Archcraft 2021.06.06One of the young distributions I have been asked most often to review this year is Archcraft. Archcraft describes itself as a "pure" Arch distribution, meaning it only ships with software available through the Arch Linux software collection. Archcraft includes no desktop environment, shipping with lightweight window managers instead such as Openbox. The Archcraft distribution also includes the handy yay package management tool for easily adding software from the Arch User Repository (AUR). The project reportedly runs with a memory footprint of less than 300MB and includes a small collection of default software.
In short, Archcraft aims to be small, light on resources, compatible with Arch Linux, and is intended to be built up from a relatively small foundation. The project's single edition is available as a 1.6GB download. After downloading the ISO I performed a check of its hash, which passed, but when I followed the distribution's instructions for verifying the ISO's digital signature the project's verification key was nowhere to be found and the provided import instructions failed with a GPG error of "no data" from the key server.
Archcraft's media boots to a graphical environment. A colourful panel is placed across the top of the display. This panel includes an application menu, virtual desktop switcher, system monitor, a media player widget, and a volume control. There are also buttons for signing out of the session and connecting to wireless networks.
Shortly after the graphical environment loads a welcome window appears. This window offers a little background on what Archcraft is - a small, Arch-based distribution. The welcome window explains different ways to launch applications and there are several. We can right-click on the desktop to bring up a settings and applications menu. We can press Ctrl+Alt+Space to get another application menu or Super+Space to get an application menu. We can also click the launcher on the panel to bring up another free-floating menu with a list of applications in the middle of the screen. The welcome window can also show us a collection of screenshots to show us what the operating system can look like.
Apart from the initial welcome window, the live desktop is a curious combination of minimal and flashy. There aren't any other windows or pop-ups. The majority of the screen is fairly empty with understated wallpaper. However, the panel at the top of the display features bright colours and regular updates every second which constantly drew my eye.
The distribution uses the Calamares system installer which can be launched from any of the many application menus. Calamares is a streamlined, graphical installer which is similar in visual style to Ubuntu's Ubiquity or the Solus installer. On the first page of the installer we are offered buttons which will connect us to various on-line resources. The "Known issues" button opens the Midori web browser to show the project's GitHub issues page. The Support button opens a browser and displays an error page on the Discord website which indicates our "invitation has expired". A button labelled "Release notes" opens a document which lists a point-form collection of recent changes.
Calamares does a nice job of quickly walking us through choosing our language, keyboard layout, and time zone. The partitioning section of the installer offers both guided and manual options. The manual options are quite easy to navigate and are clearly displayed. The guided option defaults to setting up a single ext4 filesystem and we are given the option of enabling a swap partition or swap file. The final screen asks us to make up a username and password. Our user can be assigned administrative rights and is, by default, set to automatically login. Both of these settings can be toggled on or off.
My fresh copy of Archcraft booted to a graphical login screen. The login page offers us the option of signing into a bspwm or Openbox session. I chose to stick with Openbox for the purposes of this review.
While Openbox provided a fairly pleasant experience there are a few unusual aspects to using the window manager, along with the default panel and menus, and it took a while for me to adjust. For example, some of the items on the panel required that I double-click on them to access them. The logout and poweroff options, for instance, seem to always require a double-click. Sometimes the application menu button would open right away with one click, but other times seemed to need a double-click (or more) before it would open.
Openbox and its associated tools do not appear to have a single central settings panel. There is a panel, but it only gives us access to a handful of Openbox settings. There are independent settings modules for adjusting some aspects of the graphical environment, but some items need to be adjusted by editing text files. The Polybar panel, for instance, is configured using text files and I could not find a way to edit its widgets through the panel directly or through a graphical tool.
I began my trial with Archcraft in a VirtualBox virtual machine. The distribution ran well in the virtual environment. I encountered no issues, the user interface's performance was quite good most of the time, and the window manager resized dynamically to match to the VirtualBox window.
When I switched to trying Archcraft on my laptop, things got off to a good start. The distribution was able to boot in both UEFI mode and Legacy BIOS mode. Performance on my physical hardware was good, perhaps a little better than average, though the Polybar panel was sometimes unresponsive.
