ArchLinux quotes itself as being “an i686-optimized linux distribution targeted at competent linux users.” Part of its philosophy is that by not providing you with lots of configuration utilities, you are forced to “learn the ropes” and you will benefit from the additional knowledge acquired. A sensible approach you may think, and is fine for experienced and/or fearless techies. You know that this isn't going to be the distro to recommend to your mother! But, I wouldn't say ArchLinux is elitist as some readers may fear. Sure, you will be frowned upon (to put it mildly) if you ask questions in the forums that are blatantly answered in the main documentation. However, expecting users to actually edit the appropriate config files manually isn't a bad thing in my opinion.
Obviously, the choice of one's operating system is subjective. I know a lot of people who are using the “perfect” OS, but each system is different. Perfection, I suppose, is therefore relative to your past experience and current/future needs. Let's be clear, I like ArchLinux, so I feel it best to give some background and discuss my OS requirements.
Nowadays, I'm studying towards a PhD within the School of Computing at the University of Leeds, UK. I spend a lot of time programming in Java and Python. Browsing the web and emailing are surely a given. I write my documents in Latex or OpenOffice and in the background I normally have an instant messaging client running plus an mp3 player.
I've been running Linux in some form for about 8 years. If my memory serves me correctly, Red Hat 5.2 was the first distro I installed on my PC. My switch to Linux being my primary OS came shortly after I started my computer science degree back in 1999. Since then, I have played with many versions from mainstream Linux vendors, namely Red Hat/Fedora, Suse and Mandrake. A year or so ago, I tried Gentoo. Admittedly, I was worried about getting the thing on my PC as I didn't have a pretty graphical installer to walk me through. But it turned out not to be that bad at all! And once up and running, I thought I had found the perfect Linux distro. The Portage package management system was great (and still is fantastic), yet my poor old Athlon 600 was showing its age, and having to compile all the entire OS (plus updates) tried my patience a little too much. I had stuck with Gentoo for a while, but eventually, it had to go, and Suse took over.
A few months ago, I bought myself a shiny new laptop, with plenty of processing power and more than my fair share of RAM. Yet, Gentoo was no longer on the cards. Sure, Gentoo has some pre-compiled binaries for popular packages, but to be honest, I still believed that all the compiling was too much of a hassle. So, over the past few months, I have embarked on a mini-mission to find my New Favourite Linux Distro.
So, what were my requirements? Basically, all I want is good package management. Naturally, a good selection of packages need to be available too. What my experience with Gentoo taught me was that being able to easily maintain the software was the killer-feature that I had been missing all that time with the RPM-based systems. But, no compiling, unless I want to! Speed and stability are also secondary factors. Although, I'm willing to take some risks with the stability side of things by running relatively up-to-date packages.
I feel pretty comfortable installing Linux nowadays. I'm not saying that I could install Linux from the command line with my eyes closed or anything, but as long as there is some half-decent documentation, I feel that I could get by. I am in fact happy to invest the time with a more “hands on” install as long the the resulting system is what I want.
At this point, I expect many readers are thinking “Debian” or “Slackware”. Both are well-established distros and I was tempted by both. I had heard anecdotally that Slackware's package management is rather simplistic, e.g., no dependency resolution. (I love how the Slackware entry in Wikipedia describes this as a “unique” feature!) Naturally, 3rd party tools like Swaret came into existence to remedy this, but I was still put off. I did try a Debian-based system in the shape of SimplyMepis. I was very impressed with the simplicity of installation. It begins as a liveCD that you boot from and a fully functional KDE desktop is loaded. If you wish, you can then click an icon and you follow a little wizard, and before you know it, Mepis is installed! It was the easiest and quickest install I had performed and I expect this approach will become increasingly common in the near future. However, the main attraction with Mepis (for me) is that you have access to the vast Debian repositories, accessible through the well-known apt-get tool. Things ran smoothly with Mepis. The Apt system wasn't as great as I had expected, although admittedly I wasn't overly familiar. Debian has a reputation for being a tad too safe with packages it considers 'stable'. So trying to update KDE 3.2 to 3.3 wasn't as straightforward. Anyway, there was nothing really wrong with Mepis, but I just had this little itch as I recalled a review I read ages ago about ArchLinux. I thought, “right, I'll give it a try, and if it doesn't work out, then I quickly stick Mepis back on.” Well, I've not had that urge yet!
NB, before anyone exclaims “But what about FreeBSD?”, my answer is that it's not Linux, is it?!