Due to lack of time, I have been sticking with the “easier” distros lately. I love Slackware, and at one time Arch Linux was my absolute favorite. I recently upgraded to an Athlon64 3200. I tried a variety of distros, only to run into problems I didn’t have time to fix. Fedora gave me a messed up Grub. Mandriva Free gave me problems with my video driver. Ubuntu Edgy has been fine. I saw that Arch Linux had a 64bit version and decided it was time to revisit it. If the easy distros were making me get into config files, why not just jump in fully with Arch64.
The installation documentation is thorough, but will drop you off at a command prompt with no Gui to log into. Make sure you know what you are doing, or do your homework first. If you feel like kickin’ it real old school, they even give you the option of a floppy install. You boot up, then type “/arch/setup”, which brings up the installer program. The steps are:
- Prepare Hard Drive. You have an option to Auto-Prepare, which gives you a /boot, swap and root partition. It creates the file systems and mounts the partitions. Partition Hard Drives lets you do the partitioning via cfdisk and set the mount points yourself.
- Select Packages. Packages are set up in different categories. I chose to only install BASE. It keeps things lean and mean.
- Install Packages. This does exactly what it says. It installs the packages.
- Configure System. This allows you to edit your configuration files. Usually the defaults will work, but the point of using Arch is to set things up your way. The rc.conf file is the main configuration file, where you set modules and daemons load, you define your network interface settings and other stuff. A nice addition here is MOD_AUTOLOAD which scans your hardware and automatically loads your modules with hwdetect. In the past I had forgotten to put the proper USB modules. Using a usb mouse and keyboard, that was a problem. Make absolutely sure you check lilo.conf if you use lilo, /boot/grub/menu.1st if using grub.
- Install Kernel. Your choices are a stock 2.6.x kernel, 2.4 IDE or 2.4 SCSI. The documentation notes that Arch uses 2.6 by default, and to quote a line that made me laugh, “We are phasing out support for the 2.4 kernel, so you should only use it if 2.6 just isn’t working out for you”
- Install Bootloader. You have the option of Lilo or Grub. The documentation has a great tip here. It says that if you multiboot, it might be better to install the bootloader into your root or /boot partition, and refer to that from the bootloader on your Master Boot Record. I did that and it worked like a charm. This is after I had Grub nightmares from a Fedora install. Post install, I updated Grub on my MBR easily
- Exit Install. This makes you remove the disk and type reboot.
You reboot into a command prompt, logged in a root. I set up my root password and added a user. The docs say to set up your internet connection, but mine was ready to go. From here, you can use the package manager pacman to install xorg, KDE and/or Gnome and anything else you wish. I was a little to cocky, based on my previous experience, and hadn’t taken into consideration that xorg had changed. I installed xorg through pacman, but could not get a video driver module to load. My stupid mistake, it was as easy as installing the XF86-video-nv package since I have an Nvidia card. You can pull down all the drivers by installing the xorg-video-drivers package. I installed Kde, started x and was in my system. It was very clean and very fast. If you are unsure about how to do any of this, be sure to check out the ArchWiki before installing. It tells you how to set up just about anything you need. Be careful though, some advice is outdated. YMMV.Unless you are a super-genius, you will be using the wiki regularly. You have to set everything up yourself. Sound, cups, whatever. There are no graphical utilities to help you out, it is all command line. It is not as scary as that may sound.
The beauty of Arch is that you only install what you want. You only load the modules you want to, run the daemons you choose. Free as in freedom, baby. The result of this is a system that flies. I can’t give you hard numbers, but Arch boots a hell of a lot faster than other distros I have used. Arch64 is hardcore in that the philosophy is to be a true 64 bit operating system. To quote:
“BUT: Our goal is to be the most bleeding edge distribution around! 32-bit is old fashioned. We want Arch64 to be modern and pure 64-bit. So we don’t have a Multilib system. We won’t take any package into the repos improving 32-bit compatibility. Maybe we will place them into the AUR or community repo. Don’t expect any support from the devs getting 32-bit apps running on Arch64!”
I respect that. If you cannot live without flash, some W32 codecs,Opera or Skype you can run 32 bit apps inside Arch64 with a bit of work. It hasn’t been an issue for me. Mplayer has played everything I have thrown at it so far, including WMV files. I can do without flash to save some weird hack-y stuff or chrooting. (Arch64 does have the nspluginwrapper ready to go in the community repositories, so you can run flash on a 64bit browser.) It is hard for me to say if my system is faster due to the 64bits or if it is due to Arch itself. Maybe the combo. From what I read at the Arch64 FAQ you don’t gain much of an advantage using X64 except in multimedia or databases. Some reports have 32bit apps running faster than 64bit on a 64bit machine. I think it is worth any extra bit of hassle to run in 64. If anyone has an opinion on 32bit vs. 64bit, please leave a comment.
Once inside my system, I set up printing and audio. It was a breeze. Using Arch gives you an appreciation for the disdain people have for Gui tools. It is very simple to work from the command line, and the power you have over things is nice. If something goes wrong, you learn what the problem is and how to fix it. Arch, like Slackware and Gentoo, is a great learning tool.
Arch64 tries to stay very close to the Arch current and extra repositories. There aren’t as many developers, which means there is no unstable repo available. There is an list, updated hourly, comparing package versions for Arch32 and Arch64. Arch current port is finished and extra looks to be almost done. Community seems to be coming along. As X64 picks up steam, hopefully more developers will be moving here.
One of the biggest strengths of Arch Linux is its software manager, pacman. It is a command line utility, but there are graphical front ends available. Updating your system is as simple as typing “pacman -Syu”. Installing packages is as simple as “pacman -Sy packagename”. S = sync, y = refresh, u= sysupgrade. All dependencies are pulled down automatically. By editing the file pacman.conf, you can tell the system to not upgrade certain packages and what repositories to use. Another strength is that you can build and use your own repositories with pacman.
The Arch Build System (ABS) gives you the ability to build your own packages from source and rebuild Arch packages with your own customizations. The documentation covers everything. You run the command “abs” as root, which synchronizes the ABS tree with the current and extra repositories. You make a new directory for the package you are going to create. I decided to build Katapult, an alternative KDE launcher, so i made a /var/abs/local/katapult directory. I built my PKGBUILD file, ran makepkg and bingo, I had a package ready to go. I typed “pacman -A katapult-0.3.1.4-2.pkg.tar.gz” and it installed flawlessly. The AUR (Arch User Repository) is filled with PKGBUILD files for almost any program you might need. Nspluginwrapper resides here. ABS really sets Arch Linux apart.
I highly recommend Arch64. If you are looking for a great 64bit system and don’t mind getting your hands dirty, this is the system for you. You only need a fast connection and some time. Pacman is the best package manager out there. ABS gives you freedom to create your own packages or customize packages for your machine. The community is great and very helpful. If you aren’t running a 64bit system, this review would work for Arch32 with the added bonus of having the unstable tree available to you. There is a new project called Lowarch for older computers, so you can breathe life into an old machine.(If it is so old it only has a floppy drive, you are in luck.) Arch is an excellent way to learn. It forces you to. The outstanding documentation and wiki teaches you how to do whatever you may need. Arch is fast and gives you the freedom to run Linux the way you want. It remains my favorite distro. This review may seem fanboyish, but I honestly can’t find a bad thing to say about it.
Final Note: I didn’t include screenshots, because I think my readers know what KDE looks like. If you want them, let me know, and I can provide them.