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blog:once_more_with_feeling

Once more, with feeling...

A quick recap: I spent most of 2018 running Manjaro as my main desktop's operating system quite happily until, around Christmas, one software update too many borked the entire system and lead me to install a brand new distro from scratch. Finding a suitable distro was problematic, however. I dabbled very briefly with Ubuntu MATE, before ditching it as too archaic to be a pleasure to use. I then had a few weeks with OpenSuse, before running into a bug which slowed the system down to a crawl for no obvious reason. After a day with Debian Testing, which kept crashing, I then tried Fedora 29 -until it started crashing repeatedly, too; at which point I discovered that the crashes were the fault of my graphics card not liking Nouveau open source video drivers and instead needing proprietary Nvidia ones. The Fedora installation thus survived (two whole months!): I even managed to do an in-place upgrade to Fedora 30 with hardly any dramas at all.

But Fedora also has a few issues, the most problematic of which is when I try to copy a large file from my desktop to my server, via a gigabit Ethernet link. After one or two such transfers without incident, the file copying will apparently grind to a halt; the Dolphin file manager will become completely unresponsive; and then the entire graphics stack seems to lock up, preventing me from switching to other programs, launching new ones or, basically, doing anything useful with my PC at all. Give it long enough and the file copying completes in the background and everything springs back to life -but it's disconcerting to have to put up with unpredictable 'lock ups' like this.

So I began looking around for yet another desktop O/S to look into.

Recently, I had also upgraded a couple of my servers and doing nicely fresh FreeBSD installs with them. That got me wondering whether FreeBSD+KDE might not be a suitable desktop operating system -and I got so enamoured of the idea that I even wrote up how you might go about doing it in a short article and implemented it on a couple of spare laptops I had lying about the place. However, I noted that after some use, this particular OS+Desktop Environment combo was a bit too unstable to be a daily driver. Things would crash unexpectedly, or the entire OS would become unresponsive without warning, for example. So I figured that FreeBSD was not destined for my main desktop any time soon (though I'd unhesitatingly recommend it for server duties).

But as I got familiar once more with FreeBSD, I was increasingly impressed with the concept of a really small, coherent, operating system on top of which you could layer anything you fancied by way of 'userland'. It got me thinking: what Linux distro was similar compact, tightly-written and left the business of userland to you as a post-installation activity?

The answer, of course, is Arch.

Arch is really very small: the installation ISO is just 609MB small, so fits comfortably on ye olde compact disc. The reason it's so small, of course, is because there's hardly anything to it! You get a Linux kernel, plus a bunch of GNU utilities, and that's about it: you end up, once the installation is complete, at a command prompt with absolutely nothing GUI in the vicinity to help you out at all!

Naturally, there's a lot of advice out there on how you take that base, command-line only, installation and turn it into a completely GUI operating system with fancy desktop environments and a stack of application software. I've done it myself a few times …though the results have always put me in mind of a tower of blancmange, wobbling dangerously and likely to fall over in a bout of rapid, unscheduled destruction if you so much as breath too hard in its general direction! I have not, therefore, been keen to adopt the blancmange tower approach to Linux on my main desktop :-)

Naturally, some distros have stepped into this gap to make your life easier: Manjaro, for example, is an Arch-based distro that gives you a full desktop, GUI experience immediately post-install (and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it in 2018 as a result). Antergos is a similar sort of disro -and one I've enjoyed using in the past, particularly when I used to get Oracle databases running on various obscure and non-mainstream distros.

Unfortunately, earlier this week, Antergos announced its own demise. The developers have no time to spare any longer and will move on to other things. Antergos thus dies and it gets just a little harder to find a distro which gives you a good Arch underpinning with a flexible userland automatically layered on top. However, I noticed in various forum comments about Antergos' discontinuation that several users were rather enamoured of ArcoLinux as a suitable replacement. I'd never heard of it before, but the user recommendations were such that I felt I should check it out.

I discovered a very interesting project, which releases three basic flavours of disto:

  • Arcolinux - Arch with a nice graphical installer, combined with three different Desktop Environments or Window Managers built-in (namely, XFCE, i3 and OpenBox)
  • ArcolinuxD - Arch with a nice graphical installer, but absolutely nothing else
  • ArcolinuxB - Arch with a nice graphical installer, but only a single Desktop Environment of your choosing (there are 13 options to choose from!)

They are all essentially the same distro, just with a different mix of 'userland' applied on top of the fundamental Arch O/S underpinning. The range is from 'none at all' (ArcolinuxD); via choose-your-userland (ArcolinuxB); to 'have our choice of 3 different userlands and switch between them as you like' (Arcolinux). I think the naming of the different 'flavours' of distro is a bit confusing (what happened to Arcolinuxes A and C, for example!), but the idea behind the variety available is a sound one.

I wasn't particularly keen on vanilla Arcolinux: there's little point in me installing a distro that comes with three different windowing environments, only one of which I'll actually use regularly, and two of which I can't stand anyway!

