My Big Move To Arch
UPDATE (March 2011): Since writing the material below, I discovered a serious flaw in Arch Linux which tempers my recommendation of it, especially for those who desire a reasonable level of security. My full review of Arch Linux is also available.
I recently migrated my primary system from Kubuntu Karmic/KDE4 to Archlinux with Openbox, so I thought I would share some of my experiences with the move. I thought some Ubuntu users might want to scope this out if they’re considering changing. I have used Ubuntu for years and when I decided to go to Arch, I wondered what I was in for! Long story short – I love it.
First, a little background… The first linux I used seriously was SUSE, which I liked overall, but package maintenance was a PAIN (regardless of what they claim), and eventually it just started to feel too corporate and evil-empirish, like Windows. So a few years ago I moved to Kubuntu which I really like for its apt-get of course. But lately I’ve been grumbling a lot. I don’t really like KDE4 – it’s way too overdone and heavy, too much of a Vista-wannabe. I also don’t like some of the decisions Ubuntu is making in general when it comes to packages, and especially the way the recent trend is to stop the user from removing some packages – too bossy lately. There are also security issues that IMO are beginning to enter the realm of Microsoft – things which I believe are not done for the benefit of the users. Thus I found myself having to remove and disable all kinds of junk after a fresh install. I’ve also had very poor results with reporting bugs in KDE and Ubuntu lately – they just aren’t addressed, and there are way too many to begin with. The release cycle seems rushed, and quality is the loser in this. I was fighting against the distribution too much. That’s when I began to realize it was probably time for a bigger change. I was reluctant because hey it’s a lot of work to get used to something new. But it can also be cool, I kept telling myself, as I remembered how cool it was to lose Windows.
I ended up selecting Arch Linux because I liked a few ideas. One, it was supposed to have a good package manager comparable to apt-get (known as pacman). Also, I liked the rolling release idea, where instead of releases and upgrade/reinstalls, packages are just gradually updated to their latest versions every day. The install CDs have versions, but if you’re running Arch, you’re running the ‘NOW’ release. This is explained more here. Most of all, I really like that Arch uses software packages that are presented the way the original makers designed. Mods and alterations are very minimal. I like this because I found so many of the bugs in Ubuntu are related to changes the packagers made which broke the functionality of the original software. Arch honors the original software rather than trying to make it fit a particular scheme – and this includes servers and daemons. I really REALLY like this idea because as we all know having a middleman introduces problems, and original developers take the time to make their software work more carefully than packagers.
I was also a little scared of Arch because it was supposed to be more work, less noob-friendly. I can handle some complexity, but frankly I don’t enjoy having to do everything the hard way. There is something to be said for convenience. Plus using a mainstream distribution like Ubuntu has its advantages – lots of packages and support. But I decided to give it an honest chance.
I also decided I was going to drop KDE. It’s only going to get more convoluted and Windows-like IMO, so I figured I might as well get on a more fitting track. So I was also shopping for a new desktop manager.
I have had a truly excellent experience with Arch. It is just so neat to set things up one step at a time, and I pleasantly learned more in a week about the inner workings of linux than I have in years of using Ubuntu. I really feel like I know my system now. It’s also a simpler system, and I know what’s running and why. It’s also fast as hell! The few problems I did have, the community support and wiki were excellent – very knowledge people who like doing things themselves. Overall, my opinion is that any reasonably experienced Ubuntu user will feel right at home. You’ve probably edited a few configuration files, entered some CLI commands, and messed with the inner workings enough on occassion that you won’t be lost in Arch. And in the long run I think it’s MUCH LESS of a hassle, especially because you get a better understanding.
The 64 bit install CD (I used the net install CD) was a lot like the alternate install CD for K/Ubuntu. Same basic stuff. The main difference is that it just installs the core system, so you boot into a shell. Then you install Xorg, which I thought was really cool (and very easy). I’ve never installed Xorg by itself like that. Then the nvidia driver went in without trouble, also from a package. (Interestingly, it cured a problem I had with not being able to go back to a shell once X started in Kubuntu. Same nvidia driver, so once again it shows that the problem was in the Ubuntu package, not NVidia’s driver or Xorg!) Then you choose your desktop and install that. Then you edit the xinitrc file to tell X to start your desktop! It’s great knowing how it all fits together.
In my case I decided to go with Openbox desktop because it seemed to allow you to build your desktop the way you want. Openbox is very minimal at the start – you build your desktop by adding taskbars and such that you choose. This may seem like a lot of work, but it was really neat. I’m also running a few KDE apps that I like, and Openbox runs them with no problems. I chose lxpanel as my taskbar – works great and has a clock, quick-start tray, system tray, and a menu that automatically updates itself when you install software. Reminds me of KDE3.
The pacman package installer works very well. There were only a few programs that I wanted that it didn’t have: rdate, google-earth, secure-delete, and crystal-cursors. rdate and google-earth had community-supported build packages available. These let you build the packages easily yourself and then install them with pacman. secure-delete I just copied the executables from my Kubuntu partition – they run fine. (The same was true of rdate, but that I built.) And I found crystal-cursors and compiled it. I learned great things about X cursors, so it was well worth the hour or so I spent with it.
Everything else, including media players, editors, KDE apps, image viewers and editors, servers, and open office were in pacman packages. Easy as using apt-get to install them. Plus they come out exactly as the original designers had in mind, which is neat to see – same as installing them from the websites for the most part.
