Knowing that ArkLinux is the offspring of Bernhard “Bero” Rosenkraenzer (interview here), a former Red Hat employee and KDE hacker, should make it one of the more interesting and, arguably, credible new Linux distributions to hit the streets in recent seasons. With the rise of Lycoris, Lindows, and Xandros, among others, Ark Linux is certainly a far cry from a surefire success. Let’s take a look.
ArkLinux 1.0-0.alpha6.0 features a new installer akin to Lindows in that it’s only a few clicks to a working system. These “four click installs” are dead easy – just about anyone could understand them. The only catch is that there are no real expert options. For those of us who know what we’re doing, even a little bit, we’re still forced to choose from the few options presented. There was an option to resize a partition, but having already blocked off an area of my hard drive, I was able to choose an option to use all free space. Installation is quick and simple and GRUB detected my XP installation without a problem. The complaint I have is that it labelled my NTFS drives “Windows NT/2000/XP” and placed then in the GRUB boot menu. There doesn’t appear to be an obvious way to edit the GRUB boot menu, so I had to manually su up to root and edit /etc/grub/grub.conf. I am confident that most users could not pull this off, so on my wishlist, I’ll add a GRUB editor. That said, install is a breeze.
On boot you are greeted by KDE 3.1. There is no login. You are a normal user, “arklinux,” with a blank password and the root password is also blank, so a simple “su’ or “sudo” and the comment line brings you to a root prompt. This method could be compared to the LindowOS run-as-root method. I forgive ArkLinux for this easily – by simply adding the arklinux user, they’ve put the burden on you to set things up responsibly, but they’ve encouraged you to run as a user, rather than root, by defaulting to a user. ArkLinux uses a fairly standard KDE install running Keramik and is very “pretty.” I’m personally sick of seeing the KDE dragon, but the normal walkthrough wizard is there. I immediately made a number of changes to my system to make ArkLinux “mine.” I added some icons to the kicker, I added tweaked the colors, added AbiWord using synaptic, and of course, updated the video driver using Mission Control (which I’ll cover in a minute), and assigned passwords to users. One quick about ArkLinux is that you must manually set your network card to DHCP. Most other new distributions automatically set a card for DHCP or ask you when you install. With ArkLinux, it must be “activated,” so to speak.
The next step in configuring ArkLinux is to visit the “Mission Control” box. Mission Control is an HTML front end for the KDE Control Center which runs in a nice and concise Konquerer window. Without question, Mission Control is the essence of ArkLinux and that which separates it from the pack. Mission Control is a attractive and easy to follow. Unlike the classic KDE Control Center, which is available with a single click, by the way, Mission Control is very simple to decipher and uses very plain English to explain your options. Honestly, it resembles Windows XP’s Control Panel, which makes it familiar to most. Within Mission Control, one can mess with the externals of the system pretty effortlessly.
Adusting the resolution for my 17″ monitor within Mission Control meant restarting X. Logging in, you’ll notice that the login screen is not in English (I think it’s German). Luckily, the buttons do a pretty good job of directing you at what to do. Beware of this — it’s a pre-1.0 oversight that will probably be fixed shortly, if it hasn’t been already. On login, I was greeted with KMix, and audio application. KMix would start parallel with X for the remainder of my ArkLinux sessions up to and including this session. Every once in a while, I’d be greeted with another surprise application, most notably 4 tiled Konqueror windows. These are what I call ‘nuisance errors,’ they don’t actually muck with anything, but you wonder why they happen, because they simply shouldn’t. Nonetheless, getting on the internet and getting the video configured was trivial to me, but I sense that my mother would already be lost by this point.
While ArkLinux was great at some things, I never was able to get to my Windows drives. I have 2 NTFS drives, a system and data drive, and I didn’t expect to be able to browse them, and I was right, I couldn’t. I was surprised it didn’t find my FAT32 drive, even after I played with the /etc/fstab. This is essential. In order for a user to transition, they’re going to need to get to their files without using floppy discs. CD-ROMs do automount, but I don’t use discs for quick and simple transitions. This goes high on my wishlist as well. On the other side of things, simply plugging in my Laser Jet 6L and choosing “add printer” was the extent of work need to get my printer working. ArkLinux, along with CUPS, did the rest for me.
While playing with ArkLinux, I purchased an 802.11b PCMCIA card and plunked it into my PCMCIA drive. Unfortunately, Ark didn’t find it and I was unable to get it working. I tried adding a new network interface, but it didn’t detect anything. I used the “Add New Hardware” applet in the Mission Control panel, and that froze my system, causing me to have to restart the X server. I’m not sure whether it even detects my PCMCIA drive at all, but I can say that it does show kernel messages stopping PCMCIA services when I shut down, leading me to believe it’s not the drive that is a problem for ArkLinux. I did not do too much research into this, but suffice it to say, I tried all of the simple things. With the rise of wireless networks and the advent of 802.11g networks, wireless support is becoming mandatory.
I was unimpressed with the fonts in ArkLinux. While it is easy to add new fonts, as seen in the screenshot, the font quality was grainy and jagged for most of the OS. While the fonts are reportedly anti-aliased, they still don’t compare to those that run under Gnome or Windows. It’s hardly fair to blame this on ArkLinux, but with only graphical environment available, they become somewhat responsible for the sole implementation on their OS. While this screenshot from the ArkLinux site shows the fonts, notice the fonts everywhere besides the OpenOffice.org document. They are still subpar.
One drawback I noticed while using ArkLinux was a delay in window redrawing. I was unable to get the screen resolution above 800×600 with the default nv driver, so I changed to the nVidia Quadro 2, the closet thing to my Quadro 4. I cranked the size up to 1280 and had problems. As you can see in the above screenshot, when dragging windows, I found a gray streak left behind. This is almost certainly NOT my system – it’s a dual 1.8 Ghz Xeons with 1.0 GB RAM and a 32 MB graphics card. These gray window shadows appeared with nearly every window drag. Going back to the nv driver, I was able to keep the resolution and the dragging improved, but is still jittery. This may be because AGPgart is not enabled — either way, once again, a new user would be baffled. Though it may be the nature of the nVidia driver and Xfree, a user would likely attribute this to ArkLinux, and, indeed, they should be doing all they can to prevent it.
ArkLinux is attempting to do in a short cycle what took years for many other distributions – to be a complete distribution and solution. They are off to a great start. This version is an Alpha version, they make no bones about that. As an alpha version, you should expect certain things not to work. That said, this is a very nice piece of software for a work in progress, and could probably be used by most people as their main desktop environment. The issues I have are less complaints than just marks of an unfinished product. My guess is that when the polish is applied, ArkLinux will be in the same class as other new school desktop Linuxes.
– Mission Control makes local system administration a breeze
– only real desktop distro to use KDE 3.1 as default environment
– super easy installation
– wireless card didn’t detect or setup
– couldn’t mount Windows drives
– still has issues as alpha development release