Archman GNU/Linux 2020-11-12 "KDE"Archman GNU/Linux is an Arch Linux-based distribution which features the Calamares system installer and a pre-configured desktop environment. The distribution offers a rolling release approach. This means each new ISO release is a snapshot of the distribution rather than a planned fixed release. One thing I find interesting about Archman is each snapshot seems to offer different desktops editions. The 2020-11 folder on their download mirror provides KDE and i3 flavours of the distribution. The 2020-10 snapshot has just Xfce as its sole option. The 2020-08 folder on the server offers Deepin while 2020-07 is available in Xfce and MATE editions. Most editions appear to be around 2GB in size, with a few hundred megabytes added or removed, depending on which desktop environment is bundled on the media. I downloaded the KDE Plasma edition of the latest snapshot which was 2.2GB.
I tried booting from the live media in both UEFI mode and Legacy BIOS mode. The Legacy BIOS mode worked as expected, but I ran into an issue when running my machine in UEFI mode. The system would appear to begin its boot process and then quickly drop to an UEFI Shell prompt. I tried restarting in UEFI mode a few times until I realized what was happening was the Archman media was being read and a boot menu was being displayed very briefly where the default option was to drop to the shell prompt. There is a menu option to boot Archman into live mode instead, but it requires catching the boot menu very quickly. If I blinked it would zip by and I'd be dropped to the UEFI Shell again.
The boot menu for either mode allows us to run the live desktop media with either free video drivers or non-free NVIDIA drivers. The distribution then loads and presents us with the KDE Plasma desktop running on the X.Org display server. There is a thick panel displayed across the bottom of the desktop. This panel houses the application menu, some quick-launch buttons, the task switcher, and the system tray. There are no icons on the desktop.
Archman GNU/Linux 2020-11-12 -- The Plasma desktop and application menu (full image size: 331kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
At first there was no immediately obvious way to launch a system installer. There is no installer icon in the quick-launch buttons, on the desktop, or in the Favourites launchers in the application menu. I found the Calamares installer under the System sub-menu of the application menu.
Launching the Calamares installer walks us quickly through the usual steps. Calamares is quite polished these days and makes it easy to set our time zone, pick a language and keyboard layout, and create a user account. The installer supports guided partitioning which uses up free space on the drive as well as providing a friendly (and flexible) manual partition editor. The manual option is easy to navigate and supports virtually every Linux (and MINIX) filesystem possible.
On the first screen of the installer there are a couple of buttons, one labelled Donate and one labelled Archman Support. Clicking either of these buttons does nothing. Apart from this, the installer worked flawlessly. Calamares copied its packages to the hard drive and offered to restart the computer.
The Plasma desktop locked itself during the install process and I found the live environment's password has been left blank. This is handy as we can just press the Enter key to return to the desktop when the screen locks.
Archman boots to a graphical login screen. A list of available accounts sit above a password box which itself sits above buttons to shutdown or restart the system. These controls are shifted over to the right side of the display which gives the screen a slightly off-balance look. When there are multiple user accounts on the system the login page defaults to selecting the first account alphabetically rather than selecting the last account to login. This is unfortunate if your main user account is, for example, "Jesse" and you create an account called "Guest" for visitors.
When we sign into an account the system brings up the Plasma desktop and plays a laser zapping sound in the background. The desktop remains fairly empty as there is no welcome window or initial setup wizard. Each time I logged in a pop-up would let me know the computer was connected to a local network, but otherwise Plasma remains quiet.
The Plasma desktop generally works as expected. I did make a few changes early on. For example, the Plasma desktop locks after five minutes and puts the screen to sleep after ten. This is much too quick for my taste and I adjusted these options through the System Settings panel. Archman defaults to a bright theme (Breeze) and I soon changed it to the Dark version of Breeze to tone down the backgrounds of some applications.
When I began running Archman it was in a VirtualBox environment. The Plasma desktop did not perform well at first in the virtual machine. While the desktop would usually resize to fit the VirtualBox window it sometimes failed to do so and the desktop lagged a bit. Plasma was still usable, but not really responsive and there was a notable delay when moving windows. After disabling compositing and some KDE features the desktop became more responsive, but never really got to the point of being as snappy as I usually expect from KDE Plasma.
Networking in the virtual machine was worse though. Network traffic was slow and some web pages took a minute to load while, on other devices running on the same network at the same time, would load the same pages in just a few seconds.
These performance issues disappeared when I switched over to running Archman on my workstation. The distribution correctly identified and utilized all my hardware and performed quickly. Both desktop responsiveness and networking were great when run on physical hardware.
Archman uses more than the average amount of disk space, about 7.5GB. However, the distribution used less memory than usual. When logged into Plasma Archman consumed only 335MB of RAM. This is unusually light for a distribution running KDE Plasma, and puts it close to the weight of Xfce on most distributions I have used lately. For comparison's sake 335MB is less than half the memory I needed to run recent distributions with GNOME Shell.
