Artix Linux 20200125This is one of the lesser known distributions but it has garnered quite a few fans in its relatively short existence. Artix Linux, from hereon Artix in short, has a reader supplied rating of 8.4 as an average of 94 opinions on DistroWatch at the time of writing, which isn't bad for a distribution that is slightly more involved in terms of technical knowledge and experience a user should possess. Not to discourage the curious and the newcomers, but it is not an install and forget type of Linux though not really that hard to use either.
Artix is a systemd-free fork of Arch Linux that grew out of the Arch-OpenRC and Manjaro-OpenRC projects joining forces to provide installable images with alternative init solutions to Arch users who were unhappy with the parent moving to systemd. In fact, Arch was one of the early adopters. While in the beginning only OpenRC might have been offered, Artix now also provides install images using the runit and s6 init software, "because PID1 must be simple, secure and stable."  There's great variety and choice on the download page, but only the x86_64 architecture is supported. The project provides Artix base images of 520MB each, similar to a net-install or the Arch install image, and with Cinnamon, MATE, Plasma, Xfce, LXDE and LXQt ISO files for almost every major desktop environment. They weigh in between 939MB and 1.1GB depending on your chosen flavour. The page makes it clear what to expect with these, i.e. only a basic set of applications is included to get the user started: a file manager, a media player (MPV), a network manager, a document viewer, a web browser and the graphical installer. It is then up to us to add applications and shape the system to our needs and liking.
There are also community supported images labelled community-gtk and community-qt which are much larger at 2.3GB and 2.8GB respectively.
You can get every flavour with any of the three supported init systems. Official images seem to be respun now and then. At the time of writing most stable images are dated from February 2020, with the Xfce ISO labelled 20200506 apparently released in May. Further down the page there are also weekly snapshots that I guess incorporate the latest package updates, and testing images for GNOME and i3, again for all three init systems. That's a huge library to maintain and gives us a hint of how dedicated folks behind this project are. Should you have trouble with the latest version a few older ISOs have been archived and are accessible at the bottom.
Artix has been mentioned a few times in the comments section and having used ArchBang for a few years without the need to reinstall I'm quite comfortable with the Arch way. I quit this branch of Linux distributions when they moved to systemd so I kind of fall into their target audience and thought I would give it a try.
It needs to be said from the outset that this installation is only for testing purposes as I usually prefer an unchanging underlying base these days so as to avoid surprises with incompatible libraries and whatnot when gaming or just wanting to watch a movie with Kodi. While this has never really been an issue with Arch when I was running it you do not want to find out that something isn't working when you just sat back ready to watch the football or a TV show. Try explaining to your wife that the last update might have hosed something. She'll want her PayTV and Netflix back the next day. So stable it is for me, you get the picture. However, if this goes well Artix may stay on this machine as a secondary option, replacing an unused Manjaro.
For my trials I went for the latest KDE Plasma and Cinnamon editions with runit. The nice thing is these are all live images so we can check them out first and then decide which one we like most. I had also tried the 20200125 OpenRC Cinnamon image previously and compared to the one using runit with the same date but did not notice any difference in boot times or otherwise. For various reasons runit it is for me.
Booting from the media brings up a menu of several boot options. We can set timezone, keyboard layout and language independently from each other as these are not linked, handy for example if you want your interface language to be British English but have a different keyboard. We can then tell the boot loader which media to boot from - optical media or USB. In practice this does not make any difference. If you choose CD but a USB stick is inserted it will boot this one anyway with a short delay.
Artix Linux 20200214 -- The Artix boot screen (full image size: 708kB, resolution: 1021x768 pixels)
At the bottom there's an empty line where we can edit boot options. We get a very short boot sequence showing the Artix logo and kernel in use and it's off to the desktop.
I tested both the Plasma and Cinnamon editions in live mode. Multimedia keys on my Dell laptop are supported. Sleep and waking up worked fine. The lock screen has a short timeout and if you are left wondering how to log in again the password is 'artix'.
Artix Linux 20200214 -- The live Cinnamon desktop (full image size: 735kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
Both desktops are almost identically set up, only differentiated slightly by their particular theming and menus. In Cinnamon we get the usual links to access computer, home directory and Trash (or Wastebasket in British English), plus some additional links named Configuration and one for the particular init system chosen. They are essentially pointing to different sections of the same file to help us get started, with tips on how to set hostname and keymap in the virtual console, and configure ALSA and user permissions (OpenRC only). Troubleshooting includes some useful hints, for example if one should encounter problems with D-Bus in the KDE Plasma edition. The Readme file shows where a log of the live session can be found. KDE is a bit cleaner and does not include desktop specific shortcuts.
