Are you sure you want to use Arch Linux?

All four authors here on *nix Windows are either using Arch Linux or have expressed an interest in trying it out. As a regular Arch user myself, I think Arch Linux is a great distro and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to try it out. However, just like with any other distro, Arch might be less suitable than others for certain use cases.

What is Arch Linux?

Arch Linux is a rolling release Linux distribution that adheres to the KISS principle. It strives for these five principles, collectively known as “The Arch Way“: simplicity, modernity, pragmatism, user-centrality, and versatility.

Simplicity

Arch Linux defines simplicity as without unnecessary additions, modifications, or complications. It ships software as released by the original developers (upstream) with minimal distribution-specific (downstream) changes.

Arch Wiki

Arch Linux, by design, ships its packages with minimal changes from upstream, if any. This means that if you’re installing, say, Tux Racer, you’re getting Tux Racer, not Tux Racer and some other stuff in the form of distro-specific modifications. In the case where modifications are made, it’s often to backport major security patches that haven’t made it in to the current release yet, to add .desktop files for packages that don’t provide it for consistency, and other similar situations.

Modernity

Arch Linux strives to maintain the latest stable release versions of its software as long as systemic package breakage can be reasonably avoided.

Arch Wiki

Arch is a rolling-release distro; unlike a traditional release pattern where the OS receives a major upgrade after a certain period of time, packages are updated when upstream releases an update. Some of the bigger or more critical packages will undergo testing to see if it will cause any major breakages, but there is otherwise no guarantee that the resulting system will be stable. That said, I have found that these updates rarely break anything.

Pragmatism

Arch is a pragmatic distribution rather than an ideological one. […] The large number of packages and build scripts in the various Arch Linux repositories support freedom of choice, offering free and open source software for those who prefer it as well as proprietary software packages for those who embrace functionality over ideology.

Arch Wiki

Some distributions, like Debian, have a policy that states that the distro will only include and support free software in its main repositories. Arch Linux gives the user more choice and includes both free and non-free software in its repositories and it is up to the user to decide which packages to install and which packages to avoid, if any.

User Centrality

Whereas many GNU/Linux distributions attempt to be more user-friendly, Arch Linux has always been, and shall always remain user-centric.

[…]

As Judd Vinet, the founder of the Arch Linux project said: “Arch Linux is what you make it.”

Arch Wiki

Arch Linux puts the user in control. On installation, Arch gives you a minimal base system and it’s up to you to install what you want. This is done with the assumption that you know what you want: anything that’s on the system is installed by you, and any bloat on the system is bloat that you installed. Configuration is not changed without you approving it.

Versatility

Arch Linux is a general purpose distribution.

Arch Wiki

Versatility is related to all the other principles. Arch Linux is versatile because of its simplicity: minimal changes means that the system is not tailored to any specific use. Arch Linux is versatile because of its modernity: updates to programs tend to add new functionality, making it more useful to a wider range of use cases. Arch Linux is versatile because of its pragmatism: including both free and proprietary software allows for a wider choice of programs. Arch Linux is versatile because it is user-centric: you control what you want your system to be.

What is Arch good for?

Being a “general purpose distribution”, Arch is good for pretty much anything. As a result of the Arch Way, you chose which packages you want to install and you configure the system, tailoring it to your desired usage.

You might want to consider using Arch if:

  • You agree with the Arch Way.
    • You want a system that comes without bloat.
    • You want a system that has the latest versions of software.
    • You want a system that caters to you.
  • You want to learn the internals of a Linux system.
  • You want to assemble your Linux system yourself.
  • You are willing to invest time and effort in setting up and maintaining your system.
    • The stability of the system is ultimately dependent on the user.
  • You want a rolling-release system so you don’t have to reinstall for every major upgrade.

When might Arch not be best?

While Arch may be good for pretty much anything, it may not always be the best choice for everything.

You might consider not using Arch for your next system if:

  • You don’t agree with the Arch Way.
    • You want a complete set of applications out of the box.
    • You believe your system should be able to configure itself.
    • You have a strong stance against making non-free software available in the official repos.
  • You don’t have the time or desire for a do-it-yourself system.
  • You need to install on an architecture other than i686 or x86_64.
    • Other projects like Arch Linux ARM provide ports of Arch Linux to other architectures.
  • You need a system that is thoroughly tested and extremely stable.
    • While Arch is suitable for server use (indeed, the Arch Linux website runs on Arch Linux), some system administrators would prefer a more thoroughly-tested system. In such a case, [Debian][] might be a better choice, with the trade-off being really old packages.
  • You’re a beginner with absolutely no experience with Linux.
    • While some may recommend Arch as a first Linux system because of the great learning experience, I disagree for the general case. If you’re a complete beginner, I believe you should familiarize yourself first with what Linux can offer and how Linux does things before digging into its internals. If this is you, I highly recommend Linux Mint as your first system.
    • Similarly, don’t install Arch while setting up a system for someone else. If they have what it takes to maintain an Arch system, they’d install it themselves.
  • You don’t want a rolling-release system.

However, “it looks too hard” is not a good reason to avoid Arch. The Beginners’ guide provides easy-to-follow step-by-step instructions on how to set up your Arch Linux system. The rest of the Arch Wiki is also a very good resource that explains things clearly if you’re willing to do some reading. If you’re afraid of breaking your system, you can install Arch in a virtual machine (I recommend using VirtualBox) as a safe sandbox to play around in. People often find that it’s not too bad once they’ve given it a chance and tried it out.

Why did I choose Arch Linux?

My first significant encounter with Linux was with openSUSE (that’s TODD for you familiar with my computers). It was a good system, but I was annoyed that I couldn’t get the latest version of GIMP, and to do so, the recommended way was to upgrade the system. Upgrading the system was a pain because it was basically reinstalling the whole system. My main motivation for moving to Arch was its rolling-release model so I would get the latest versions for my programs; its do-it-yourself attitude and the rest of the Arch Way gave me more reasons to use it.

It’s been said that if Arch Linux is not for you, you’ll probably drop it within a year of installing it. I’ve been using my Arch Linux system regularly since January 2014 (about 2 years and 5 months as of this post) with no intention of giving it up.

Should you use Arch for your next system?

How do you feel after reading this post? If you feel excited to try it, then go for it! If it sounds like it’s really not for you, then don’t. If you’re still unsure, the best way to decide is to try it out in a virtual machine.

Are you thinking of using Arch Linux for your next system? Have you made a decision yet? Let us know in the comments!


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