One difference (which I like), is that when you install a server or daemon, such as NFS, it just puts the program on your system, it doesn’t configure or start it. I never liked the way Ubuntu started things as soon as you installed them. This way I can look over the (usually simple) installation steps and decide how I want it to work. For example, to auto-mount a CD when I insert it, I installed the autofs daemon right from instructions on the wiki. Works better and solved problems I had with automounting/unmounting in Ubuntu.
And instead of all the init.d and /etc/modules complexity, there is one file (/etc/rc.conf) with simple lists of modules and daemons to start at boot. So much cleaner and easier to maintain.
My system has so much less running on it as a result – just what I need, rather than what every Ubuntu user might need. Part of this is due to dropping KDE as well. If you do want KDE, Arch is supposed to have a good implementation of it. There is also kdemod, which is a modified version of KDE for Arch (part of the Chakra project).
As for the rolling release, I really like it thus far. From what I’ve read, occassionally new package updates will break a program and you’ll have to update your config files to correct it. But these potential problems are announced on the forums, and IMO that’s simpler than going through the mess of upgrades and reinstalls, where so much changes at once. Plus, the package updates never change your config files – you do that yourself, and when using Arch you’ll know how.
Aside from the apps I use, there are NO GUI ‘system settings’. I maintain everything by editing the config files. But what I’ve found is that instead of finding this too messy or laborious, I like it a lot better. The config files have everything laid out cleanly and commented, and I have access to all of it. Whereas GUIs rarely give you complete control, and rarely work as well. I did have to learn a bit that used to be done in a GUI, but as a result I understand things so much better, instead of feeling confused and frustrated behind the GUI. But if you do like the ‘system settings’ stuff, if you can install a more bells & whistles desktop like KDE or Gnome – then you’ll get some of that. It’s just not made by Arch. They leave it up to you to decide what programs to install, REALLY. For example, I chose my sound server (alsa – which always worked great for me and I hated the pulse junk that Ubuntu went to. And yes, alsa can play several sounds at once – mix.)
Here are some of the wiki entries I used, more or less in the order I used them. You can look these over to get a pretty good idea of what you’ll be doing once you’ve used the install CD to install the core. The wiki is THE place to go when you want to know how to install something. You’ll usually find detailed instructions that work perfectly. Also, since everyone uses the same version of Arch (the NOW version), you don’t have to wrestle with multiple sets of instructions. I find that the first few parts of the wiki instructions is all I use – the lower parts of the pages tend to be for more complex setups.
And the forums are at
Just keep in mind that until you get X and your desktop running, you won’t have a (graphical) web browser. So if you don’t have another computer nearby, you may want to print the basics first.
That may look like a lot of manual configuration, but I found it to be very smooth and also a neat experience. I also had many fewer problems than with a typical Kubuntu install – very few in fact. And I had my system done in a couple days (where I was using it as my primary system instead of Kubuntu which I still have on another partition), with a couple more days for spit & polish. And that’s with my being a complete noob to Arch, and also trying out some alternative software to the ones I’ve been using.
K/Ubuntu was actually great training for Arch, because you tend to have to do a little manual configuring to get Kubuntu running the way you want anyway, and fixing problems. And Arch isn’t for linux noobs, so I think Kubuntu still is useful. But if you now want to try building a more custom system from the ground up, I think Arch is an excellent choice. Overall my system is running faster and lighter, and I’m so glad to be free of KDE, while still having some of my favorite KDE apps.
And Arch still uses Grub v1! Although you can of course change that to v2 if you prefer.
Recommendations: I recommend keeping a backup copy of your Kubuntu home folder – you may want parts of it to look at, especially if you drop KDE but want to run KDE apps. There’s not much, but it was handy a few times. Also, system backups are always great to have… http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/How_To_…rating_Systems Plus, instead of reconfiguring many of your programs, you can just copy their settings files from your home folder. For example, copy the ~/.mozilla folder and you won’t need to set up Firefox from scratch.
I also like building my new system on a spare partition while still being able to boot my old partition. That way when I get frustrated or tired I get boot in to ‘old reliable’ and relax. I had Arch install grub to the MBR of my second drive, so it didn’t interfere with the boot process. Grub2 detected Arch and added it with update-grub. Then when I was ready to change the boot to my Arch partition and grub, I just installed grub to the MBR of the first drive. Pretty painless way to try a new system, and it also lets you mount and examine your old system partition as you’re setting up the new one.
Below are some software recommendations I’d thought I’d throw in. Everyone likes different things but these are what I’m using for now. And this will give an idea of the variety of apps you can have with Openbox and without full KDE.
First, lxpanel is a great taskbar. In fact the whole LXDE desktop is probably good, because I saw a lot of apps from it that had a nice light but capable design.
For the most part you install these just by typing ‘pacman -S PACKAGENAME’, and they’re ready to run.
Krusader (capable file manager from KDE)
Dolphin (simple file manager from KDE)
GQView (like KDE Gwenview – or Arch has Gwenview as well)
KGrab (from KDE, for window snapshots)
jre (this pacman package install the 64 bit version of Sun Java with plugins – one step!)
KMail (still using it for now but I may look at others)
epdfview (like Ocular – very simply and light PDF viewer)
Ghex (Gnome’s Hex Editor)
k3b (also needs dvd+rw-tools and cdrdao)
Htop (process watcher)
autofs (automounts CDs/DVDs, usbsticks, and even networks if you want)
ttf-ms-fonts and ttf-dejavu (fonts)
mpg123 (command line MP3 player)
vorbis-tools (for ogg123 command-line player)
alsa (for sound)
Related Forum Thread: My Big Move To Arch
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