Monday, April 28, 2014

Arch Linux - Having Some Fun

The Arch Linux installation boot screen
Last Wednesday, I shared a few considerations I think people should make before trying Arch Linux.  The most important of these is that if you're going to dive in, I would say you should go in ready to have fun with it; i.e. be prepared to try a lot of different programs, see if you can set stuff up "the hard way," experiment with new desktop environments, try building your own, etc.

And, of course, as I said last time, you will break things.  You will break things to the point that you can't figure out how to fix them and start all over again; rather than stressing out about that, let that be a part of the fun!

These are some of the things I had fun with.


The fstab file - to tell your computer where to mount each partition
Installing Ubuntu or Mint is easy; it's supposed to be easy and largely hands-off.  That is a good thing.  Had that not been the case, I probably would've given up on Linux when I first tried.

When installing Arch Linux, you have to do everything manually, from installing sudo to setting up your wireless network, to telling it which mirrors to use.  If you do what I did, and make Arch an experiment rather than trying to depend on it as your main operating system to begin with, this is tonnes of fun because you get to learn a lot about how Linux works.  Some things I learned included how audio and internet are set up.

This is also where I learned what fstab is (/etc/fstab/) and how to edit it to tell Linux which partitions to mount when it loads.

The X window system, in which other desktops run
I also learned what the X graphic environment is, and what it looks like when there is no pretty desktop environment installed over it.

Installation could go quickly if you follow the guide and all goes well.  But I found it was the ones that went wrong in some way or another - and ended eating up hours of my time - where I learned the most.

There are several steps to the installation where I just follow the guide, and I don't get them yet - but that will come with time.

As I pointed out last time, this guide on how to install Arch Linux is good to have open beside you on another computer.

Desktop Environments

One thing I've used Arch for is to install and test-drive various desktop environments, such as Gnome, Sugar, KDE, LXDE, Enlightenment, OpenBox, etc.  You can also do this in Ubuntu or any other distro, but since I've reserved Arch as my experimenting distro, I do it here.  That way, I keep Xubuntu clean and tidy for work and every day use.

Also, since Arch is so clean and smooth-running, it gives an excellent way to test these at their best performance.

Gnome in Arch Linux
The guide I mention above offers this as the last step.  But, as the writer says, if you stop at that, you've missed the point.  At the very least, testing various desktop environments is a good next step.

Personalized Desktop Environments

For me, this one is quite fun.  I started off by following this guide on creating a custom DE, adapting it for Arch (it's for Ubuntu.) I discovered that Compiz actually includes a wallpaper manager, so it is not necessary to install another one.  I used Emerald for the window  decoration, which looks really nice, sort of metallic and transparent.

Even though Compiz is not light-weight and is typically associated with rather resource-hungry desktop environments (Ubuntu, for example, in which the Unity desktop is plugin for Compiz,) I found this combination to be fast and very responsive; Compiz includes enough features that you don't have install much else.

For a dock, I installed Cairo-dock, which has a very Mac-like look to it, is very visually appealing and has a lot of useful plugins and applets.

Again, all of this could be done in Ubuntu, but in addition to the points mentioned above, the excellent documentation for Arch make it easier to do things and work out any problems that turn up.

Arch with Compiz and Cairo-dock
AUR and Building from Code

While Arch has fewer applications in its official repositories, it has a huge number of applications in the Arch User Repositories (AUR.)  From the angle I'm taking here (i.e. the challenges of Arch are fun,) this has two advantages.

One is that it makes many more programs available to choose from.

The other is that you learn to build from code.  You download compressed .tar.gz files ("tarball",) decompress them with tar -xvf, compile them (usually make, ./config and makepkg) and finally install with pacman -U.  When you first try this, it is truly a pain and headache.  There are always dependencies, and some have to be downloaded from AUR and compiled; sometimes dependencies have dependencies, and you loose track of where you were.

But in the process, you learn a little more about how installing packages works "behind the scenes," and after you do it a few times, it's not all that hard.

See, and note especially the section on installing packages.

Finally, there is a program called "Yaourt" (which you have to download and compile from the AUR) which does all of this automatically.  Once you've installed Yaourt, you can use it just like pacman.  I recommend using Yaourt from the get-go so when all you want to do is install Compiz, you don't spend hours just installing it.  But now and then, I would do it the long & hard way just to get to know the process.  You'll have to do this at least once (plus one dependency) to install Yaourt anyway.

The terminal wifi-menu option
Some Challenges - Icon Themes, Network Indicator

Building a custom desktop has its challenges. For example, there is no icon theme and some little things don't work automatically, like the network indicator in the indicator applet in the panel/dock.  If you install a desktop environment like Gnome first, it will automatically use the icon theme and other settings.  However, if you install only a custom desktop to begin with (from the command line, at the end of the installation process linked above) they won't be there.

I have not yet figured out how to make them work. This is not a problem because they don't effect functionality (networks can be detected and connected to easily from the command line, it just doesn't look as "pretty") and I don't depend on my experimental Arch desktops for daily use.

Finally (and most importantly) they give me more things to figure, and more fun to look forward to in the future.


It would be entirely reasonable to set up a permanent installation of Arch with my favourite DE, XFCE (which is what Xubuntu runs.)  There would probably be advantages like this, such as slightly snappier and lighter running, and rolling updates.  In the future, maybe after experimenting with it for a while, I would consider this.

But the bottom line is that I'm entirely happy with Xubuntu without any complaints.  For now, I'm happy to use Arch as my fun distro for experimenting, building, breaking and learning.

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