When run in live mode Archcraft consumed about 430MB of memory and when run from the hard drive the installed operating system required 285MB of RAM to sign into Openbox. As promised by the project's website, this places it under the 300MB line. A fresh install of the operating system consumed 5.1GB of disk space.
Despite having an application menu which is quite full of various shortcuts and configuration tools, Archcraft does not ship with many desktop applications. The lightweight Midori web browser is present along with the Lynx console browser. There is a launcher for an e-mail client though none is installed. The Atril document viewer is present along with the Thunar and PCManFM file managers. The Timeshift system backup software is included. There are a few text editors, an archive manager, and a simple image viewer installed. There are around a dozen configuration tools for dealing with the window manager's look and behaviour.
There are no media players and there is no office suite installed by default. These can be added later through the pacman package manager. The GNU Compiler Collection is installed for us. The systemd init software is used and version 5.12 of the Linux kernel runs in the background.
Archcraft 2021.06.06 -- Visiting the Archcraft website in Midori (full image size: 171kB, resolution: 1366x768 pixels)
There is a launcher in the application menus called About Developer which opens a large window that contains information about the leader developer. I couldn't find a way to close this window normally. I ended up killing its process which turns out to be a minimal instance of the Midori web browser.
Speaking of Midori, I ran into a curious bug where the web browser would not launch when run in the distribution's live mode. Any attempt to open the browser from the application menu or the command line resulted in the browser immediately terminating without an error. However, this issue only occurred when I was running Archcraft on my laptop. When the distribution was running in live mode inside VirtualBox the Midori web browser launched and ran as expected.
There isn't much to say about Archcraft's package management. The distribution does not appear to offer a graphical front-end for software management. The operating system relies on the fast and capable pacman command line package manager. While pacman has some of the most cryptic command line flags of any package manager I've used, it does work well and it presented me with no problems.
The Archcraft website mentions the yay utility is installed for us. This is a command line program which can fetch and install software from the AUR. The yay utility is quite convenient to use. We can simply pass it the name of a program we wish to install. It will confirm which item we want from a list of matching packages and automate any steps required to set up the package. This is quite a bit easier than manually running commands to browse and fetch software from the AUR and I quite like it.
The resource monitor on the Polybar panel shows CPU usage, memory consumption, and the amount of free disk space. This all sounds useful, but there are some quirks to the way the information is presented. The CPU usage widget actually shows CPU usage + disk I/O wait times which means the statistics shown are typically higher than what top or another system monitor would show. The memory stat shows cached memory rather than used memory, again making the resource usage seem much higher than it is. The disk space figure shows free space left on the root partition which isn't particularly useful most of the time since I'm concerned with my home partition's size rather than the operating system partition. So information is provided but not the information I'd expect to see or find useful.
The information shown on the panel is configurable and can be adjusted by editing a configuration file. We can also adjust the rate information is updated which I found useful as the rapid pace at which new information was displayed was distracting to me.
I feel that I don't have a lot to say about Archcraft and I feel this is because the distribution doesn't, for better or worse, attempt to do much. The project's website is understated, claiming to offer a minimal distribution based on Arch Linux with a lightweight window manager and yay for acquiring software from the AUR. This is what we get, along with the friendly Calamares system installer. There isn't much else to look at, out of the box.
This seems to be the point, really, of Archcraft - it delivers a fairly minimum base, low RAM consumption, and offers better than average performance. It isn't particularly flashy, convenient, or full of features. The idea appears to be that users can build their system from a small foundation and add the pieces they need. There isn't a lot of documentation and I suspect we are expected to seek out the Arch Linux wiki if we need help.
Most of the time Archcraft takes on this role fairly well. I did have a few complaints though. Personally, I'm not a fan of system monitors built into the panel or desktop. I find them distracting and the ones used by default don't provide information I find all that useful. There are a lot of little configuration tools and, oddly enough, some duplication in functionality in the application menu. I'm not sure why we need three application menus, two file managers, and a couple of text editors in what is otherwise a very minimal platform.
In short, Archcraft does what it sets out to do. It's basically Arch Linux with a window manager and yay pre-installed for us. This works and yet I don't feel the distribution distinguishes itself from the many other minimal Arch-installed-via-Calamares distributions currently available.
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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