Last week I decided to move to ArchLinux.

I wasn’t excited at all with the release of Oneiric, as it was all about unity, and nothing more. The ubuntu button moved inside the dock, not in the top level bar, etc. I upgraded from Natty and everything went flawless as usual. But when I saw I had to use unity, I just got bored of having things decided for me. Of course I could have tried to use gnome-shell instead, or put KDE. I have a latop with a video chip, so Ubuntu was running slowly, and last time I tried KDE 4 I thought my laptop was about to melt. So instead of reinstalling a fresh Ubuntu 11.10, I just opted for a new distro, simple and lightweight, to have my laptop at full speed again. There are plenty of lightweight distros. Debian and Ubuntu based as well. I’ve heard lots of good points for ArchLinux in the Haskell mailing lists. But most of all, it just looked so fun. ArchLinux is a rolling distro, meaning that you can update your packages when a new version of the package is out, which is way more frequent than every six month. I think this is very nice; I like to have the latest version of the softwares I use. If I find a bug, then I just fill it instead of complaining about it. So let it be ArchLinux.

Here we go:

  • read the installation guide,
  • grab the install image,
  • put it on a usb stick,
  • read the installation guide again,
  • backup all my data,
  • format and partition my hard drive with a live gparted cd for the new install,
  • open another laptop to check the installation guide if needed,
  • plug the usb and reboot

The installation went flawlessly. It reminded me of my first install of a fedora core 5. There are some config file to edit manually, the ones with the scary name, such as /etc/rc.conf. Actually it was much simpler than I thought. I did not have network at the beginning because I put wrong information in the config file. Set up to be automatically determined for me worked better. I installed it with a cbale and the battery plugged by the way. This simplified lots of things. The funny thing is that you do not have Gnome or KDE, you do not have X at all. You have no user other than root, no sudo. And that’s excellent. You install exactly what you want. I just wanted to have it working for starters, so I installed emacs, sudo, added a user, installed X and Gnome 3 with Gnome Shell. I’ll go to simpler and lighter when I am more used to ArchLinux. Reboot, some problems once or twice with my ~/.xinit and after that, everything was alright. Total time, 2 hours I think. Next time will be 30 min I think, as now I know how to do it.

First remark, may it be Gnome 3 and Gnome-Shell, that’s pretty fast, even on my laptop! More than Unity for sure. That’s exactly one thing I was looking for when coming to ArchLinux. I did not install the whole desktop environment; didn’t want evolution, tomboy, etc. Keep it simple, manageable. My laptop is for home use, so I do not need that many things in it. That’s a really nice desktop environment. Still don’t know why Ubuntu dropped it. I was used to my four virtual desktops making a 2x2 square, so I’m still not completely used to the vertical line. Anyway, Alt-Tab is always faster. I installed some simple and basic things like evince, file roller, etc. The package manager, pacman, is quite nice and often adds advices for installing other packages, or configuring a new package. By the way, this does not take that long. Mostly a couple of minutes when you stumble upon a file you cannot open, or half an hour if you want to add some programs you know you’ll need, like an email client, Gimp, git, svn, the haskell-platform, etc. There are thousands of unofficial packages in the AUR, the ArchLinux User Repositories, that can be installed simply. I installed Dropbox in few minutes and enabled it manually by adding it to my ~/.xinitrc file.

The promise of ArchLinux is kept and true. It is simple because it does not decide everything for you. Once you edited some important config files more than once, you get used to it, and best of all, you understand them. I have learned more on GNU/Linux in one week than in the last year. Which is why I also wanted to move to ArchLinux. By the way, Archlinux is fine for newcommers too if they want to learn GNU/Linux and are not afraid of playing around with the terminal. In the end, it is true that editing directly the config file is simpler than accessing it through a menu for administrators with an application we may not want to spend 15 minutes to find, not knowing what it will do. All this ease of use and simplicity in ArchLinux comes also from the documentation on the ArchLinux wiki. Everything is written thoroughly.

In conclusion, I am more than happy to have made the switch to ArchLinux. It is an insteresting distro, simple to use, and fun. Of course Ubuntu remains a good distro as well; but if you want to understand linux better, to give a new youth to your computer, and know a bit more what’s inside a linux OS, then you should definitely give it a try.