Arch Linux, Penurious Penguins & J-B Weld

1, 22, 2012



After more than a year of rigorous use, I have joyously retired my nearly indestructible, but buggy (in Linux) Toshiba laptop. I purchased it new, and with it came Windows 7 — which I’ve used on no more occasions than can be counted in the far-eastern half of an octet. Within the same hour of buying it, gparted had done its work, and Ubuntu was installed. It served me well, and still serves ssh/sftp sessions despite its tattered state.

Like many Linux users today, Ubuntu was my first distro. The concept of transparency and freedom was all I needed to venture beyond the proprietary opaqueness of Windows. I still remember the excitement of stepping into the great OSS outdoors — to the point of conceivable embarrassment. Admittedly, back then, Ubuntu was astonishingly excellent. I suffered a hearty quota of frustration in transit; though no matter how confused I became, nor how many times I had to format and reinstall, I trudged forth and away from the prison Gates…

That was five years ago, when Feisty Fawn was the beast of necessary burden. Since upgrading from Karmic Koala, I have been using Lucid Lynx (LTS) and enjoying every day of it. When Shuttleworthsoft pulled from the id of OSS™, Gnome3 & Unity, I cringed, but figured I needn’t begin worrying much until 2013. Spooked by Canonical, I decided to experiment with an alternative anyway. A few months ago I installed Arch Linux on the Toshiba, but never made it past “startx”, which only returned error messages. I got the network up, tinkered around a bit, and after failing again and again to solve video issues, and with pending tasks, I crawled back to Ubuntu, humiliated.

Last week, a long-time Linux-user and digitally weathered acquaintance who had recently moved from Ubuntu to Arch, suggested I do the same. After making several Toshiba-based excuses, he offered to let me have a go at his old Asus laptop, but under the implied condition that I use it for Arch. The Asus was in ugly shape; the monitor casing had come apart and wasn’t gripping the hinges, and a previous attempt at repairing it with epoxy had glued the lid-sensor into a logically-closed state, preventing the boot process. It was also filthy internally and externally.

After an application of J-B Weld and 24 hours, the monitor, (assuming it won’t need be opened again) is better than new. As for the lid-sensor, I filed away the epoxy and soon after, proceeded with /arch/setup. Being spoiled by Ubuntu, and with my last experience, I was a little stressed. However, unlike the Toshiba, the Asus worked flawlessly, and despite its substantially inferior hardware (1G PC-2 RAM, DualCore @2GHz), outperformed the Toshiba (3G PC-3 RAM, DualCore @2.4GHz) without any of the annoyances.

Along the way, I encountered a few things to be confused about. The first was the “Packages” part of the installation, and perhaps the installation process in general. When I realized I had a net-install CD, and no physical access to a router, I panicked a bit, expecting common wireless issues. Following the Arch Wiki documentations, there were no problems, and long before expected, KDE and Xfce were installed on my new Arch system, I was checking email, and watching videos. There was still some tweaking to do; pacman.conf had to be adjusted, modules and daemons had to be added to rc.conf, and I had a ton of stuff to install and configure. Just as I was feeling somewhat comfortable, it was mentioned that Arch finally initiated long-awaited package-signing. Not to be passed up, I went straight to it, and was soon stuck. I pestered the fellow who gave me the Asus, but was reminded of the Arch Way and instructed to keep reading. Eventually, due to great documentation and a little advice, I completed the process. I am still encountering some difficulties when trying to install certain packages, and I still have yet to figure out exactly why — but I am happy enough to have package-signing to look forward to, There are a few other things still perplexing me, though between patience and trial/error, they should become more clear.

Aside from the annoying consequences of things yet to be properly understood, installing and getting a functional Arch system was much easier than anticipated. I had to pester that fellow a few times, but altogether I think I’ve finally found a Linux distro worthy of confidence which can be customized and kept to my liking. I might not advise that Linux newbies start with Arch, though it’s not impossible, and I wholly recommend it to anyone with a little more experience, or to anyone who really wants an intermediate Linux, free of bloat and other strange things. It may also be wise to go through the Arch installation process in virtualbox before trying to dual boot with an existing OS. If planning a full install, simply make haste and have no worries.

One thing I cannot praise enough is the pacman package-manager; it’s simple, effective, and just plain excellent. The rolling releases model is quite appealing too; update what you want, and not what you don’t, and never have to reinstall Arch! I am also impressed with Xfce; while I miss certain panel-features/apps in Gnome2, I am finding it more and more acceptable. After three days of using Arch, I expect it will become my primary and permanent OS. For midi music-production and possible backup OS, I may add a Mint or Debian partition — unless midi goes smoothly in Arch. I’ve had some difficulties configuring an aliased (secure) Skype, finding trouble harmonizing Alsamixer and Pulseaudio, and am still having other sound difficulties; though I hope to sort them out, and stay put.

After the necessary initiation of package-signing, I proclaim the Arch name dignified. In my opinion, Arch is at the top. For vanity’s sake, I’ll not admit exactly how long it took me to attain a functional, productive Arch system — but I will tell you this: It has so far been worth every minute spent, and I would have only regretted never trying. I might have floundered around in Ubuntu until 2013, wondering what I was missing.

With its growing community, I can easily foresee Arch continuing to improve. It has been said that their documentation is the best, and I can believe it. So far, I have no complaints. I am still shaking off residual newbie-ism; however, Linux has become almost an extension of myself, allowing me to do things otherwise impossible. I value it highly, and aspire to someday contribute to it. In my opinion, Arch preserves the spirit of Linux. For those who want an OS to call their own, it’s a fine choice.

Notes & such:

Wireless: Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG chip, which seems to work perfectly in Linux.

There was an odd bug I often experienced in Ubuntu, which hasn’t bothered me since switching to Arch and using Xfce. Loading certain images would cause a user logout. I lost more than few things, and suffered a lot of rage as result of this. It occurred mostly while using firefox, and especially when visiting wunderground.com. This was one of the most annoying and serious bugs I’ve ever come across, and it would occur frequently. I would have a dozen browser-tabs open, text editor, and applications running, and then have to manually restore most it just because I loaded a damned image. I was never able to find a suitable explanation in the forums either. The bug seemed pretty exclusive to Ubuntu (and Mint) — I was using Lucid (LTS). Good riddance!

UPDATE:
While I hate to admit it, the difficulties with sound defeated me. I got sick of hearing everything I did through the speakers. I got terribly sick of my microphone only working locally and not through applications (skype). I was willing to live with an unfixable suspend mode, where the system would freeze upon resume (about 75% of the time). But after days of pulse versus alsa, and absolutely no progress, I formatted again.

It seems to me that sound would be a top priority in the documentation, but I found none that helped. However, to be fair, it must be said that Intel has been unfair. The HDA Intel is strange, but even stranger is that it works perfectly in Ubuntu with no additional configuration.

I conclude only a little differently than before; if your hardware is friendly, try Arch. If it is not, well, then prepare for some serious frustration. If ever I find the right machine, Arch will be my first choice of OS.

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