Review : Arch Linux - A sleek, fast Linux distribution

December 12, 2008
I had always wanted to try Arch Linux. Mainly because, most people who used it became its ardent followers and, I wished to know what was the magic that pulled a Linux user to go the Arch Linux way.

Arch Linux follows the philosophy of KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid. So you won't find a cool, eye catching GUI installer for installing Arch nor a colorful splash screen which hide the complex boot process while booting up. But what you get for this trade off is a blazing fast Linux distribution which boots much faster than many of its competitors.

Arch Linux is specifically tweaked for, and targeted at the i686/x86-64 architecture which is your ubiquitous Pentium/Celeron processor machines.

Installing Arch Linux itself is an oddity. You first download a minimal Arch Linux core ISO image of around 250-300 MB size and burn it on to a CD. Then you boot your machine from the CD. Arch Linux boots up as a Live CD and puts you in root (super user) prompt. Now you initiate the install process by running the setup script.

# /arch/setup

The full Arch Linux installation guide is accessible at /arch/arch-install-guide.txt. As most of you know, in Linux, you can access multiple virtual consoles at a time. So I opened a second console screen by pressing the key combination [Alt]+[F2] and logging in as root, opened the above mentioned installation guide. Thus I was able to switch between the consoles and simultaneously read the installation guide while continuing with the installation.

The Arch Linux installer is a ncurses based text installer. But someone who has installed any other Linux distribution a couple of times will be comfortable installing Arch on their machine. More over, those who have installed either Slackware or FreeBSD will find the Arch Linux installer very similar and easy to use.

Arch Linux Installation Steps

The following is a synopsis of the steps I had to execute to install Arch on my machine.

  1. Boot the Minimal Arch Linux LiveCD
  2. Login as root user and initiate the Arch Linux installation.
  3. Select an installation source - You can install Arch from a CD/DVD or via FTP. I chose CD-ROM as I already had the base installation on the CD. You can choose FTP/HTTP if you have a very fast internet connection.
  4. Prepare the hard drive - This involves partitioning the hard drive and setting filesystem mountpoints. Arch Linux comes bundled with the cfdisk partitioning utility which is quite easy to use.
  5. Select Packages - This is essentially to give the user a chance to install additional packages not selected by default in the base install. For example, I needed the ntfs-3g package to mount my Windows NTFS partition and I selected it in this step of installation.
  6. Install packages - The packages get installed on the hard disk. Takes some time depending upon the number of packages you have choosen to install.
  7. Configure system - Arch Linux uses the BSD style init framework. So most of the configuration details are inserted in the /etc/rc.conf file. In this step, you are asked a few set of simple questions such as do you need USB support, Firewire support, PCMCIA support and so on for which you give a Yes or No answer. You also get the chance to edit the file directly in a text editor and set your timezone and enter your network settings. The file is superbly commented. Here you are also prompted to set the root password. While configuring the system, the installer asks you to set the package repository which will be used to pull all the packages you install via the Internet.
  8. Install bootloader - Arch Linux provides you a choice of GRUB or LILO. Pick your choice.
  9. Exit install
  10. Reboot

While the steps listed above may seem a lot, it took me just a short time to finish installing the base packages. Arch Linux stores all the installation packages in the Pacman cache. Once installation is finished, you can delete these packages as they are no longer needed. I used the following Pacman command to delete all the packages stored in the cache.

# pacman -Scc

Are we finished installing Arch Linux yet ?

Of course after finishing the above mentioned steps, I now had a basic, minimal, albeit fully functional Arch Linux on my machine. The hardest part - the installation - was over.But for Arch Linux to be of any use to me, I had to install the Xserver (xorg) and all the necessary software.

Here is the good news - In Arch Linux, it is very easy to install and manage software because it uses a superior package management system called pacman. I headed over to which is the official documentation of Arch Linux. It contains detailed steps on installing any and all Linux software. I first installed Xorg and then decided to go for a light weight Desktop called LXDE which happened to be a good choice. And in no time, I had a spanking new up to date Linux Desktop with the latest version of software installed. What I found really nice was I had to install just those software which I needed, and that saved valuable space on the hard disk.


The package management tool used in Arch Linux is Pacman. Simply put, pacman is to Arch Linux what apt-get is to Debian or Ubuntu.

After using Pacman I can say, it is as easy as using apt-get in Debian/Ubuntu. More over, as mentioned earlier, Arch Linux is a rolling release distribution. This makes it possible to run Pacman as a Cron job and leave the system to update/upgrade itself on a regular basis with minimal user intervention.

Arch Linux has all the important and often used software in its official repositories. Apart from that, Arch Linux also allows the user - that is you and me - to create Arch specific packages of software compiled from source, which are not available in the official repositories.

These user generated binary packages are made available in the ArchLinux User-community Repository (AUR). So if you do not find your favorite software in Arch's official repository, you can easily create a binary package by compiling from source and share it with others.

Is Arch Linux the best Linux distribution of them all ?

An interesting question that demands a genuine answer. Honestly, it depends on whom you ask this question. Arch Linux is definitely a fabulous Linux distribution. One of the endearing aspects of Arch Linux for me was when the latest version of GIMP 2.6.3 was officially released. To get the latest version of GIMP, I didn't have to wait that long. Within a few weeks, I was pleasantly surprised to be able to upgrade to GIMP 2.6.3. If it were any other Linux distribution, I will have had to wait till the next official release.

The pros of Arch Linux are ....

  • Speed - It is much faster than any other mainstream Linux distribution.
  • Simple management of software - Arch Linux has a superior form of package management in Pacman.
  • A strong community - I posted a query in the Arch Linux forum and received a reply in just a few minutes time. The strong community revolving around Arch Linux is one of its chief strengths.
  • Rolling release distribution - Unlike most other Linux distributions, you need to install Arch Linux only once, and with clever use of Pacman, your system will remain up to date forever.

And the cons of Arch Linux are ...

  • It uses a text based installer similar to that found in Slackware.
  • It has no fancy GUI tools whatsoever for configuring your system. Configuration is done by editing text files.
  • Arch Linux is optimized for i686/x86-64 architecture machines. For instance, there is no Arch release for powerPC or other architectures.

To sum up, if you are an avid Linux user who is comfortable in using the command line, and editing text files to configure your system, then you should give Arch Linux a try. I assure you, it will be a pleasant, fulfilling experience.