Friday, 30 April 2010

Here goes again

Distributions always seem to be something I can't settle on. While I always seem to gravitate back to Ubuntu from time to time, I still try to find a better one for me. And in that seemingly never-ending quest, I've gone through a lot of distributions. I have a folder of CDs and DVDs that now encompasses five BSDs, an OpenSolaris snapshot, four development releases, and currently twenty different Linux distributions.
So, once in a while, when Ubuntu's obsessive user-coddling gets to me, I run through once more, and give another one a try.
Slackware, one of my favourites, has actually fallen from graces for a change. While I admit I've learned more about Linux with it than I have on any other distribution, I found myself doing a lot of './configure, make, make install' just to get some software up to date, so it could open documents I've been working on in the Ubuntu environment. I'm not always patient enough to handle this, which is the main reason Gentoo always slips right past me, so after a lot of issues, complaints and annoyances, I chose to give it up, and go on to another.
In this case, Arch. I don't recall if I've ever mentioned it before, and I'm feeling too lazy to go look because I've been unwell recently, so bear with me.
Arch and Gentoo are very similar, they both ask you to use the online handbook to install the system, they both only install the core, and they both then reboot and say 'OK boss, what now?'

This is a useful thing, for me. Ubuntu always suffers immense amounts of tinkering in places normal users don't go before I can call it adequate, and it never works as well as it should.
Arch, on the other hand, doesn't have anything to tinker with, beyond what it's built-in installer gets you to do. I can install what I want, pick and choose, and just get what I want, without the fluff. I don't have to install a complete Gnome desktop just to have to remove it and put Openbox on, I can just have Openbox out of the proverbial box. It's perfect for those people who want specifics, and don't want to be coddled with unnecessary extras that they don't want (A big culprit of that being Adobe - if you don't agree, see the website
The installer's also well made as it is - it's not quite as simple and self-explanatory as Slackware's, and it doesn't offer quite so much choice as Gentoo when following the handbook, but if you know what your partitions are, and what you're going to do, you don't even need the guide on the ArchWiki, you can just power through and have a working system within two hours on a good internet connection, or less than an hour if you install packages from the CD.

The only caveat I've discovered is audio - the ArchWiki guide says to install ALSA. You'd think that would work, right? Nuh-uh. Look at any full-featured distribution, Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian and such. Look in the listings, and while you'll find ALSA installed, you'll also find PulseAudio installed.
As I understand it, without PulseAudio, only one process can hold the audio channel at any one time. Install it, and you get the same level of audio capabilities as the mainstream distributions do. People new to, or considering going to Arch, take note of that, and when it tells you to install ALSA, also call up the ArchWiki page on PulseAudio, and install that too.
(Note: If you want to be safe though, leave it until after you've finished going through the guide.)

What else do I like about Arch? Pacman. No, not the little yellow ghost-eater, the package manager. I admit to being fond of Apt, with Yum coming a close second, and I can use either with a fair degree of proficiency, skill and speed. Pacman I can't do the same with still, but it's simple, no-nonsense approach to it is well thought out, and doesn't leave much to worry about. Like most advanced package managing tools, it resolves dependencies, and provides a very apt-like output telling you what it's going to do, and asking for confirmation. Even during the package install step of installing Arch, it gives you an idea of what you'll see and get, and even allows you to scroll through the output once it's done to check up on it.

All in all? Arch is one of the better distributions I've come across. For someone who has patience enough to tweak and install what they want, install of what the distributor decides, but not enough patience to sit and watch Gentoo compile everything on the go, this is perfect. For those who want more than is available in the Arch repository and it's testing repository, there's AUR - the Arch User Repository. Unlike other equivalents, such as Ubuntu's PPAs, it's not a repository you pass to Pacman - it's just a collection of scripts that you can download. You execute them, and they create a Pacman-usable package, thus giving you the flexibility to examne, refine and edit the script, with all the benefits of the package manager. It's like being able to 'make, make install' then have your manager install it alongside all the other packages.

If you want more customisability, give Arch a go. I guarantee that if you've enough patience and time enough to do a little work, you won't be disappointed.

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