Thursday, October 14, 2010

Experiencing Arch Linux with the Archbang Live CD

So I got my new laptop ready for a hardcore multi-boot install, and one of the distributions I’ve always wanted to test is Archbang. I’ve tried Arch before and installed it a couple of times just for fun, both in a virtual environment and on disk, but haven’t been serious about it. It was just to practice the installation and play around.

A couple of months back Archbang caught my eye, when it was first announced on Archbang is a live CD distribution of Arch Linux that is light on resources. Arch is known to apply no to, and only if absolutely necessary, minimal patching to upstream software, which usually results in a high degree of stability and an experience as intended by the developers. The default environment of Archbang uses a blend of Xfce4 and Openbox for the window manager, coupled with tint2 for the panel and conky to provide system information and monitoring on the desktop. An interesting mix in my book, and anyone who’s been reading any of my previous articles will know that I go for the lighter environments. It’s not just a resource and speed issue, I find them more interesting and flexible, if sometimes a little more work to set up.
Also, I’m generally not really interested in starting bare bones but rather have a minimal graphical environment to start with, much like Zenwalk or Slitaz, and customize from there. Archbang fits perfectly into this category, so I decided to check it out a bit more. What can I say, I’m loving it.
Archbang 2010.09 - the default look
 In the words of the introduction on the Archbang website,
“ArchBang is a simple GNU/Linux distribution which provides you with a lightweight Arch Linux system combined with the Openbox Window Manager.
Suitable for both desktop and portable systems – It is fast, stable, and always up to date.
You can customise your install to suit your needs, and draw on the vast resources and knowledge of the Arch Linux community.”

Both 32 (i686) and 64 bit versions are available which can be used as a bootable live CD or on a USB stick. The live system can be loaded into ram and allows a full install. Being a distribution of Arch Linux it is using pacman for package management, a command line tool. Repositories can be edited in the configuration file.

I downloaded the x86_64 edition of 2010.09. After the download initially running it live from CD to explore posed no problems, my relatively new hardware was recognised and worked well, except the Broadcom wireless. No surprise here. It is in this case worth mentioning that the wired Broadcom tg3 Gigabit Ethernet connection was recognized, because not all distributions I have tried in the last few days have managed this. The wireless is a 4357 which seems to be the latest in the line, so really quite new hardware. Networking is managed by Wicd in the panel tray, which also gives access to the Xfce power manager and clipboard.

The CD performed well and responsive. Only the startup was a bit ugly using Plymouth, it showed off a grey background with a sort of blocky black area on top starting from the upper left, backgrounding the boot messages.  Be aware that the system is set up for sudo, in live mode the CD will autologin as user 'live' and no password is set by default, so the user will not need to enter a password when sudoing. The root account also has no password set, but you can set one with "sudo passwd account". None of my preconfigured partitions was mounted though, like many live distributions do, in light of the previous sentence a good thing.

After an initial good impression I proceeded to test out the hard drive installation, which again worked well. There's a short guide here on the Archbang wiki. It’s almost identical to the Arch installer, only with a couple of steps omitted that don’t make sense in the current environment. All in all very good and efficient, but it helps to have some previous experience installing a linux distribution, or preferably with the Arch installer already, as you have to know what you’re doing. Don’t expect handholding or tips like in some graphical installers. At the end of the install routine you have the oportunity to turn off Plymouth, which I highly recommend due to the jagged looks, and now also to set passwords.

Installing from live mode to hard drive
The default look gives it a sort of dark and hackerish Sci-fi feel. Archbang has two virtual desktops and each has their own separate taskbar area in the bottom panel. The default package selection is also quite good.  The web browser is Namoroka, another unbranded Firefox clone. Oddly enough there’s no app for email, but in the days of universal web mail and the availability of pacman repositories this is no big deal. Then there are Searchmonkey for ... wait...searching your drive for files you misplaced, File-roller for all your graphical archiving and extracting needs, Leafpad for basic editing, and Thunar for file management. The terminal is LXterminal by the way, not the Xfce4 one.
In the Graphics section we have the Gimp and GPicView for editing and viewing, and there is a submenu to take a screenshot with scrot either now or in 5 or 10 seconds. I find this really well thought through, and little touches like this make a distribution stand above the rest and give it personality.
For Multimedia Archbang 2010.09 comes with Vlc as media player with all the necessary codecs already included, and Xfburn for turning all your downloaded ISO files into yet more bootable CD’s.
There’s also a shortcut called Volume Control that starts up Alsamixer.
The Network section is populated with the Gnome Network Tools for your networking information, monitoring, pinging and port scanning etc., gFTP for uploads, and of course the browser.
In the Office section finally there are Abiword (without plugins), Gnumeric for those spreadsheets, Evince for viewing PDF’s and Xcalc as calculator.
Just while writing this and only two weeks after the 2010.09 release Archbang 2010.10 came out with the following changes.
  • VLC was switched for SMPlayer
  • GPicView was switched for Geeqie
  • Geany added
  • Dropbox added
  • Minitube added
  • Pidgin added
  • Radio Tray added
  • Cheese added
  • xdg-menu added
All this can of course be achieved by adding the respective applications from the repository. I actually like the 2010.09 version better and will keep using this as a base, not the least because of the artwork and the tint2 configuration which in the newest version in my opinion takes up a bit too much space with the newly introduced padding.

