Arch – The Art of Keeping It Simple

As I wrote in one of my former entries, Arch Linux is always my go-to GNU/Linux operating system when I get tired of excessive bloat, big-name distributions or simply too much pre-installed software. Setting it up takes 15-30 min for a rather seasoned GNU/Linux user and once ready, it never needs to be re-installed. I feel a good mixture of simplicity, default and a swift package manager is exactly what drives the GNU/Linux ecosystem.

Frankly, it’s quite shocking how a lot of major distributions like Ubuntu or openSUSE break after some time. There is a major version update, lots of apps upgraded, configuration files replaced, etc. Things are bound to go wrong. Unless of course, one runs an LTS-like version or distribution, which hardly receives any updates. Many updates vs no updates is always a tricky matter, though to me lack of updates = stagnation and it’s mostly suitable for mission-critical environments. I don’t run any servers and on a desktop a minor setback here and there is not a deal breaker.

This brings me to the matter of maintainability. Arch Linux offers cutting-edge software, however it’s by no means harder to maintain. In fact, it’s easier to maintain, because software updates arrive individually and one doesn’t have to go through risky release upgrades every 6 or so months. In other words, Arch Linux sports a rolling-release model. While other distributions struggle with transitions between releases, Arch Linux just keeps going.

Cutting-edge software is considered to be directly linked to poor stability. This is highly debatable and depends largely on the extent to which particular GNU/Linux distributions customize software. The more changes and deviations from upstream are introduced, the more likely a piece of software is to become unintentionally buggy. Upstream projects test their software before shipping, because they want to know it works. However, they cannot account for nor expect what downstream projects do with that software. Arch Linux tries to stick to upstream defaults when possible to limit this issue and increase interoperability with vanilla software. In addition, some projects offer development and stable/LTS versions of their software (for instance, the Linux kernel) to guarantee further stability. Hence, Arch Linux on an LTS kernel can be considered very stable in terms of continuous driver support.

Lastly, we have simplicity. From the pacman package manager, through configuration to dependency resolution. Everything is made simple, because it doesn’t need to be complicated! For instance, how easy it is to install Skype on any distribution besides Arch and its derivatives?  On Fedora, openSUSE and Ubuntu it involves downloading the outdated binary from Microsoft’s website and then somehow trying to get it to install. On Arch Linux it only means enabling 32-bit support (on a 64-bit system) in /etc/pacman.conf and issuing a package manager installation command, which takes care of everything else. What if an app is not available in the main repositories? Again, no problem for Arch Linux, as that app is most likely present in the Arch User Repository (AUR), even if it is very exotic. I noticed that AUR often contains packages not available to other GNU/Linux distributions and preparing a PKGBUILD for installation is far easier than a .deb or .rpm package.

To sum it up, I think Arch Linux is doing a fantastic job at proving that less is more and the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle is valid nowadays as much as it used to be in the past. In addition, it makes for a very reliable base for other downstream projects like Antergos, Manjaro, Chakra, etc. Not to mention that it is the sole GNU/Linux distribution that booted on any hardware I tested thus far. I think Arch Linux well deserves the praise and recognition it often receives!

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Manjaro – Making Arch Just Easier

Hail the Arch! Hail the (Kili)manjaro!

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Manjaro Linux was one of the first GNU/Linux distributions I touched when seeking a lightweight and feature-free alternative to Windows. The current version back then was 0.8.x and the default desktop Openbox. Manjaro Linux had and still has one of the prettiest and bad-ass looking Openbox implementations, second only to Crunchbang Linux. Openbox itself is a very interesting window manager. Extremely light on resources in its stock configuration, but can be easily expanded with features and dock apps to match full-blown desktop environments. Openbox was also one of the things that brought me to Manjaro Linux initially. Nowadays, Manjaro ships with Xfce and KDE by default, though various community spins offer additional environments, like i3, GNOME and many others.

Somewhat tired of high RAM usage and software I never intend to use, I gave in to Manjaro Linux 16.06-dev Xfce. Although it’s still a beta/development release, I decided to give it a try regardless.

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One of Manjaro’s definitely redeeming features is emphasis on visuals. Its base, Arch Linux, is a bare minimalist GNU/Linux distribution, which in its stock configuration doesn’t even offer the X11 window server. On the other hand, Manjaro Linux comes with a desktop environment (Xfce in the screen shot) and a set of basic tools to get the user started. Purists would definitely fuss, though I believe Manjaro’s way is simply more efficient in the long run. In addition, I like eye candy, but somehow I am never able to get it right.

