ArchBang Linux 0111ArchBang Linux is a lightweight distribution based on Arch Linux. Using the i3 window manager, it strives to be fast, up-to-date and suitable for desktop systems. The current snapshots of ArchBang use an unusual versioning convention with a day & month combination. For example, 0811 is the snapshot for the 8th of November. Previous versions used a year & month combination so that a snapshot from January 2014 would be 2014.01.
Apart from the shift in version numbers since the last time I tried ArchBang the distribution has also swapped out the Openbox window manager for i3 on the install media. I was curious to see how this would work. ArchBang has just one download option, a 914MB ISO file that runs on 64-bit (x86_64) machines.
The live media boots and brings up the i3 window manager. The wallpaper displays a nice water-focused nature scene. There is a Conky status panel displayed to the right of the desktop. Under the status readout there is a listing for keyboard shortcuts we can use to launch some programs, access desktop settings, and start the install process.
ArchBang 0111 -- The live media running i3 (full image size: 1.6MB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
Unlike most window managers, we cannot left- or right-click on the desktop. Nor can we click on the panel at the bottom of the screen or the status readout. There is a volume icon we can click on to mute and un-mute audio. There is also a small network icon we can click to connect to local networks. In short, the environment is mostly non-interactive. The live media uses about 200MB of RAM while signed into i3 and the interface is very responsive.
Opening any one application window causes the application to be displayed as a full screen window. Opening additional programs causes their windows to be placed side-by-side, resulting in a horizontal collection of windows that get increasingly squeezed. It's not particularly practical unless we have a wide monitor or only wish to use one program at a time.
ArchBang offers two system installers on the live media. The first runs in text mode in a virtual terminal. The second system installer, which is referred to as the Zen Installer, uses a graphical interface. I started with the Zen Installer. The first thing I discovered about the Zen Installer is it presents us with a serious of screens where, at the bottom of each screen, we have buttons with the option to proceed (OK) or back out (Cancel). At first we are asked about partitioning and which disk we want to use. I selected automatic partitioning by accident and decided to cancel and go back to take the manual partitioning option. I soon discovered that clicking the Cancel button works exactly the same as clicking OK. Which means if we click Cancel a few times the installer picks a disk to format and wipes it.
I want to be clear here. Launching the system installer and clicking Cancel a few times wipes out existing partitions. This is a pretty serious bug and I tried it a couple of times (in a virtual machine) to confirm it's a consistent problem.
ArchBang 0111 -- The Zen Installer (full image size: 413kB, resolution: 1360x768 pixels)
The Zen Installer, assuming we go ahead with it and pick partitioning options that work for us, takes an unusually long time to get through. There are over 26 screens in the installer, assuming we don't choose to install a bunch of extras or take any advanced options. This may make ArchBang's graphical installer the longest one I have seen to date. I'd like to quickly run through the screens, listing their questions in point form, just to give readers an idea of what the Zen installer asks at a minimum:
We pick a storage device to use; select guided or manual partitioning through GParted; pick a partition to use for the root filesystem; select a partition to use for swap; pick a country code for our location; pick our locale from a cryptic list; pick a two-letter country code for our keyboard; confirm if our keyboard was in the previous list; pick a time zone; make up a hostname; make up a username; set passwords for the root account and our regular user account; pick a shell (from bash, fish, or zsh); select which kernel (Linux, LTS, Zen, or Hardened) to install; when running in VirtualBox we are asked if VirtualBox add-ons should be installed; do we wish to add a third-party package repository?; we can then enable multilib repositories; we are asked if we want a graphical package manager; we are asked to pick which graphical package manager; we are asked if we want to enable the AUR; we can choose to install printer support; we are asked to pick our session manager (LXDM, SSDM, GDM, and "default" are available); we can pick a single desktop environment from a long list; we are asked if we want to install Firefox; which language to install with Firefox; whether we wish to install LibreOffice; install the Still or Fresh LibreOffice package; which language support to add to LibreOffice; do we want to install other optional software?; do we want to install a boot loader?; and where to install the boot loader?
The installer finally copies its files to the hard drive and then gives us one more option. We can restart the computer, edit the package manager's configuration, or run a chroot in the freshly installed distribution.
