Sunday, September 03, 2017

How do I love Manjaro? Let me count the ways

So, following on from my post about Solus, let's talk about something I do like.


What a beautiful word. Inspired by the name of African mountain Kilimanjaro, it's an Arch-based, rolling release distribution, using pacman as its package manager. And it's green.

That's not to everyone's taste, of course (one prominent Linux YouTuber/vlogger mentioned that it's "not his colour" in his most recent review), but it is to mine. And so is almost everything else.

One frustrating thing about recent Manjaro releases is that the default installer has taken away the options to install Linux in an LVM volume group, which allows for easier partition resizing and also allows you to span a volume group over multiple disks, and to have a separate /home partition for data. The option is, if I recall correctly, available in the Manjaro Architect installer, but last time I tried it it didn't work properly. However, not only is Manjaro Architect very new, but I also didn't have much luck installing Arch using Architect itself last time I tried. Perhaps those problems will be fixed, but for now Calamares, the default Manjaro installer, works well for what it does (and doesn't have as many silly and annoying limitations as the Solus installer).

Manjaro comes in two main versions, the XFCE version and the KDE version. The XFCE version is arguably prettier, but I also love the KDE version, which I'm using right now to write this. The XFCE has a larger choice of (Manjaro-themed) wallpapers, so I installed the xfce4-artwork package alongside the usual Manjaro KDE ones, which include a Manjaro-themed wallpaper, and (judging from the last time I installed Arch) the usual default set of Arch KDE wallpapers, which is larger than the set included with either Kubuntu or KDE neon. 

Arch, for those unfamiliar with Linux or with distros outside the Ubuntu/Linux Mint mold, is a distribution which "tries to 'keep it simple'", which in their case means that you start the install cd with a text-based shell, and build the system from the ground up. It works well (assuming you either do a very simple install, or can navigate the various parts needed to do a more complicated one), but takes quite a while, leaves you with a minimal system, and means you end up having to put up with things like silly font selections in the user interface for the Vivaldi browser (which, for some reason, makes it easy to change the fonts used on webpages, but not in menus, etc.). Manjaro takes about half an hour to install a fully-featured desktop including the aforementioned wallpapers, a couple of beautiful, custom themes, and the Thing of Beauty that is the AUR.

The AUR, or Arch User Repository, was created to solve the problem all non-Ubuntu distributions have (particularly if they do not use Ubuntu and Debian's apt-get package manager) of limited software availability, and solves it very well. It requires that most packages (other than proprietary, distributed-as-binary-only packages like Vivaldi and Google Chrome) be compiled, but takes care of the hard work doing so for you, for the most part. Occasionally a build will fail, but most packages work straight out of the box, even if large packages such as vivaldi-ffmpeg-codecs take quite a while to build. It also doesn't do annoying non-standard things like deleting /usr/local or /etc/shells, or, like Ubuntu, putting configuration files which should be in /etc/ in /usr/share or other places. (A few months of running OpenBSD have left me with a penchant for changing the default text console font to Sun Microsystem's (RIP) sun12x22; just try doing that in Ubuntu.). It installs a fairly wide variety of software including LibreOffice, Steam, Firefox and Kmail (or Thunderbird, if you run the XFCE version), and although some people complain about "bloat" when distros install a lot of software like this, when installing Arch I usually find I install most of the software Manjaro installs by default anyway. Arch also makes it easy to change your shell (as I mentioned in my previous post), and generally makes Linux a joy to use. I am a chronic distro-hopper (it's my favourite activity to do of an evening when I have nothing to do and don't want to watch TV), but I just keep going back to Manjaro. I love it and encourage you to give it a try. Manjaro Linux. Enjoy the simplicity.

Why I'm not participating in the general love-in over Solus

If any post I have ever written on this blog is guaranteed to generate me legions of haters and hate-mail, it's this one, whose premise is: I don't love Solus.

Don't get me wrong, Solus is beautiful; or rather, as I commented over on the Solus Google Plus page as soon after the release of Solus 3 as I was able to get my hands on it, it used to be. It has (and still has) beautiful wallpaper (background) artwork, and used, until the release of Solus 3, to have beautiful icons. Although there is a wide range of icons installed by default, Solus 3 no longer includes the beautiful set of icons which used to be installed by default in Solus (although they can be installed); moreover, to my mind the new icons emphatically do not fulfill lead developer Ikey Doherty's stated function of being high-contrast and easy to distinguish one from the other. The default icons included in Solus 3, to my mind, are washed out and ugly, and several of the replacements installed by default (although I cannot claim to have checked them all) are obscure and difficult to distinguish one from another. Ironically enough, I have installed the set of icons Ikey uses by default in Ubuntu Mate, and there, for whatever reason, they are better looking than the default set and don't look washed out, so I don't know what's happening there. However, they detract from the visual beauty of Solus to a great extent.

A rant about icons, however, is not the main thrust of my argument. I have now installed Solus three or four times since it first came to wide public attention, and each time it has annoyed me with its irritating, superfluous quirks. Given that Ikey is backtracking on a previous promise never to allow Solus to use Ubuntu snaps - a way of installing software on Linux without having to cope with a raft of already-installed dependencies and various package managers across different distributions - one of my biggest gripes in Solus, in all fairness, may soon change. But the remainder... remain.