Artix Linux 20200214 -- The KDE Plasma desktop (full image size: 742kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
One thing to note is that if choosing a different language than English translations in Cinnamon are inconsistent. As an example, even though I chose German keyboard and language at the GRUB boot screen, links on the desktop remained in (American) English, as did parts of the menu relating to all applications, places and recent documents. Only the sub-menus of the software section were translated. The K menu was fully translated and not pre-populated with any favourites on the left.
The Plasma edition is also a bit more sparse with the wallpapers, with only the default Artix and Plasma 5.18 backgrounds included. The Cinnamon edition offers a large choice of Artix artwork plus several others. Interestingly, these were translated so it's a bit hit and miss on this front.
Artix Linux 20200214 -- Wallpaper selection in the Cinnamon edition (full image size: 805kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
Internal hard drives can easily be mounted by clicking on devices in the file manager.
This all looked good if you're not too fussy about the localization. The important thing is that the keyboard was set correctly to my chosen locale, in this case de_DE. I decided to proceed with the Cinnamon edition for further testing from hereon.
First up was a test of the live session in VirtualBox. Mouse integration works. Ability to change the display resolution - check, but not in the resolution required for fullscreen. This persisted in the installed system. I need 1920x1080 and for full display and for some reason this wasn't possible so in order not to have to scroll in the VirtualBox window the highest practical resolution I could get was 1680x1050, or 1440x900 in windowed mode. I'm sure this can be fixed but it's not working right from the start.
Artix Linux 20200214 -- Installed in VirtualBox with a mix of German and English in the display settings (full image size: 603kB, resolution: 1440x900 pixels)
I then proceeded to install Artix on a virtual disk which when finished gives us pretty much the same experience as in the live session, sans the helpful desktop shortcuts, so live mode is an accurate representation of the system, as it is supposed to be.
In the KDE edition there's a shortcut to the installer on the desktop which can also be found under system settings. There seems to be a bug in that the installer shows up on the desktop only if the session has been started with the default US locale, at least it did not show up when selecting several other language settings I tried - German, Dutch, Polski and Czech.
Clicking on it opened a box that turns out to be the Calamares installer. In the Cinnamon edition however there was no obvious way to install the system and only after going through all applications in the menu was I able to locate the installer.
The installer starts in a window and walks us through the usual steps of choosing location and language, keyboard layout, partitioning scheme and setting up users. It also gives us a summary of our selections which really should be read before committing everything to disk. The customization module for various sets of software mentioned for an earlier iteration of the Artix installer seems to have been stripped out again.
For some reason Calamares insisted on installing Artix to the SD card left in the slot so be careful here in the partitioning phase. Worse, even after designating several partitions on my sda drive with mount points to Artix it still chose my SD card to install the boot loader on. As this entry is right at the bottom it is easy to overlook and I had almost missed it had I not read the summary provided before the install commenced for real.
The first boot up after finishing ended at a blinking cursor, with the hard drive light showing intermittent disk activity but apparently to no avail. I decided to pull the plug so to speak and booted again. The second time all went well and I was presented with the Cinnamon desktop.
Starting up, the distribution on another partition had been recognized and added to the GRUB menu.
The system booted from an SSD in a matter of seconds, shutdown time was incredibly fast and not even worth mentioning. Every interaction just felt incredibly fast and light. The main thing I noticed was that the Cinnamon environment was not localised or translated at all, just like in live mode, except parts of the menu.
A desktop notification let me know that wireless networks were available. Network manager is in use and after entering my credentials I was off to a good start. Despite the wallpapers, theming is not Artix's strong side. The default Artix-dark theme is a bit plasticky. A few nice Matefaenza icons are included but not used by default, which immediately give it a bit of a Mint flair. Luckily Cinnamon's themes panel makes downloading additional themes easy as pie after a quick refresh.
The entire fresh install used about 4.2GB drive space and htop showed 550MB of memory in use. As noted in the introduction, the project aims at not including too much software to start with. You get the control panel and tools of the desktop environment, the Nemo file manager, the Atril document viewer, a screenshot tool, a picture viewer, MPV for playing videos and Midori as browser (Falkon with the Plasma desktop). We can add from here but there is no graphical package manager. Using "sudo pacman -Syu" we can update the system. Having used the last stable image from February 2020 there were 146 packages to the tune of 245MB to download, not really too much given that nearly five months have passed.
