In constant development since 2002, Arch Linux isn’t new. It’s built up a large, loyal following of users who love Arch’s “Keep It Simple, Stupid” approach, where minimalism and choice reign supreme.
No Arch Linux installation is the same, and that’s the appeal to Arch users. It isn’t the friendliest Linux distro for beginners, but if you’re looking to truly understand what a Linux distro can do, Arch Linux could be for you.
At number 15 on the Distowatch popularity list over the past 12 months, Arch is also one of the most well-known Linux distros. Let’s find out why this minimalist distro continues to be popular.
Arch is the ultimate distro for choice, so as you can expect, choosing how Arch Linux looks is really left up to you. Quite literally, as the installation ISO doesn’t come with a desktop environment at all.
Everything about the appearance can be customized by choosing different desktop environments. You can then change these to suit your own tastes.
If you’re installing Arch on a low-powered machine, a less intensive desktop environment you could set up on Arch is XFCE. Installing XFCE on Arch takes a few commands at the terminal along with some extra configuration thereafter.
The screenshot above shows an alternative, KDE Plasma. You can install your own KDE Plasma themes to make Arch look exactly how you’d prefer.
While the Arch project officially supports twelve desktop environments (KDE, Gnome, and XFCE included), there are several more that can also be installed. If you don’t need a desktop environment, you don’t have to install one, which might be an option if you’re considering using Arch for a server build.
If you were to compare the performance of a basic Arch installation to Windows, or to another Linux distro like Ubuntu, you’d be impressed. Arch doesn’t come with “unnecessary” software to slow your machine down. It has very few minimum system requirements – just 512MB RAM and an x64 CPU.
As you’d expect, however, the performance from an Arch installation will vary. Choosing a “heavier” desktop environment like KDE will slow your PC down compared to an Arch Linux installation with a lighter alternative like XFCE.
Running idle in a Virtualbox virtual machine (with 4GB RAM, 1 CPU, 128MB allocation for graphics), an Arch Linux installation running KDE used around 20 percent RAM and 15 percent CPU.
There were spikes with heavier usage with an open browser, using multiple tabs and running video, which you would expect. Despite the spikes, Arch remained smooth to use. KDE is not an ideal desktop environment to use on a lower-resource PC, however.
You can customize and cut out anything that might slow down your Arch installation by being picky when you install it.
The major benefit of Arch can also be its biggest downside. It’s not the easiest Linux distro to get your head around, especially for beginners. How user-friendly it becomes will vary on the software you decide to use with it.
Where Arch falls down for beginners, it picks itself up for Linux pros. For many Linux users, the Arch Linux wiki is the holy grail. It guides you through installation and configuration, but don’t expect an easy ride.
If you run into any problems (on almost any Linux issues), the Arch Linux forum is extensive and filled with other users and developers who will answer questions and offer some support. Just expect to see “RTFM” (Read The F Manual, and you can guess the F) if you’ve not done your own research.
Linux power users will find comfort in the difficulty. It’s the choice that the Arch project has made to allow Arch to become a “base” distro where it’s left up to you, the user, to make the decisions.
The biggest problem for most users looking to install Arch Linux is the installation. If you’re coming from another distribution like Ubuntu, or Windows for that matter, it’s a total beast.
The Arch Linux ISO file isn’t very big (around 600MB). You’ll need to download this first and use suitable removable media (like a USB drive or DVD) to install it to your PC.
No graphical installer is included. Nothing graphical is included, for that matter. Every decision is up to you, and it’ll require you to be familiar with using the terminal. You’ll need the Arch wiki installation guide, too, to help you through it.
You’ll have to format your drive partitions yourself, run the installation commands, and then proceed straight to the post-installation guides to help you set up your user accounts and more.
Packages and Programs
Arch has several main package repositories for you to install your packages and programs from. The official Arch package repositories include the software you need to run a basic Arch installation. A user-maintained repository includes various other packages that trusted Arch users have chosen for inclusion.
Installing packages requires you to use Pacman, Arch’s package manager, and use the terminal.
You choose the packages you need; you won’t be guided through the process. Arch Linux has a rolling release, meaning there are no major new versions, with minor updates taking place regularly instead.
If you need to find software, the Arch User Repository (AUR) website is a good place to look. You can search for packages by keywords, with helpful descriptions. Of course, it’s up to you to find the packages you’ll need. There are also plenty of AUR helpers that allow you to install applications easily.
Is Arch Linux Your Next Linux Distro?
Arch Linux isn’t going to win awards for user-friendliness, and it leaves the quality of its appearance up to you (and other developers). If the KISS approach appeals to you, with minimalism and choice at its core, then give Arch Linux a try.
If you want to make your Arch experience easier, you could try one of the best Arch Linux-based distros instead. These will often come with a better installer and UI, chosen for you already. If Arch isn’t for you, give one of the other top Linux distributions a try.