The questions themselves are not all that unusual, but two things really stood out (apart from the vast number of queries we need to go through). One is that we can only select one desktop environment to install and some of the options are a little odd. Most of the items, like LXQt and Cinnamon, are clear enough. However, some of the options are listed in a way that makes me unsure what they do differently. For example, there is a MATE option and a MATE-MATE Extra option. The same applies to Deepin and Deepin-Deepin Extra. I suppose the Extra options probably come with more software, but I'm unclear on what would be bundled as an extra in this case.
The second thing which really stood out is virtually all configuration is done up front and manually. This really slows down the install process. It's something one of my UNIX system administration textbooks would refer to as the "spineless" approach, where software has virtually no defaults and therefore doesn't work until it is configured in detail. Which is incredibly flexible, but not particularly practical for getting new software up and running.
The first time I completed the install process I tried to boot into my new system and it failed, with the computer reporting there was no bootable medium found. I thought perhaps something had gone wrong when installing the boot loader using the Zen Installer and so decided to try again with the text installer.
The text installer offers mostly similar steps to Zen, but it's a shorter process. I proceeded through the steps fairly easily, going through disk partitioning, picking a time zone, and so on. When it came to setting up the boot loader there were two main options: install GRUB automatically or install a boot loader manually. The automated GRUB option reported an error message, but showed up as a completed step in the system installer's menu. I redid the step, selecting the manual option which hands us over to a virtual terminal where we need to manually type in the GRUB install command along with a disk location. Once this was done and I had closed the terminal window the system installer went into a loop where it kept trying to perform the GRUB automated installation over and over and over.
After quitting the text-based installer I went back to the Zen Installer and tried again. I zipped through the installer, focusing on taking as few options as possible. The installer finished its work and offered to restart the computer. This time bootable media was found and GRUB successfully handed over control to ArchBang. Messages appeared on the screen reporting the kernel and RAM disk were being loaded, then the system froze. After a few minutes I performed a hard restart of the machine and it successfully booted to a graphical login screen.
At this point it temporarily looked like my difficulties were at an end, but then I tried to sign into my account. The system started to load my desktop session, then kicked me back to the login screen. This was different behaviour than what happened if I intentionally put in invalid login credentials so it seems the issue was happening with correct username and password information. Wondering if a permission issue might be at work, I tried logging in with the root account and again was shunted back to the login page.
Blocked from logging into a desktop environment (I tried one install with LXQt and another with MATE) I switched to the text console. My account could sign into the console and, from there, I could interact with command line programs, run the pacman package manager, and manage services with systemd. Version 5.4 of the Linux kernel was running in the background. This may seem like an unusually old version of Linux for an Arch-based distribution, but I had opted to go for the long-term support kernel at install time, which is more conservative.
From the console I was able to run startx to launch a graphical environment, but it defaulted to the very minimal twm interface rather than the desktop environment I had installed.
A short time later I ran the halt command to shutdown the system. Instead ArchBang restarted the computer and, after going through the GRUB boot loader, locked up again after loading the kernel and RAM disk.
At this point I officially gave up on ArchBang. Both installers have critical bugs in them. The distribution takes far too long to install, did not manage to produce a working desktop environment when it installed successfully, and 2/5ths of the time I tried to boot the installed operating system it locked up.
I will give credit where it is due. The distribution's live media worked well. I must have booted the live disc a dozen times while testing hardware and exploring different install options. Each time it booted quickly, used a small amount of RAM, and the i3 interface was responsive. The i3 window manager is quite minimal and feels more akin to a tablet interface than a regular desktop with free-floating windows. It is not to my taste, but I know some people really like the focused approach tiling window mangers provide.
When running from the live media, whether in a virtual machine or on my laptop, ArchBang ran smoothly and detected all of my hardware. It's just unfortunate that the install process is so cumbersome and, in my case, effectively does not provide a working operating system.
* * * * *
Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a de-branded HP laptop with the followingspecifications:
Processor: Intel i3 2.5GHz CPU
Display: Intel integrated video
Storage: Western Digital 700GB hard drive
Memory: 6GB of RAM
Wired network device: Realtek RTL8101E/RTL8102E PCI Express Fast