplos just don’t cut it any more.

Was that a review? I guess not. I’m still with Arch and I doubt that I’ll try breaking away again before I get a new PC. If there is a conclusion it’s that you tend to stay with whatever you happen to acquire expertise in. For me that’s Arch but it could probably just as well have been Fedora or Ubuntu if things had worked out between us. It needn’t be for you though. Run, boy, run.

The use of Arch Linux trademarks (including logos) in this post is not intended to imply endorsement of the opinions expressed by the Arch Linux community or trademark holders. I believe that their useage is permitted as commentary under the Arch Linux trademark policy.

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