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Similar stories  Arch Linux: A Better Distribution
  Posted by special contributor Ben Mazer on 2003-10-15 20:58:26 UTC
A few months ago I was a Slackware Junkie. I loved it, and laughed at those who used 'more automatic' distributions (ok, I didn't actually laugh). Then Arch Linux 0.5 came out and I was very intrigued by it. I was getting tired of having to compile updated packages myself.

Now you may wonder why I didn't go with Debian. I have Debian on one of my other machines and I simply didn't like it. APT simply wasn't as good as I would have hoped, and I found the community discouraging. Why not Gentoo? I dont want to compile everything, that was my problem.

So no more distro bashing, I chose to try Arch. I began the download of the 650MB ISO image (there is also a 100MB Base ISO). On to a big point: I read all the documentation on the Arch site first. This was probably one of the things that made my experience so good, so I suggest you do the same.

Install:

Now onto the install. The install is very much like Slackware's or FreeBSD's. Its Curses based, so its not exactly 'text', but its not exactly Graphical. The install is relatively strait-forward. You partition drives using FDISK or CFDISK, you then mount the partitions, choose your packages, install, and then install LILO or GRUB.

One nice thing about the install though is that you can edit your configuration files during the install, so you can have a fully working machine before you even reboot. This is important because ArchLinux doesn't do much hardware detection. It will handle hard drives, motherboard, and other basic components, but you better know the kernel modules for your sound card, Ethernet card, modem, video card, etc.

Actually, if you at least know your Ethernet/modem module, you can run it and download HOTPLUG(this is what Slackware uses) or HWD(this is what Knoppix uses), and it will detect the hardware for you. There are Arch packages for both of these.

While they are not included in the 0.5 ISO, 'hwd' should be in the 0.6 ISO.

Was the install perfect? No, it wasn't. My big problem was that when I would try to 'modprobe' the emu10k1 driver (for my SB Audigy sound card) it would fail. This is actually a problem others were having, as I found out later.

So I popped into the Arch IRC room, and got lots of help from users and developers. They had me install ALSA, and use those drivers instead of the OSS emu10k1. All worked great after that.

So that was really my only problem in the beginning. I was able to set up my cd burner, Sound, and internet all using the ArchLinux documentation.

Now, I have pretty generic hardware:

2Ghz Pentium4
256MB RDRAM
Intel i850E Motherboard
Nvidia GeForce4MX440
SB Audigy
DVD and CDRW drives

So your experience may differ on hardware support of course.

This brings me to a very important point. ArchLinux is i686 only. This means you need a P2 or better (or Athlon). So if you run something older, you're out of luck. There is a i586 port in Beta, but since you cant use the standard repositories, its not very good.

Advantages:

I'll now proliferate on some of the advantages of ArchLinux over other distributions:

1. Pacman and ABS. This is Arch's package manager and PORTS-like build system. They work perfect. What more can I say? Pacman will fetch binary packages from servers (there's 3, Current, Unofficial, and Unstable) and install and upgrade your system.

It is able to fully upgrade your system without a hitch. For example, the Arch CD comes with GCC3.2.2. I upgraded to GCC3.3 (and then to 3.3.1 later) without any problems.

I was able to upgrade kernels perfectly as well. The system really works.

"Pacman -Syu" is all you need to update your system.

Then there's ABS. It allows you to simply compile and make a package. Just browse to the proper directory of the program in /usr/abs and type 'makepkg' and that will download and compile and a package.

This is very useful because its is amazingly easy to make your own Arch package. There is an example PKGBUILD (the script that builds the package) included, and you just fill in the blanks. Basically, you fill in the program name, version number, dependencies, and the steps to compile it. Since the steps are usually just " ./configure, make, make install", you can probably leave that section alone.

Because its so easy to build packages, the repositories are packed with up to date software. There are very few programs I did not find, and when I didn't find them, I simply made my own package very easily. I also have contributed some packages. Its very easy to submit packages to ArchLinux. They provide free uploads to "ftp.archlinux.org/incoming" for review and eventual submission into the repositories.

2. The init and config files. They are the best I've seen (though not Arch specific). your /etc/rc.conf file controls most things, and its extremely easy to modify. You can then start/stop services like: /etc/rc.d/cups start or /etc/rc.d/network stop

Its very easy. Arch also makes use of 'profile.d'. Basically, it allows packages/scripts to add things to your PROFILE without actually modifying your /etc/profile file.

More compliments and a complaint:

What else is good about it? Well, because its i686 compiled, its VERY fast. It boots in under 20 seconds and shuts down in about 5. The system is very responsive, no sluggishness.

Probably my main problem with the distribution is that some of the packages in the repositories are not built of the highest quality. Every once in a while a package will have a missing dependency, or not work as well as it should. This isn't a huge happening (and its never killed my system), but it is annoying.

Arch does have a BugTracker though,and packages are usually fixed very quickly. Also, if you are not risky, you can stay with 'stable' which is not as up to date, but better tested (its nothing like Debian Stable though).

Support:

I think the best thing about ArchLinux is its "support". Even though ArchLinux is not profit, it has got lots of people willing to help you.

There are active forums at both Archlinux.org and linuxquestions.org.

There is a very active IRC room where the developers (and other users) are always willing to lend a hand. I always learn something new when talking to them.

There is also a mailing list to post to.

I have had some minor problems since the initial install (the previously mentioned 'broken' packages, and some configuration issues) and everyone was always quick to help me.

Arch really does promote a good community. Its use of an INCOMING is proof. They will take packages from anyone, and you don't have to 'prove yourself' before submitting.

Conclusion:

ArchLinux is not for everyone. I would say its for people like me. The intermediate to advanced linux user who wants a system that helps them, but doesn't control everything. Arch is simple, powerful, fast, and the community is wonderful.

Also, because it has ABS, it can act as a source-distro too. You can easily compile all your updates from source using 'makepkg' or 'makeworld'.

There are still some bugs, but nothing major, so don't let this distribution seem immature.

What more could you want?

Misc things:

Fonts. Fonts in ArchLinux look beautiful. The repositories contain both the BITSTREAM VERA fonts and the MS CORE fonts.

Along with that, FREETYPE is compiled with the bytecode patch enabled, making fonts look extra sharp. Also, most packages are compiled with XFT enabled.

Like movies? Archlinux comes has MPLAYER and all the codecs (even the 'iffy' ones) in its repositories.

If you want GNOME 2.4, you can get a complete set of packages from ftp.archlinux.org/incoming. Its still in testing, but it works very well.

You may also want to try the 2.6 series of the kernel. There is no Arch package, but many Arch users are running it,so you can get plenty of help.

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