2013-01-10

Four beautiful distros for Arch Linux newbies

Arch Linux is a very popular Linux distribution nowadays. Despite the fact that its installation is completely manual, and despite the fact that the base install only gives you tools for installing other packages and connecting to networks, it has made it into the top 10 distributions on DistroWatch. Despite its popularity, new users are still struggling to install Arch Linux, or are simply not patient enough. I present here, a few distros that will ease you into Arch Linux without the hassle of doing the ever so manual install off the default install medium.

Before we get started with the lovely distros, let me give you a short overview of Arch Linux itself.

I attribute Arch's popularity to a few factors (listed in no particular order):

  • Arch is a rolling release distribution, which means you usually get new versions of software within weeks (and, more often than not, within days) of upstream release, instead of waiting for the next release cycle.
  • Has a top-notch beginner tutorial, and also the paper version of the same.
  • Arch Wiki is one of the most complete distribution documentation projects around, arguably bested only by the famous Gentoo Wiki.
  • Has a collection of 10,400 software packages (and counting), and also provides an easy packaging system that allows packaging recipes to be shared on AUR (which has over 15,300 actively maintained packages).
  • Maturity of Linux community as a whole, and the number of experts that are able to provide assistance to new users 24/7 via IRC and the Arch Linux BBS is growing day to day, making it easier than ever to get help if you get stuck.

Up until recently, it also had some other benefits like being optimized for i686 architecture instead of i386 (but that's pretty much irrelevant on x86_64 platforms).

The main gripe people have with Arch Linux is the fact that installation may seem intimidating to new users that haven't been using Linux for a very long time, and have no previous command line experience. This is no wonder, since Arch is what people call a 'meta distribution', which provides the base for you to build on, rather than giving you everything out of the box. The Linux Action Show folks even claim it takes a weekend to set up (that's not true, it takes forever to fine-tune it the way you really want it).

Because Arch is a meta distribution, it is also no wonder that there are so many distributions that are based on it. I will show you four distributions based on Arch Linux that provide all the benefits of Arch Linux itself, combined with pleasing graphical interfaces, and (more or less) simplified installation process.

Arch + KDE = Chakra Linux

I'm certainly very fond of Chakra Linux (DistroWatch page), which combines the new slick KDE4 with my favorite distro in a very well-balanced mix.

For those of you who don't know, KDE is a configurable, robust, beast-of-a-desktop, which comes with many tools for setting up and customizing your user experience.

Chakra also comes with a fully graphical installer with a clean and easy-to-follow interface. There is no need to go in-depth on this (no installer should require explanation, if the target user is a person new to Linux).

Although Arch Linux has its package format, and the pacman utility that allows you to easily install them, Chakra also provides the so-called bundles, which makes installing software lot less involved. Bundles provide immediate access to some of the more popular applications users may need (34 of them at the time of writing). There is also a CCR (Chakra Community Repository) which is a software repository that adds 3046 pieces of software (as of this writing) that are not available via the main Arch Linux repositories.

For more advanced users, there is also LiveScripts 2, which allows you to create customized install media for CD, DVD, or USB.

Arch + Cinnamon = Cinnarch

(NOTE: It's double 'n' in the name.)

If you have been sleeping under the rock, Gnome 3 (the latest incarnation of the legendary Gnome desktop) has not been received that well by Gnome 2 users, and the team over at Linux Mint have decided to create a separate project called Cinnamon which is supposed to fix whatever Mint people feel is wrong with Gnome 3.

Cinnarch (DistroWatch page) is a beautiful blend of the two projects. It has managed to climb up to to the top half of the DistroWatch top distributions list since it's October 2012 release (3 months since initial release as of this writing).

Cinnarch comes to you as a live CD/USB with two installers (text-based and graphical). Graphical installer is called Cnchi, and Cinnarch developers have kindly provided a video guide for installing using both installers. Unlike Chakra, which has been around a lot longer, Cinnarch is still in Beta stage, so I'm not sure the graphical installer has been given the amount of love it needs, but the text installer should be easy to use once you watch the video guide.

Cinnarch provides no software repositories of its own, but does provide a graphical inteface for pacman utility, which allows you to install software easily (although pacman itself isn't particularly hard to use).

Arch + OpenBox = CTKArch

CTKArch (DistroWatch page) claims not to be a distribution, but merely a preconfigured (and installable) Arch Linux image. Well, for all practical purposes, it is a distribution as it is... well... distributed. It provides you with a nice OpenBox desktop, which is one of the two lightweight choices of the distributions I list here (the other being ArchBang reviewed next).

The distribution provides two default themes: one dark, and one light.

CTKArch is meant to be used as a live system, although it can be installed, at which point it turns into a your usual Arch Linux (but without the hassle of configuring the graphical interface, obviously). Installation script is... well... a script, so it does not provide the helpful interfaces like Chakra and Cinnarch. I haven't used this myself, but I imagine it is somewhat automated.

The main benefit of using CTKArch, though, is that it allows you to take full advantage of the live features. For example, it can load completely into RAM on most modern systems with more than 1GB of system memory, and thus provide blazing performance. It also supports installing software permanently from a non-rolling mirror repository the developers maintain. The reason the mirror is non-rolling is because that way you do not need to update the live image to install additional software.

Arch + OpenBox (again) = ArchBang Linux

ArchBang Linux (DistroWatch page) is your geeky distribution based on Arch that, like CTKArch, becomes your average Arch Linux upon install. It also features the OpenBox-based desktop, but doesn't focus that much on aesthetics of it all (well, that's relative, after all, since it may actually look nice to a hard-core geek).

ArchBang has an installer similar to the interactive text-based installer featured in Cinnarch, and provides a step-by-step installation guide to help you install it.

With all that said...

These distributions make installing Arch Linux fairly easy. You have to be aware, though, that, one way or the other, Arch Linux remains a system for people who are prepared to, or simply want to, mess with their systems. It has no graphical configuration tools for many things, and especially things like system services and drivers. Installing any of the above distributions does leave you with some work to do in cases where you have exotic hardware or wishes.

That said, these four distributions are the fastest way in. They will get you up and running with an arguabily pleasing view of the desktop, and enough tools to get your bearing. The rest is up to you.