I shall preface my comments by saying that all Linux distributions annoy by making gratuitous changes, and lack good documentation, which means you can find yourself going down meaningless rabbit-holes of gratuitous change in any given distribution. The changes Ikey has made, however, have been described as making Solus "not feel like Linux", and to my mind at least, that is Not A Good Thing.

Now, don't get me wrong; I'm all for ease-of-use. I use KDE Plasma, which has been accused of making Linux desktops look Windows-like, but which still has some rough edges (today for example I was struggling, in just the manner described above, with getting KDE Plasma's login manager to display both the right keyboard settings, and text in a pleasant font; these are things which in a configuration- and panel-heavy desktop manager like KDE should be configurable in a menu, but aren't, leading one to go down the aforementioned rabbit-holes). I also eschew window managers like awesome and i3, for the most part, which by default don't allow one to use the mouse to move windows around (instead tiling them automatically, or semi-automatically, as they appear), and use non-dynamic text files (which must be reloaded manually or on login) for configuration - although I do admire their minimalist aesthetic. When it comes to Solus, however, Ikey has made some changes to the way a Linux distribution works which I personally find gratuituous and annoying, don't help naive users (which would be the only reason they would be welcome), and are at variance with his stated goal of "sane defaults".

Starting, as it were, at the beginning, the Solus installer has some grave deficiencies (although admittedly the same could be said of the installer from my personal favourite distribution, Manjaro, at least up until the latest version of the installer, which was released today and which I haven't had a chance to install due to writing this blog post). The Solus installer (by contrast with both the Manjaro installer and many more full-featured installers) has a very limited set of features, even down to limiting the way in which the installer can be installed on a hard disk. Unlike many installers, it insists on a very limited set of mountpoints, or separate "containers" to hold data [Linux geeks will have to forgive my non-standard use of containers here], and doesn't allow you to create or edit partitions - instead insisting you do this outside of and before using the installer). Unfortunately, this is the point at which the naive user is most likely to be betrayed by "sane defaults" which are neither sane nor easily changed. Skipping over the aforementioned new icon issues, we then find that when installing a new shell (as I do, being an avid lover of the Z shell), if we install the shell alongside the popular Oh My Zsh configuration package, even after installing zsh, Oh My Zsh will complain that it is not installed. Why? Turns out that a Linux distribution keeps a list of shells which users are permitted to install.(Linux being a clone of UNIX, it was originally intended for use in old-style mainframe and minicomputer settings where many people would have an account at a single machine, sit down at a terminal which was basically just a screen and keyboard - and before that, a typewriter - and use a set of programs selected by them from among a pre-selected number of programs installed by the system administrator(s); thus, whilst a user could install his own shell, or text user interface, he could only choose from amonth those listed in a file called /etc/shells, controlled by the aforesaid sysadmins.) In Solus, this file has been gratuituously removed - gratuitous, since neither its presence nor its absence will delight, amuse, confuse or annoy the naive user, but very definitely will confuse the intermediate user, annoy the advanced user, and neither amuse nor delight either. Similar things can be said of my experience of installing most, a text file pager or viewer which displays text files (particularly the system's included man, or manual, pages) in a colourful, easier-to-read format than the black-and-white-with-the-occasional-bold format they are usually displayed in. Imagine my surprise (and annoyance) when I come to installing this package (from source, since - although this is a forgivable admission - it's not included by default and not likely to be made a snap out of any time soon), and find that the usual directory or folder, /usr/local, in which such user-contributed packages are usually expected to be installed is also absent. Again, another gratuitous change which does not improve quality of life for the new user, and merely annoys the seasoned used or expert.

Now, we come to the boot manager. Ikey Doherty, lead developer of the Solus project, a man by his own admission of strong opinions (completely unlike myself, in other words ;-) ), has been recorded saying that the default boot manager in Linux, GRUB, which does a fair but not perfect job of detecting all operating systems on the drive (essential if one wishes to keep, say Windows on the same computer as one or more Linux distributions) "needs to die". His preferred solution appears to be Clear Boot Manager, or as it's billed in the boot menus on my computer, Linux Boot Manager, a "Boot Manager" which appears to remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that one might have - shock horror! - other distributions on the drive on which you're installing Solus. Not only that, but upon installing Solus on a drive with OpenBSD installed alongside it (whose boot loader, to be fair, is also not up to the task of handling anything but OpenBSD, but doesn't claim to be, either), it promptly hosed the OpenBSD information in favour of (to quote Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) "its new matrix". (Whilst OpenBSD's boot manager is dumb, I can confirm after experimentation that unlike Solus' boot manager it is not also rude.)  That's an attitude worthy of the Windowsian Crapsody, that is. (Mama, just killed a disk; put a gun against its head, pulled my trigger now it's dead...)

OK, so I've installed Solus, and I've corrected or I'm putting up with these problems. Now, I use Linux on laptops, and because I like to try and ensure that should they be stolen, the information contained therein should not be accessible either to the thief or to all and sundry, I like to encrypt my drives. I create for myself a separate, encrypted data partition, include it in /etc/fstab, and reboot. Whereupon Solus fails to boot - instead just sitting there - and I've had just about all I can take of this seriously flawed distribution, flavour of the month though it is. Get off my ship.