The entire update process took less than two minutes on a 10MB/s connection, including the automated running of build hooks. Unfortunately, upon reboot a problem already encountered at the first boot persisted, namely going into a blank screen, no cursor this time. Shutting down and rebooting the desktop came up as normal and the issue did not crop up again during subsequent smaller updates.
Artix Linux 20200214 -- Checking out software repositories with Pamac (full image size: 269kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
Time to add more applications. Several repositories have already been added for us. The more interesting ones for a broader choice are probably Extra and Community, and we could also add the AUR from Arch Linux. For the graphical package manager I tried Octopi and Pamac. Octopi requires gksu which was unavailable. Pamac works well but requires a lot of scrolling as it always shows installed packages first. For this reason I would recommend staying with pacman at the command line. If you want to use Pamac however, it provides easy access to the Arch User Repository with its contributed build scripts which needs to be enabled in settings and it also adds an update notification to the system tray. This makes keeping track just as convenient as some of the major distributions.
Artix Linux 20200214 -- The settings panel and red update notification (full image size: 406kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
I was able to install the latest Kodi from the official repositories (be sure to choose the kodi-x11 package), the client for my chosen VPN and the Brave browser from AUR so my requirements were met. There's also a link to the Brave package from the contributor of the build script for those who don't want or cannot spend a lot of time compiling. Overall this and the efficiency and pure speed of package management made me quite happy to be using Artix.
Artix Linux 20200214 -- Watching an old video file in MPV (full image size: 758kB, resolution: 1280x800 pixels)
Multimedia codecs seem to be onboard from the start as I was able to watch several video formats.
After a few days running the system on and off I noticed that the battery drained rather qickly when compared to my other install on this machine and set about to investigate. Running the 5.7.8 kernel CPU usage was intense, consistently using around 50% across both cores with no other applications open. This meant with 1 hour 40 minutes the battery lasted less than half as long as with my other system.
I really like Artix because it is providing us with a fine line-up of ready-made images of various desktops combined with a choice of several alternative and probably underused init systems. It even introduced me to one I had not heard about, s6, and made me look more into the pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses of the different ones available. If these environments are not to your liking, there's always the minimal base install to build from the ground up.
Former Arch users who did not like the move to systemd will enjoy Artix, as will new users with a basic level of understanding and knowledge of what applications are available they would like to install. Anybody already experienced with the pacman syntax of updating and installing applications should be comfortable with it and not have much of a learning curve.
If you are looking for a fully localized system, at least with Cinnamon, there is additional work to do. Turns out the cinnamon-translations package is needed. Even after this though the menu entry for Advanced Network Configuration pointing to Network Manager stubbornly remains. Perhaps this package could in future be included just to bring the desktop experience up to par with KDE Plasma where out of the box localization does not seem to be a problem. I also made the observation that the Cinnamon desktop is slightly less responsive on the same machine than my Debian 10 Plasma instance on another partition. Opening the Nemo file manager takes a good 3-4 seconds on an SSD and battery drain is a concern.
Artix also has a wiki, a mailing list and a forum and the team can be contacted via IRC channel. This being essentially Arch Linux the parent distro's wiki can also be consulted. This means there is a great deal of documentation and support available for those willing to look and read, which is a pre-requisite with this type of distribution. If you are looking for a fully localized system, at least with Cinnamon, there is additional work to do. It also pays to keep an eye on the Artix home page. Just like with Arch, news, arising issues and changes that require manual intervention are posted here so one is not caught out by a potentially troublesome update. Happy camping!
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Hardware used in this review:
Dell Latitude E4300, 13.3" notebook display 1280x800 (WXGA) used with external monitor
6GiB DDR3 RAM
250GB Samsung SSD 860 EVO,
Intel Centrino Core2Duo 9300 @ 1.6GHz (up to 2.26 with Boost)
1066MHz FSB, USB 2.0
Intel Mobile 4 Series Chipset integrated graphics
Intel Corporation Ultimate N WiFi Link 5300 wireless
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To get an idea of the features, pros and cons of each of these you might consult this overview, for example, and check out the Gentoo and Arch wikis. You can hop directly to this comparison.