Archman ships with a fairly standard set of applications, though with a few surprises. For example, the distribution ships the Firefox web browser with a Flash plugin, which is unusual these days. LibreOffice is installed for us along with the Okular document viewer, the Konversation IRC client, and Dolphin file manager. Both KGet and lftp are present for downloading files. The GNU Image Manipulation Program and Inkscape are set up for us. There are modules for setting up printers.
Archman ships with multiple multimedia players, including Clementine, mpv, and VLC. The project provides media codecs for playing most video and audio formats. Java is installed for us and two compilers (the GNU Compiler Collection and Clang) are present. Archman uses the systemd init software and version 5.9.8 of the Linux kernel.
The included software all ran as expected and seemed to be pleasantly up to date. The one exception was Clementine which, the first time I launched it, took about a minute to load. The delay was long enough I checked the process monitor to make sure the application was loading and noticed a bunch of processes indicating the system was accessing a database and reading plugins. I have not encountered this delay when running Clementine on other distributions.
Archman ships with two settings panels, the KDE System Settings panel I mentioned before and the Archman Settings Manager. The former handles configuring all aspects of the Plasma desktop. There are a lot of settings to be found in Plasma and this makes the desktop very flexible, though one can quickly get lost in all the options. The Archman Settings Manager has only a few modules in it for handling user accounts, setting the system clock, adjusting the keyboard layout, and managing language support.
Archman GNU/Linux 2020-11-12 -- The two settings panels (full image size: 161kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
This second settings panel is fairly empty and I was surprised there weren't more items included. The application menu, for instance, has a printing manager which could be included in the Archman settings panel, but it isn't for some reason. Likewise, there is a hardware information module in the menu which would be right at home in the settings panel, perhaps with a firewall tool. Perhaps those will come later.
When it came to managing software, Archman threw me a few curveballs. The main software manager, the one in the desktop's Favourites menu, is Discover. Launching Discover opens the software centre and causes the error "No application back-ends found, please report to your distribution." In other words, there is no low-level package manager Discover knows how to talk to on the system, or at least none it can find.
Archman GNU/Linux 2020-11-12 -- Discover unable to find a back-end (full image size: 142kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
With some looking around I did find a second package manager, Pamac, which is listed in the application menu as "Add/Remove Software". This software centre offers us three tabs: Browse, Installed, and Updates. The Updates tab displays available new package versions and offers to install them. This works and I had no trouble with the Updates tab.
The Browse tab, on the other hand, starts out by showing us software categories down the left side of the window and specific applications from the categories on the right side. Every category, save Productivity, was empty. The Productivity category contained just one package: the Links text-based web browser. This is really unusual and this lack of options persisted across multiple uses of Pamac, even after the package database had been refreshed.
I did find I could locate packages in the software centre by switching the Browse filter from Categories to Groups or Repositories. This allows us to search through software by specific, low-level groupings, and by repositories (such as Core or Community). This doesn't make it particularly easy to find what we need, but it does display the full range of expected software. There was still a lingering problem though: the software centre didn't handle dependencies properly.
Archman GNU/Linux 2020-11-12 -- Running the Dolphin file manager and searching for new software (full image size: 182kB, resolution: 1280x1024 pixels)
Trying to install new software would bring up a huge list of dependencies to be downloaded, including some which were already installed. As an example, when I tried to install the command line traceroute package there were dozens of dependencies, totalling 195MB in size. These included components of KDE, the Firefox browser (which was already installed), additional fonts, multiple archive managers, and a text editor. Switching to the command line and installing traceroute through the pacman package manager revealed no dependencies were required and the total download for the new software would be less than 1MB. There is a huge discrepancy here and one which could take less experienced users by surprise.
For the most part my time with Archman was fairly typical of using a modern distribution. The installation went smoothly, the usual, popular open source applications were available, desktop performance was good on the workstation and about average, at least once I had tweaked settings, in the virtual machine. Most applications and settings worked the way I wanted and I generally could just focus on getting stuff done without worrying about the underlying operating system.
However, there were a number of curious choices and obvious bugs in this release. As I mentioned early on, booting in UEFI mode is a challenge because starting the live desktop is not the default option in the boot menu. There are some little quirks with settings, or the location of some items, but most of them are fine. The big issues for me were to do with package management. I'm very puzzled by Discover being the default package manager when it has no back-end, preventing it from functioning at all. The second package manager wasn't much better since its default view provides access to only one package and dependency resolution seems to be broken. Working with software on the command line works fine so this does not appear to be a problem with Archman as a whole, just the graphical front-end for package management.
In the end I got along okay with Archman. The distribution did not, in my opinion, do anything remarkably well or stand out from other Arch-based distributions in any way that grabbed my attention. It's a mostly solid operating system with a few notable issues that I could work around. I think the biggest issue most people will likely face is each snapshot offers different editions. Which means if you want, for example, the MATE flavour, you will end up downloading an old snapshot and then installing a lot of updates to bring the system up to date. Otherwise Archman provided a mostly good, occasionally puzzling, but on the whole uneventful experience.
* * * * *
Hardware used in this review
My physical test equipment for this review was a desktop HP Pavilon p6 Series with the following specifications: