It's been approximately two years since I changed to using Ubuntu for my desktop needs. Before, I was using Mac OS, but I was getting increasingly annoyed with it and the direction it was heading for, specially since Leopard and was released.
I have learnt a lot with Ubuntu, and I think they're doing a great work for popularising Linux as an environment anyone can use. But I am also a very picky person, and I am getting weary of the bloat that comes with each new version. I don't consider them incompetent (far from it), but they are trying to please too many people and therefore including lots of stuff I don't use. Probably I have got past the Linux-newbie level and should move to something a bit more advanced where I could change every thing as I pleased.
So I was investigating what my options were for moving to the 'intermediate' level, and I reduced them to only three: Debian, because Ubuntu is based on it and the migration shouldn't be too hard, and Gentoo and ArchLinux, because these allow people to configure systems to their exact needs... and have PowerPC versions/support.
The PowerPC requirement is because I aim to try things first on my laptop (a Powerbook that Apple's Leopard is slowly killing with each system update), which I use occasionally, and once I get to grips with it there, I plan to move my desktop to that new, powerful distribution.
But before doing anything on real machines, I tried on VirtualBox, which is very handy for getting a general idea of how a distribution works, way better than reading about its statements and philosophy on its website.
I first tried to install Debian using the graphical installer. It failed. It got stuck in a loop like this:
(Computer) "Do you want to install GRUB?" (Me) "Yes" (C) "OK, here's it, I've done it" (M) "Next" (C) "Do you want to install GRUB2? Warning, it's unstable blablabla" (M) "No, NEXT" (C) "Right. Do you want to install GRUB?" (and back to the start)
Not promising! I tried again, with the text installer this time. It went better and I managed to get a working Gnome install etc. As happens with Debian, the packages are slightly (or quite) old and so it looked extremely outdated, compared with my main Ubuntu (which I had updated recently). Since it was a virtual machine and I hadn't data to lose, I tried to move Debian to the "testing" branch but it didn't quite work; it had an error and didn't complete the updates. I got bored and closed this machine to try Arch.
Arch is quite different from Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora's and the rest in that it doesn't have big release cycles (say, every 6 months). Instead its packages are regularly updated and there are no big updates, but regular small granularised updates. They call it a rolling release system. This idea was appealing me but what really sold me Arch was that once you install it you just get a bare system. With no X, no Gnome, no KDE, no ALSA or no Pulse Audio. Nothing more than its package manager (pacman) and few utilities such as bash so that you can install whatever you need.
So I went to their page, downloaded the basic ISO and created another virtual machine for testing it. I followed their incredible, fantastic and excellent Beginners' Guide and things went smoothly, and best of all, I understood what I was doing in every step. Everything seemed logical, well explained and well thought.
For example, while in Ubuntu the services are started via mysterious obscure /etc/init.d scripts, in Arch everything is specified in one file (/etc/rc.conf) with a nice syntax. Therefore you can know which services are launched at boot and in which order, with a quick glance at that file.
Once the main system had been installed (including ALSA, without that nasty thing called PulseAudio), I installed X and for a change, a new lightweight window manager called Awesome. I had been wanting to try one of these for a long time but I didn't dare to do that in my main computer just in case I broke something in Gnome. It's funny that it's implemented with Lua, but the fun doesn't stop there, because the developers use very amusing class names in their API, such as "awful", "beautiful" and etc. The appearance and behaviour of the system can be modified by editing a lua script (although I haven't done that yet), and the manager was very, very fast. Loading time was also ridiculous, maybe 1 or 2 seconds. Compare that to Gnome!
I will probably try to use this manager in the laptop, since I use it mostly for writing and I get distracted with most of the stuff which comes with "normal" distributions nowadays. Awesome is quite bare but I may even remove more stuff from it.
Once I stopped playing with Awesome, I installed Gnome, wondering how much useless stuff would the default gnome package bring with it. To my surprise, it wasn't that much, and I could remove the stuff I didn't want without any dependency warning. I noticed that it installs Epiphany, and some wallpapers, for example. Apart from that, it was pretty basic, which is exactly what I wanted, and it was the latest released version, which is also what I wanted! :-)
I tried installing several other packages I normally use, and compared them to the version I have in Ubuntu. All were the same or newer version, which was great. I also rebooted the system (which completed in approximately a minute, not bad), and noticed that since I had installed the gdm daemon I got the graphical login, but it also detected that there were two installed Window Managers, and allowed me to choose between Awesome or Gnome when logging in. Everything was very neat and well integrated, with no errors at all during the process. Pacman is very fast; at this point I had no fear of not using apt! So I thought about installing one of the programs that wasn't available in binary form. It was also super easy, and I didn't get any error at all. Dependencies were solved automatically (or should I say automagically? because it was almost magic!) and after a while I got the built package I was after. Elegant was the only word I could think of.
So I think I'm not even going to try gentoo (or at least, not yet): I'll stay with Arch! I never thought I could say that about a Linux distribution, but ArchLinux is incredibly exciting. You really feel like you have the control of your computer!
I'm intrigued to see how well does it work with a real computer --i.e. not a virtualised one--. Specially how does it perform in terms of battery management, wireless, keyboard configuration, suspend options... which are critical for a laptop.
We'll see. Meanwhile, if you're tired of having to wait until each new Ubuntu release to get the latest versions of software, and don't want to install tons of PPA's, ArchLinux might be your thing.