Exploring the world of Arch Linux derivatives

Children of Arch

Article from Issue 185/2016
Author(s):

Several projects have used Arch as a starting point and shaped it in different ways. We describe some leading Arch derivatives.

Arch's efficient package manager and rolling release format are attractive to many Linux users – including users who are not so inspired by Arch's minimalist hacker aesthetic. Several derivative projects have started with the Arch code base and modified it in various ways. The Arch Linux project currently lists over 30 active derivatives in its Wiki [1]. The list is divided into distributions that directly use Arch, and those that only use parts, such those that use the Pacman package management system but also maintain their own package archives. Some offshoots address specific tasks, such as UBOS, which is aimed at users who want to build devices for the Internet of Things.

This article takes a close look at five Arch derivatives and considers how close they stay to the original. In addition to better-known candidates such as Antergos [2] and Manjaro [3], I'll also look at the newcomer Apricity OS [4], the minimalist ArchBang [5], and the KDE distribution Chakra [6]. All these distributions benefit from Arch's extremely extensive documentation.

Antergos

Antergos was first launched in 2012 under the name Cinnarch, so named because a developer (from Galicia) used Cinnamon as the desktop environment. Later, the developers switched to Gnome and changed the name of the distribution to Antergos. Like Arch Linux, Antergos works on a rolling-release principle and mainly uses Arch sources in addition to some of its own repositories.

Antergos (Figure 1) is available as a live image in the 32-bit and 64-bit versions. In addition to the standard 1.7GB version, you will also find a 482MB minimum ISO with a basic system you can shape to your desires. Test builds are published on Sundays. The stable version we tested comes from October 18, 2015 and uses Gnome 3.18.

Figure 1: Because Antergos directly integrates the Arch Linux repositories, this Arch derivative is very similar to the original.

The Antergos Live system starts in the Gnome environment. The Cnchi installer offers flavors of Cinnamon, KDE, Mate, Openbox, and Xfce. Other options include a simple firewall, a printing environment, Steam and PlayOnLinux, Windows shares via SMB, and integration of the Arch User Repository AUR. Installing the Gnome version takes about 15 minutes, and then the system is up to date. As with Arch Linux, Pacman is the resident package manager, and PacmanXG4 is also available as a GUI. The team is currently working on another GUI for package management and is following the approach of an app store. The desktop and icon themes in Antergos come from the Numix project [7].

Because Antergos directly integrates the Arch Linux repositories, its users receive updates and new packages just as quickly as Arch users do. The sudo pacman -Syu command adds the latest packages to the system. Only a few packages, such as the package management front ends Pamac and Yaourt or themes and icons for the desktop environment, come from the Antergos repository. Selecting the desired desktop environment via mouse click, and updating the entire system during the installation, also save plenty of work over installing manually with Arch.

In the FAQ on the project website [8], the developers have written that the differences between Arch and Atergos are largely philosophical rather than technical. They state that, although Arch Linux is more aimed at advanced users, Antergos is meant for everyone. In what appears to be a little dig at Arch Linux's excellent, though notoriously elitist, image, the Antergos forums and IRC channels state that nobody should be "afraid to ask questions."

If you're looking for a shortcut to an Arch installation that is as close as possible to the original, you should use Antergos. However, by choosing a clone with a more automated installation, you lose the learning effect provided by Arch's manual approach to installation and configuration.

Manjaro

Like Antergos, the Manjaro Arch derivative provides a variety of optional desktop environments, with Xfce as the lovingly cultivated standard. Manjaro maintains KDE as a second official work environment. A net installer without a work environment is also one of the official offerings,and you will find community editions with Cinnamon, Gnome, Enlightenment, LXDE, Mate, Openbox and the tiling window manager i3.

We used the Xfce desktop that came with version 4.12 of Manjaro 15:09 "Bellatrix." The size of the image is 1.5GB. In addition to the primary, command-line-based installation routine are two graphical installers in the offering, one of them based on the Calamares platform-independent installer framework [9].

Regarding updating packages, Manjaro (Figure 2) separates itself from Arch a bit more than Antergos does. The Arch repositories aren't applied straightaway: The developers test, filter, and bundle the packages for their users, and they provide cumulative snapshots from time to time, which correspond to a specific state of Arch Linux. These snapshots also make it easier for new users to get started, because they spare users from having to perform an extensive upgrade to update the system after the installation. Manjaro is therefore also a rolling-release system – albeit a bit inhibited.

Figure 2: Manjaro uses Xfce and KDE as default desktops. The Manjaro project has its own repositories, so it is a little more removed from Arch than Antergos.

Along with the stable repository are other repositories with names like testing and unstable containing more recent, but potentially unstable software. The Xfce variant of Manjaro installs a graphical front end for Pacman; the Octopi Pacman front end is used in the KDE version. Using Yaourt, you can access packages from the Arch User Repository AUR.

The packages and update packs delivered with the Manjaro default archive require significantly less advanced knowledge than the packages provided with Arch and Antergos. If you accept a bit more risk in favor of some newer packages, you can use the testing branch. But, even the unstable repository is lagging behind Arch. Manjaro therefore provides a filtered version of Arch, which feels good, works stably, and uses the admittedly good Arch package management.

Arch Linux defines itself as a basic system that you can extend almost arbitrarily to the needs of each user. Manjaro doesn't offer this level of versatility. Aside from such quibbles, Manjaro does fully justify its place in the array of Arch derivatives. Manjaro is ideal for users who don't feel at home with DEB or RPM-based distributions but still want a big GUI system with a graphical installation; with a few tricks, you can still breathe a bit more Arch feeling into the user experience.

Apricity OS

As a relatively new operating system, Apricity OS 10.2015 Beta is aimed at the generation of mobile cloud users. The name Apricity has less futuristic origins: the name comes from an ancient term for the winter sun's heat.

The 1.7GB copy, which can currently only be used on the 64-bit platform, works with an installer in Live mode. This installer is an old acquaintance – Cnchi from Antergos. An installer based on the Calamares installer framework, which you need to trigger via the terminal, provides an alternative.

Like Antergos, Apricity (Figure 3) uses the Arch repositories directly. An additional small Apricity core archive contains specific tools, scripts and various Google plugins, the backup application Sbackup, Wine, PlayOnLinux, and Silverlight, among others. Like Manjaro, Apricity uses the graphical package manager Pamac, which also provides the necessary configuration for using the AUR. The distribution, which is highly tailored to Internet usage, is safeguarded via the Uncomplicated Firewall (UFW) [10].

Figure 3: Apricity uses Arch and a highly customized Gnome desktop. With the integration of various web apps, the Apricity distribution is geared towards online workers.

As a desktop environment, Apricity uses a slightly reduced Gnome 3.18 in a version slightly modified graphically. With the icons, the distribution uses the attractive Numix project. In the dock panel at the bottom of the screen, which is based on the stand-alone program Plank [11], alongside the usual Gnome programs and LibreOffice, is the site-specific browser Ice, which you can place on the desktop for quick access to web apps and websites.

Apricity offers some interesting tools for web workers who are constantly fiddling with mobile devices, including Ice, the P2P sync tool Syncthing, the notebook power management TLP, and Pushbullet [12]. The Apricity interface appears modern, with flat icons. The system reacts quickly and can be operated intuitively.

The first stable version of Apricity is supposed to include a (presumably slimmed down) KDE variant. You can already see these preparations if you look at the package list below the letter K. However, one wonders how users who don't even need a terminal icon in the dock panel will cope with the potential pitfalls of Arch Linux.

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