Why I Switched to Arch Linux

Topics: Linux

Everyone seems to have a post about why they ended up with Arch. This is mine.

I recently made the switch to Arch Linux for my primary desktop and it’s been great. Arch very much feels like the end of the line for me —the bottom of the rabbit hole as it were. Once you have a system that does everything you need it to do effortlessly, why bother with anything else? Some of it might be a pain at times, hand partitioning, hand mounting and generating your own fstab files, but it teaches you a lot. It pulls back the curtain so you can see that you are in fact the person behind the curtain, you just didn’t realize it.

Why bother? Control. Simplicity. Stubbornness. The good old DIY ethos, which is born out of the realization that if you don’t do things yourself you’ll have to accept the mediocrity that capitalism has produced. You never learn; you never grow. That’s no way to live.

I used to be a devoted Debian fan. It was a philosophical position. I still agree with the Debian manifesto, such as it is. In practice however I found the community, ahem, wanting. Embarrassing at times. The manifesto should have maybe included some guidelines on empathy, understanding and humanity. So it goes.

I also used to be vegan. Also a philosophical position.

I still believe in both to a certain degree. But now I eat bacon and run Arch.

Which is not to say the Arch community is any better, just that Arch itself has a few advantages, like easier access to the latest and greatest software via the AUR. This matters if you happen to test software for a living. Or something like a living.

But there’s more to it than that.

I’ve always known I’d end up with Arch. If you take a strange, peaceful joy in configuring things with plain text files you too will eventually end up with Arch. Or you’ll end up fighting everything else you try. My Arch setup is minimalist, just the i3 window manager with i3status. I open apps with dmenu and do most of my file system tasks from the terminal using bash (or Ranger if I want something fancier). Currently my setup uses about 200MB of RAM with no apps open, meaning I have no need to spend more than $400 on a PC, which makes me happy.

my arch linux desktop, 2018 photographed by luxagraf
That’s about all there is to it.

Arch was also liberating for me precisely because it is the end of the line — there’s nothing else to explore. I’m done. I have my stack and I can move on to other things. It’s been a long time since that was true.

Arch is unquestionably the best linux distro I’ve used. It has a simple, clean install that doesn’t bundle tons of crap and lets you decide what to install. Sure there’s Debian minimal too if you’re really opposed to Arch (like I was for a while), but then you end up with more out of date software. I’ve even switched to using Arch on my server. This server in fact. I still use Debian for client sites, but these words are being served from an Arch server. Lately I’ve been using Vultr (affiliate link) precisely because they make it easy to install Arch on a VPS.

On the desktop though Debian’s packages are too out of date for my tastes. Yeah, even testing. Okay not Sid. But have you ever managed to keep Sid working through more than one update?

My experience with Arch so far is much, much stabler than Sid or testing. And, more important for me, managing your out of repo software is a million times easier in Arch. There’s no need to remember or track what was installed with dpkg-buildpackage, what used checkinstall or apt-src or god forbid some horror you re-packaged from an .rpm file. Not that I would do that. Cough.

Arch has a decent set of repositories with most of the software you’d ever want all official like and whatnot. Yeah it’s tiny compared to Debian, but my needs are simple: i3, bash, vim, tmux, mutt, newsboat, mpd, git, feh, gimp, darktable and dev stuff like python3, postgis, etc. Every distro has this stuff.

Arch’s real strength though is how amazingly easy it is to package your own software. Because even Debian’s epically oversized repos can’t hold everything. The Debian repos pale next to the Arch User Respository (AUR), which has just about every piece of software available for Linux. And it’s up-to-date. So up-to-date that half the AUR packages have a -git variant that’s pulled straight from the project’s git repo. The best part is there are tools to manage and update all these out of repo packages. I strongly suggest you learn to package and install AUR repos by hand, but once you’ve done that a few times and you know what’s happening I suggest installing yaourt to simplify managing all those AUR installs.

I’ve installed Arch on about a dozen machines at this point. I started with my Macbook Pro, which I’ve since sold (no need for high end hardware with my setup), but it ran Arch like a champ (what a relief to not need OS X). I also installed Arch on a Dell Chromebook 13 (by far the hardest of the bunch) I used this guide to get everything set up and then I banged my head against the Arch Wiki beginner page, installing and failing over and over again until I gave up on GPT, went with MBR and Grub. It works, but I have to eject the microSD card I use for extra storage whenever I reboot (I suspect either it’s a shortcoming of the legacy firmware patch or maybe I need to edit the fstab file, but I haven’t bothered to debug it since it has an easy fix). Getting ALSA working on this machine was a pain, but otherwise everything was fine.

Currently I use a Lenovo x250 that I picked up off eBay for a couple hundred bucks and upgraded with a bigger hard drive and 1080p screen. It runs Arch like a champ and gives me all I could ever want in a laptop. Okay, maybe more RAM would be nice for my occasional bouts of video editing, but otherwise it’s more than enough.