Arch Linux and Ubuntu are two major players in the Linux world. Both have a gigantic fan base, with many people taking a hard stance in favor of one and against the other. These distributions have each spawned a whole family of derivative distributions which are large players in their own right. But which is better? Is Ubuntu the undisputed and reigning king? Is Arch really the best distribution, reserved for the Linux elite? The answer is both sort-of-yes and yes.
Install and Setup
It might seem like there’s a clear winner here. After all, Ubuntu is the only one of these distributions with a proper installer. Arch affords something no formal installer can – full free-form customization
Ubuntu’s fully graphical installer and live DVDs make it ideal for both beginners and people who don’t want to be bothered fiddling with and configuring every aspect of their system. You can click your way through with full guidance at every step. You don’t need deep technical knowledge to install Ubuntu, and the process is extremely quick.
In contrast, Arch Linux offers a live install CD that doesn’t actually come with an installer. Instead, it only includes command-line utilities to bootstrap an Arch Linux system from scratch. The result is a much more open-ended process that you can customize and tailor along the way. You won’t actually need to follow Arch’s instructions explicitly, and Arch’s instructions are far from being set in stone. You can make your Arch system whatever you choose, but it’s much easier to make a mistake, and it takes time to get to something ready for daily use.
Both Arch and Ubuntu have immense software repositories. Ubuntu, because it’s so popular, is well supported by third parties. As a result, most things are tested to work on Ubuntu, and there are many third-party repositories, in the form of Ubuntu PPAs, to fill in the gaps.
Ubuntu’s software tends to be fairly new, but it’s not the absolute newest. Unless you’re running Ubuntu LTS, you won’t feel like you’re lagging too far behind, and the software you do get is probably fairly stable by the time it’s released.
Arch has a very simple packaging system and doesn’t make many, if any, modifications to its software. Because of this simplified process, the Arch team is able to package a lot more software more quickly. It’s fairly uncommon that Arch Linux is completely lacking something common in the main repositories.
The Arch User Repository (AUR) picks up just about everything else. The AUR is considered one of Arch’s greatest strengths because it lets users package for Arch and stores all the packages in one unified place. There’s no need to install a ton of external repositories. The AUR is absolutely packed with all sorts of software, including some fairly obscure things.
Multimedia and Gaming
There isn’t too much to say about these two when it comes to gaming and multimedia support. They’re both fantastic. In fact, they could both easily be considered the best distributions for multimedia and gaming.
Both distributions offer many of the top multimedia applications right in their default repositories. They also include a lot of the extras and codecs that make for a smooth multimedia experience. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding your favorite music player or media center in either one. For any omissions, the AUR and PPAs will probably have you covered.
Gaming isn’t much different. Ubuntu’s officially supported by Valve for Steam, but Arch is such a plain “vanilla” Linux distribution, Steam usually works flawlessly there, too. Both distributions also offer simple access to the latest graphics drivers for both NVIDIA and AMD. Arch may have an edge for AMD users because it offers the latest versions of Mesa and the Linux kernel, but the impact will probably only be noticeable with the absolute latest cards.
Customization is an interesting thing. If you’re just talking about changing the look and feel of your desktop, any Linux desktop environment can handle that beautifully, and both Ubuntu and Arch Linux have access to a wide array of desktops.
This article is comparing the customization of the underlying system, and in that respect there’s absolutely no contest. Arch is the clear winner.
By providing a streamlined experience out of the box, Ubuntu sacrifices customization power. The Ubuntu developers work hard to make sure that everything included in a Ubuntu system is designed to work well with all the other components of the system. Mess with that delicate ecosystem, and you’re probably in for trouble.
Arch is more like a box of Legos. You can pick and choose pieces to use and fit them together. Now, just like with Legos, it’s very easy to build something hideous or downright unstable, but if you’re skilled and knowledgeable enough, you can create something truly magnificent.
So, which one is better? There’s no clear answer there because both of these distributions are the best at what they do. Ubuntu is the best at providing a beginner-friendly no-nonsense experience that works as soon as you install it. It’s a feature-complete system that offers everything you could possibly want, and it doesn’t need a lot of babysitting or maintenance.
On the other hand, Arch lets you build your own system however you like. It’s fast-paced, lightweight, and really powerful. With Arch, you’ll never want for software, and you’ll never be stuck with a configuration that you didn’t put in place yourself. However, with Arch, all the responsibility falls on you, and you’ll need to take an active role in ensuring your system keeps running like the finely-tuned machine you originally designed.