More important is all the extras the Archbang team has added to their Openbox implementation. Below the applications section there is a Places menu which monitors your home folder and allows to browse straight from here by either starting Thunar at the top level or choosing a document directly. Changes update instantly. Below this there is a Settings entry with various sub menus, for example to turn on various levels of transparency, for direct access to configuration tools like Obconf and the Openbox menu editor, Nitrogen to choose your wallpaper and the Xfce power managemnt tool, as well as direct editing of all the relevant configuration files for the Conky system monitor, the tint2 panel, and of the menu.xml and autostart files. Last but not least the System menu provides access to the graphical system information tool HardInfo which lists your hardware properties and allows to run benchmarks as well. Lastly you can set  mouse and keyboard preferences here via the Xfce tool. I tested all these entries including the different transparency settings and they all work.

Other applications are included that don’t show up in the menu like Htop, although this one has an entry added in the latest version of Archbang.
I appreciate Conky as a light and highly configurable system monitor and information tool that is easy to adjust in one text file. Another boon is the drop down menu the Archbang guys have implemented, listing shortcuts to the main applications and some functions like a system update. Alt+F3 launches a dynamic menu on the top of the screen that provides access to all installed applications and can be scrolled through with the right arrow.

After a quick and successful installation and a reboot I logged into the desktop, an almost exact replica of the live CD. Only the copy2ram function of the top Openbox menu was missing. Logging into the root account revealed a bare Openbox without the nice wallpaper and panel and with a vanilla menu. I got the idea that Archbang is really supposed to be run from sudo which is part of the install.

I synchronized pacman and did a full system update, but Archbang seemed to have newer packages than the Arch repositories. Everything shaped up nicely except of course the expected problem with the Broadcom wireless chip. Wicd showed no wireless networks. I made sure that wireless-tools and wpa_supplicant were installed. It didn’t take too long until I came across relevant and up to date information in the Arch wiki to sort this out. I went for the broadcom-wl package in AUR. The package didn’t compile and I found that I had a 2.6.35 kernel but 2.6.34 headers installed. A quick search revealed that there was a newer kernel with matching headers in the Arch repositories, which I downloaded and installed manually with pacman. (The latest 2010.10 image already comes with this new kernel.) After this making the AUR package with the PKGBULD and loading the module worked fine, and the interface came up as eth1. I highly recommend following the steps as laid out on the respective page under the Driver installation section and to edit your rc.conf.
If you want to avoid re-compiling the driver after every kernel upgrade there’s also an LTS kernel available, currently at (kernel26-lts).

Working Broadcom wireless
With freedom of movement around the house achieved I set out to personalise a bit more and install more applications. I added bluefish, smplayer, scite, xvidcore, a few more gstreamer codec sets, ffmpegthumbnailer and totem. Fetching all these from the Arch repositories worked at a good speed and the respective applications worked without problems.
IDE’s like Eclipse and Netbeans are present there. Gambas2 is also in the repository, with the dependency resolution Arch offers a definite plus over Slackware, where getting gambas2 to run once turned into a real nightmare.

Adding more packages with pacman
I also set out to add a few entries for the newly added applications to the Openbox menu and personalise Conky a bit. Part of why I like Openbox is how easy it is to edit the menu structure. I added a top level search function to it and replaced the battery info in Conky with one to show the running kernel, then edited the Archbang logo in the Gimp to grey scale to match the changed wallpaper. Nothing too dramatic. Conky reloads instantly on any change to the configuration file, no need to kill it manually. 

Burning 2010.10 with Xfburn
As I said earlier on, after about five days of use I love Archbang. It is innovative without reinventing the wheel or making overblown choices, it just takes what’s already available and by adding well thought out customizations offers character and user friendliness in a unique blend. Of course you can install Arch from scratch but you’ll miss out on all the customizations. There is a guide written by one of the Archbang guys on How to set up Arch Linux with Openbox in 21 steps if you’re interested. It also proves you don’t need KDE4 to have a good looking functional desktop, and in its flexibility and base appeals more to me than the offerings of some other distributions that use Openbox.
Being a distribution of Arch Linux also means it is rolling, so in theory always up to date and no more reinstalling, if that’s what you want.
There were no dead shortcuts and applications launched as intended, either from the menu or from the run comand. Suspend/resume worked smoothly when invoked from the power manager in the tray. The system feels rock solid. My wireless issue was relatively easy to sort out due to the good documentation.
Both the Arch and Archbang documentation is as I found accurate, easy to follow and bang (pardon me) up to date. It is also easy to find the information you’re after. You’ll find yourself largely referring to the Arch wiki, if only for the pacman syntax if you’re new to this. Not many distributions that I know of can compete with this high level of well organised documentation. Besides the documentation for Arch applying there is information in the release announcement to 2010.10 on the Archbang website on how to install proprietary graphics drivers should you need them.

Archbang has definitely won the race as distribution of choice on this new laptop, but I won’t forsake Slackware/SalixOS on my other machines just yet, simply for the stability and predictability a release like that offers vs. the rolling nature of Arch.

Addendum: I hinted in the last paragraph at the question of running Arch and/or.Slackware. Of course you don't have to decide and can use both. Here's an interesting post on a friendly comparison between the two,

Also, this article has had more than 1600 reads in 24 hours, thanks very much!

Addendum 2: If you are like me installing on a laptop you will also want to set up cpu frequency scaling and laptop mode. The necessary daemons are installed but this being Arch you will have to load and configure these via editing the respective text files yourself. For directions how to set up cpufrequtils and for laptop mode tools use the venerable Arch wiki.

No comments:

Post a Comment