However, Manjaro Linux adds far more than just eye candy. The Manjaro Settings Manager serves as a central hub for system management, but also grants access to the great kernel handling utility. I think it’s a rightful point of pride that Manjaro Linux offers so many kernels. Some hardware doesn’t have modules compatible with the most recent kernels, and some kernels are just more solid as they have been perfected over the years (like the 3.10 LTS kernel, for instance). Furthermore, there is the hardware detection tool, similar to Ubuntu’s driver installer and language settings. A comparison to Ubuntu is spot-on as Manjaro Linux offers a similarly user-friendly experience, just without the bloat and often disputable corporate drive.

To sum up, Manjaro Linux reminded me that a GNU/Linux operating system can be approachable, yet slim and light on resources without major drawbacks. Time and time again I return to Arch Linux or Arch-based distributions, because they are really that much easier to use and maintain. Nothing is left to chance unless we want it to be that way.

The User Perspective

I was a computer and GNU/Linux newbie once. Alas, it was such a relatively long time ago that I don’t remember the associated feeling anymore. Of course, I do see the difference between a user-friendly desktop environment or GNU/Linux distribution and one that is geared towards experienced users or even veterans. Especially, when I’m dead tired after a 12-hour working day! That was one of the reasons I embraced the GNOME3 experience as part of my Fedora 23 and openSUSE Leap/Tumbleweed escapade. Gladly, habits die hard and I’m back with the lean and simple Manjaro Linux.

While helping out some fledgeling GNU/Linux users, I noticed that there is a drastic correlation between the number of competent computer users and the user-friendliness of a GNU/Linux distribution. No rocket science here. The real catch is that in a user-friendly GNU/Linux distribution much more manpower is needed to maintain the expected array of functionalities. However, there are less technically-inclined users to provide the requisite manpower. Tricky business, right? People come to take, because a distribution advertizes itself as there for the taking. Also, it’s much easier to take than to give.

I can empathize with newbie computer and GNU/Linux users, though I don’t always understand them. To me helping someone and giving advice is a two-sided coin. It’s not only about them receiving the answer, but also about them digesting it. To my complete dismay, the latter is often lacking and I am left with a response which will never be understood by my recipient. One of the rules governing our beautiful universe is that there are no simple answers. They can be simplified or generalized, sure. Who do they do justice, though?

I think this is not a problem of modern computing, but of modern society. Taking is easy and talking is cheap. People should learn and we GNU/Linux users should teach them that in order to take, one should also give something in return. That’s the only way intellectual barter can work.

Fear the GNOMEs No More!

For a very long time I have been a zealous proponent of minimalist desktop environments and window managers, loathing bloated creations such as KDE or GNOME with passion. It baffled me how many GNU/Linux distributions would ship with either of those by default (openSUSE, Debian, Fedora Linux, etc.). To me more usually meant less in terms of freedom and control. Then, I noticed how little time I have for playing around with Unices and that the computer should eventually serve me as a tool for software development, blogging, listening to music and such. Hence, with lots of initial twitching I decided to settle for one of the big DEs – GNOME3.

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Just to get a few things straight and out of the water – GNOME3 is not without vices:

  • Bearing in mind the dramatic change from GNOME2 to GNOME3 and how both MATE and Cinnamon are actually evolved instances of GNOME2, GNOME3 should be the one to fork and should not even hold the name GNOME. That would prevent a lot of pain, grudges and dissatisfaction.
  • Initial iterations of GNOME3 were riddled with bugs and made for a very unstable working environment.
  • When things go wrong with GNOME3, it’s difficult to troubleshoot due to the uninformative error notifications (Oops, something went wrong!).
  • To some GNOME3 may feel oversimplified and lacking in content.

Now, all of the above is absolutely true, however one has to consider that any new technology goes through extensive user hazing before things start working more often than not. KDE4 also received a shower of complaints when it was officially released. As of GNOME3 version 3.14, many of the previous bugs are gone or are at least significantly limited. Also, some of the bad reputation GNOME3 received was because Fedora shipped it before it was stable enough for daily use. I feel GNOME3 actually deserves some praise and does many things in a very intuitive way:

  • Rotating between opened apps and documents gives a minimized view of each window for inspection.
  • The main panel contains only the essential information, but supports notifications and extensions.
  • Favorite programs (shortcuts) can be placed in a left-sided dock, while more are accessible from the Applications menu.
  • The Applications menu lists only a number of apps at a time to avoid confusion.
  • The file manager Nautilus provides all of the most important features (view mode, hidden files toggle, folder creation, etc.) within barely 2 sub-menus.
  • It can still be customized to look slightly more classical!

I am still a GNU/Linux veteran at heart and for dated hardware I would surely select something more lightweight like Xfce or Openbox. However, on less limiting hardware I believe GNOME3 displays great snapiness and offers the bare essentials to make everyday computing just pleasant.