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ArchLinux and Debian - a comparison

Note added 30 November 2015
This post was written more than two years ago and represents what I thought at the time, when I was still pretty new to Arch. I continued to use it for about 18 months and then mostly changed to OpenBSD. (There's a lot more about that on this site - use the bsd tag for that.) But I think the original post is still worth keeping so I haven't deleted it.

In summary,I think that the choice between Arch and Debian comes down to how much you value keeping up to date. If you want a rolling release I'd say that Arch is a better bet than Debian unstable. Arch is less likely to cause unpleasant surprises. But if you don't need or want the latest stuff, choose Debian stable.

I've been a Debian user for many years, mostly on the Sid (unstable) branch, so I'm used to a rolliing release and to coping with the occasional snarl-ups that can result. In that respect, Arch is not a new departure for me. I've been very happy with Debian so my decision to try an alternative was not from discontent, just curiosity. Arch says that it focuses on "the philosophy of simplicity [and] minimalism". I'm all in favour of simplicity and minimalism, which is why I don't use a desktop manager such as KDE or Gnome and prefer a tiling window manager (Spectrwm), so this description made me think that Arch might be right for me.

So here are my impressions - admittedly, still at an early stage because I've been using Arch for only about a month.

Documentation and help
Debian documentation is pretty good but Arch documentation is really excellent. Things are explained in detail with step-by-step descriptions. You do have to do a lot of reading but since the quality is so good it's not a chore.

The Arch mailing lists are also good. You should certainly subscribe to and ask questions on the Beginners' list. I've found people there to be helpful.

Debian is easier to install than Arch, at least if you are used to it. In Debian you simply select from the menus you are offered, and if you've done it once or twice it's pretty straightforward.

For Arch, you have do more work, with a good deal of manual editing of files. There's no problem here provided you are happy using the command line, but there are lots of steps and you have to follow the instructions carefully. I mostly used the unofficial beginner's guide from the Arch site but the official one is good as well. Of course, in the early stages this means that you need to have another computer running alongside so that you can read the manuals!

Configuration of the system is different from Debian; Arch uses systemd so you need the "systemctl" command a lot. All this takes some getting used to.

I'd never even heard of systemd before coming to Arch. I found that it had been introduced some months previously as a replacement for sysvinit and initscripts. There was a lot of controversy about this change when it happened, with flamewars resulting in the Arch mailing lists being moderated and people being banned. Some apparently left Arch in protest, finding the introduction of systemd to be dictatorial and alien to the spirit ot Arch.

I'm not qualified to comment on the pros and cons of this. I prefer sysvinit, presumably because I'm used to it, but that isn't a reason for me to give up on Arch. [Note added 4 April 2015: Debian, along with most other Linux distros, is switching to systemd now.]

Connecting to the internet
This can be a little tricky. Instead of /dev/eth0, as in Debian, you need to use something like enp0s13 for a wired connection. To add further confusion, you may find that you start out with eth0 which changes after the first reboot. (Actually, the manual says you can have eth0 if you want to, but I decided to stay with the default to avoid complication.)

To find out what Arch thinks you have, use the command "ip link". This will show you your wireless link as well, if there is one. But I always install via a wired link, to remove one possible source of error.

See the beginners' manuals for more detail about making a connection to the internet.

Installing and upgrading packages
This is done with pacman, which corresponds to apt-get in Debian but works differently. At first my upgrades kept failing; I assumed it was just a matter of waiting a bit before trying again, as one does in Debian Sid, but that was a mistake. The Arch home page had a news update explaining what was wrong and what needed to be done to fix things. You are advised to watch this page.

On Debian I receive mail with mutt, procmail and getmail. I had some difficulty maklng getmail work on Arch at first. though I'm not sure why - probably some silly typo.

On Debian I send mail with exim4. I tried to configure exim on Arch but failed, and I wasn't alone - I found plenty of other people with problems. So I gave up and installed msmtp instead, and that was pretty easy to set up.

Printing in Arch
I've never liked CUPS and on Debian I've always stayed with lprng and magicfilter. But lprng is not available as a binary for Arch. There is a port available but it wouldn't compile for me. So, reluctantly, I installed CUPS, and I have to say it was easy to do and printing worked perfectly, using the Brother driver for my HL-5250DN. In fact, the results are better than with lprng on Debian, so I've had to eat my words here.

Note added 23 August 2014: The maintainer of the AUR port of lprng has now uploaded a version that does compile. But as CUPS is still working for me I'm staying with it.

Note added 24 September 2013: I later had problems with the previous Brother driver and switched to Brother-HL-5350DN-Postscript-Brother.ppd, which seems to be OK.

Installing Arch takes a fair amount of time, especially reading online. It should provide no real difficulty to anyone who has a reasonably amount of experience with Debian and is therefore likely to be happy using the command line. But is it worth the trouble?

I don't think Arch offers any great advantage over Debian, or vice versa. But getting it working is an interesting challenge and if you enjoy that, it's worth considering. And once it is working, it seems to run very smoothly - in fact, upgrades have been if anything more trouble-free than on Sid. Most of the programs I use on Debian are available on Arch, either as binary packages or via the ports system, which is extremely easy to use - much easier than on FreeBSD.

So far there have been two programs I couldn't find on Arch. One I downloaded from the internet and compiled myself without difficulty. The other was big-cursor. I have a separate post about this because it took me a couple of weeks and a lot of experimenting to find a solution (see under "A large mouse cursor for ArchLinux" under the Computers tag).


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