ArcolinuxD was also not really a serious option: I don't need a graphical Arch installer. If I wanted to end up with nothing more than pretty much vanilla Arch, I could cope with Arch's native command-line installer and achieve the same outcome without needing to rely on a third party at all. Which is not to say ArcolinuxD is pointless: I think it's an excellent thing to make the Arch installation look and feel like most other distros' installations. It might help bring Arch itself to a slightly wider audience, which is a net positive.

So that left me wondering which of the 13 separate flavours of ArcoLinuxB I'd be interested in: there is one for Plasma, for example, which means, basically, Arch-plus-KDE5 is a possibility -and that would have been the obvious choice to make, given my recent distro experiences. But my recent experimentation with the minimalism that is FreeBSD, plus my relatively poor and bug-laden recent experience of KDE Plasma-based distros, made me think that now might be a time for a bit of minimalist Linux experimentation. I therefore decided to install ArcoLinuxB - OpenBox.

Actually, what you end up with is an XFCE Desktop Environment which uses OpenBox as its windowing manager, but that's minimalist enough for my current tastes! You get a good-looking environment (which needs a bit of tweaking, but not much), with menus appearing readily to hand whenever you right-click the desktop. You don't get fancy graphical effects (such as desktop cubes and wobbly windows), which is taking me a bit of time to get used to! But I think the loss of those fripperies is probably better for overall stability (and productivity!), if I'm being honest.

The change of environment, plus my recent spell of FreeBSD dabbling, has also made me re-think some of my software choices. For example, I've long been using Clementine as my KDE-based music player and manager of choice, but now I'm trying not to go heavy on the KDE front, what other options are there? Arcolinux comes with Pragha pre-installed: I've never heard of it before and didn't much like it within 3 minutes of trying it out, as it seems incapable of scrobbling tracks played to my Last.fm account, for example. After some rapid experimentation, I settled on DeadBeef, which is perhaps the closest thing Linux has to a native port of Window's excellent Foobar2000. Like Foobar2000 (F2K), DeadBeef comes with a very minimalist layout fresh from the install, but stands a lot of re-configuring and tweaking, with the result that you can end up with a really decent classical music player/manager that makes a good deal of sense and is comfortable to use long-term.

For similar reasons, I've stopped using Kwrite as my text editor of choice and have instead embraced notepaddqq, which feels very much like a Linux port of Windows' Notepad++ (and is accordingly strongly recommended!). Konsole, KDE's terminal emulator, also gets the chop and in comes Termite. It's extremely minimalist -not having tabs out-of-the-box, for example- and I think it may take a while to get entirely comfortable with it, but on the whole it feels fresh, snappy and workable.

Perhaps my biggest single problem with Arcolinux was wondering why all my carefully-constructed crontab entries never got run! The reason is straightfoward and presumably obvious to any long-standing Arch users out there: Arch (and hence Arcolinux) doesn't use Cron by default, but instead uses the Timer functionality built in to the all-new, all-singing-and-dancing systemd, which works in a completely different way. Fortunately, a quick pacman -S cronie, followed by a systemctl enable cronie and systemctl start cronie soon got that sorted; after which pretty much everything else has been plain sailing.

My biggest criticism of Arcolinux (or, at least, the Openbox flavour of it that I installed) is that it ships with an unregistered copy of Sublime as its default text editor. I don't have a problem with its functionality: it seems, on every level, to be a thoroughly decent text editor. But it's not supposed to be used long-term without ponying up for a proper license …and at US$80 a pop, that's not happening in these parts any time soon! It seems odd to me to supply a closed-source, license-required text editor as a default feature when something like opensource, entirely zero-cost, notepadqq is just as readily available. But it's a choice soon remedied by a sudo pacman -R sublime-text-dev followed by a sudo pacman -S notepadqq, so it's not exactly a show-stopper!

Other minor criticisms are just those that come through inexperience: the default application icon scheme, for example, is one I've never come across before and therefore hardly any of the icons make a lot of sense to me or give me a clue as to what they will launch when clicked! Would you, for example, know that this…

…launched Gimp if I hadn't told you?! If you think about it, and know the Wilber icon that is usually associated with the Gimp, then it will make sense… but it doesn't the first day you install the system. Not for this old-timer it didn't, anyway!

Because it's Arch at heart, Arcolinux ships with very up-to-date versions of most programs. Almost all of the applications I need are straightforward 'pacman' installations from the standard respositories; for one or two curly things, I had to resort to installing from the AUR -but that's not really very difficult to do, either.

So, as we approach the half-way point of 2019, I'm freshly on to my fifth distro of the year. I'm hoping this one will last to at least Christmas: I'd like it to, as it feels fresh and fast -and I'm enjoying having to learn new ways of doing things that don't rely on a do-everything-if-you're-lucky Desktop Environment. We shall see… In the meantime, I shall be putting together a set of articles about how to install, tweak and configure Arcolinux into something that's extremely usable. They will be available in the next few weeks in the usual place.

Update May 29th: The basic installation/configuration article is now available.

blog/once_more_with_feeling.txt · Last modified: 2019/05/29 16:00 by dizwell