Distro: Arch Linux

Arch Linux is a terrific distribution. I use it as my primary OS on a daily basis. But my first installation took a week. That was a rather special case, but still; a week! I almost gave up completely.

My biggest issue wasn’t the installer itself. The Arch Wiki Beginners’ Guide makes it very clear, taking you step by step through the process of getting it on your system. I’d also spent some time in the console during college, so using vim for configuration didn’t throw me too badly. But I tried Arch on my older HP dv1000, and it uses the Broadcom b43 wireless driver and firmware. It’s not Arch’s fault; many supposedly out-of-the-box distros have neglected to install the firmware. I also didn’t have Ethernet access, so I had another computer open to access the Arch Wiki and download various necessary packages. I was using my little USB thumb drive, mounting it every time, and crossing my fingers that this fix or that fix (generally from the extremely helpful Arch Forums) would magically make wireless appear.

It didn’t help that I thought drivers and firmware were one and the same. (I still don’t quite get the difference, but I understand that, in a high-level car analogy, the driver is the human and the firmware is the engine.) I also kept having to download dependencies.

It turned out that Arch hadn’t updated its official “snapshot” for a year or so, and I was using an older version instead of a newer one. That didn’t matter on this computer, though; the newer version still doesn’t recognize the b43 out of the box, at least on my HP. It did on my Lenovo a few weeks later, though!

You cannot imagine the joy of the moment when, after all the “modprobe b43″s and “ifconfig”s and “ip link set wlan0 up”s and “netcfg”s (which I forgot to install and had to USB as well), you type in “ping google.com” and it actually pings! It’s still in the tty, it’s still without a GUI, but goodness gracious, it worked!! It’s this incredible (and extremely nerdy) rush.

And now for the rest of everything. I’d tried Chakra Linux before trying Arch, in hopes that it’d give me a sense of the difficulty of using Arch. It didn’t. I vaguely understood before that Arch gave me a blank slate, but it really truly meant a blank slate. I didn’t merely get to install a desktop myself; I had to install X, to run the desktop, itself. And the options! I’d learned what a desktop was by now: basically, a GUI. I had spent some time with the XFCE desktop in Mint, and to my knowledge at the time, it seemed a good lightweight desktop from the four major ones. The Wiki mentioned other options, like using a window manager like Openbox alone, but I figured that those things were beyond my capabilities at the times. (Actually, the real reason was that I didn’t quite know what a window manager was; I thought it might require a total lack of mouse input (which it does not), and I just was not ready for that.)

So I’d picked a desktop. I knew I had to install something called X to install that desktop. I knew that Arch didn’t use apt-get, or yum, for its package management system; to install things. I first needed to get familiar with pacman, Arch’s package management. I know I’ve said this already, but Arch’s Wiki is a great resource. I didn’t need to reveal my ignorance to the people I knew, or even to the faceless people on the internet; I could just look virtually anything up on the Wiki, and on the off chance that the answer wasn’t there, someone on the Arch Forums had already asked and answered the question. So I updated with pacman -Syyu, and installed X and XFCE with pacman -S. I followed instructions, with my startx and my .xinitrc to start my desktop.

Some part of me thought this felt rather surreal. So, even more so than when ping worked, when my desktop started up and had a panel and buttons and a background and menus, I got excited beyond belief. I wanted to run around showing everyone that I’d installed this AWESOME thing called LINUX and it was actually a distro called ARCH and I had a DESKTOP called XFCE on it and…I doubt anyone wanted to listen. Well, then.

That first week, every little thing seemed special. I needed to install anything I wanted to use. No text editor, no music player, no nothing. My computer really was my computer. Nothing went into it that I didn’t want. I would search with pacman -Ss for anything and everything, install a bunch of applications, try them, pick one an hour later, and try another a day later. I could control everything about my computer. And pacman makes it easy. It figures out all dependencies, and a single command updates the entire system. No waiting 6 months, no re-downloading another iteration’s disc. As a “rolling release” distro, updates are all available almost immediately.

And it was so fast! I’d never had a state-of-the-art computer when I used Windows, so I’d never had a computer start up in 20 seconds or so, the way my very low-end netbook was doing now with Arch. And part of that 20 seconds was the grub 5-second chooser delay.

It’s become clear by now that I far from a Linux guru. And really, my point is, if I can install Arch Linux, or even use Linux, pretty much anyone can. I’m one of those people who love to tinker, and I’ve gone through several other distributions and many many desktop looks (and I’ve now even learned to love using window managers alone!). But for those who don’t, maybe Arch isn’t the best choice; there are tons of good easy-to-use distros out there. Bodhi Linux, for one; Ubuntu-based, but with a default Enlightenment (E17) desktop, which makes it very fast. Mint, as I’ve already covered. Chakra I mentioned earlier in this post, which for a KDE desktop is quite fast.

A warning, though. If you start with one of the Linux distributions, you might get hooked. I swear, I thought I wanted Mint when I chose it. It’s a great, out-of-the-box distribution, and it seemed wonderful for a couple of months. But I started wanting to add this, or tweak that, or configure another one of those, and suddenly I was hooked on changing every little thing, and suddenly I was using Arch. So…be careful. Again, if I can get hooked on Linux…pretty much anyone can. 🙂

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