Yesterday I installed Linux onto a fresh laptop and there was no debate in my mind what Linux distribution I would use – Arch. A year ago that would not have been the case, I might even have considered installing RHEL instead. So why Arch?
When I was younger – and still today – I noticed that most people I spoke to in the IT profession who had reached their fourth or fifth decade of life had given up on new ideas or new technologies and had settled into what they knew best. Although I respected this, I didn’t enjoy the thought that maybe one day I’d become the same way, even though I felt that my openness to new ideas and technologies was one of my strengths, and something I deeply enjoyed.
Well, I’m in my third decade of life now, and I have definitely begun to notice how easy it can be to settle down for what is comfortable and stick with it. Thankfully I haven’t lost my passion for new ideas and trying new things. Last year at Southampton we hired an intern, this in of itself is a tribute to my manager for changing the norm and doing something new because nobody had ever done that before. It was an eye opening experience, not just because it was enjoyable to teach, but because the internship taught us far more than we realised it would. It challenged us. It made us think differently. The whole team improved. What I didn’t expect was to change my preferred desktop operating system – but, it did. He (the intern) had an established like for Arch linux, advocated it when asked why, and left it at that. He didn’t push me to try it – but it made me want to try it. And so I did.
For a typical end user, Arch Linux is next to impossible to install. It doesn’t have an installer at all. The bootable image you download starts Linux running and then drops you at a zsh prompt. From there its entirely up to you on what you do next. The installation documentation is clear, concise, but not detailed – you need to know what you’re doing to get anywhere – but this, for me, is perfect. It gets out of the way, gives me the tools to install, and then lets me get on with it. I loved it.
The initial experience made me feel like a young teenager installing Linux for the first time. It literally made me feel young again. I felt like I was learning Linux again. Although I had used all these tools before, I had become used to an installer doing it all for me, and I enjoyed learning things I didn’t know about tools I’d used for years.
Arch Linux is minimalist, it is simple. It gets out of your way. You have total control over what your system looks like. It doesn’t hide details from you so you learn why things are done the way they are. At each stage the documentation lets you decide how you want to build your system and gives you information on why you might want to pick any particular solution.
It is easy to build a desktop linux installation. If you want GNOME, on Wayland, with all the bells and whistles, its easy. If you want Xorg and fluxbox, this is very easy too. If you want to use GRUB as your bootloader, you can, but if you want to use systemd-boot (as I do), you can do that too! Each option is easy to achieve, and isn’t hidden away. On Debian I wanted to switch to systemd-boot, but it was far more difficult than expected, and I gave up and just left it with GRUB. On Arch there is support for many different options, and they’re all very easy. You don’t have to accept what the distribution wants you to use.
The other fantastic feature of Arch Linux though is that it seems to solve the classic divide of Linux distributions: new software vs stable software. If I were to pick RHEL as my distribution it would be stable, sure, but the software is old, and most modern apps can’t be easily installed. Just getting flatpak on RHEL is next to impossible. I could alternatively pick Fedora, but then I have to go through a huge upgrade every six months and often things break.
Arch is a hybrid of these approaches, in that it is a rolling release distribution. I have access to all the latest stable versions of all the software I want, but there is no ‘big bang’ forced upgrade every six months. I update when I want to, and Arch updates individual packages as they reach a stable point based on the application itself, rather than an arbitrary time deadline. With RHEL software is considered stable just because it is of a certain age – with Arch, software is considered stable when the developers have declared it to be so based on their thorough understanding of their own releases. You might think that Arch would be somewhat like Debian unstable – frequent bugs and breakages from updates – but in fact Arch seems to hit the sweet spot of stability and modernity.
Pretty much my only criticism of Arch is the lack of a standard AUR installation tool in the base platform. AUR refers to ‘arch user repository’ – add-on software packages that aren’t maintained by the core team. It is heavily used by end users though, and there are many front end tools to make it easy to install AUR packages. Without one of these tools users have to clone a git repository and build packages themselves. With a frontend, such as pacaur (which is what I used), its as simple as using the standard package manager.
So, if you like Linux, and use it on the desktop, and want a better experience: go give Arch a try. You might just like it 🙂