Ark Linux: Quite an eXPerience

Installing Ark Linux was another episode in my continuing quest to find the perfect GNU/Linux distribution. My operational definition of perfect is pretty simple: just like Slackware, except for the parts I can’t figure out (getting my USB thumb drive to work properly, for instance).

I’ve been using Dropline Gnome on Slackware for the last eight months or so, which is about half the time I’ve been using Linux. Ark Linux is at least the tenth Linux distribution to grace one of the two boxes I’ve had since I switched from Mac OS X to Linux (long story that started out sad, but ended up happy). Before that I’d been an Apple user since buying an Apple //c in 1985, and switching to the Mac in 1988. I’ve used DOS/Windows at work in various incarnations since the mid-’80s as well, and my wife has an XP home system that I administer. I’m lucky enough to use Mac OS X at work on a shiny new dual processor G5.

Click for a larger view On the receiving end of this latest distribution is my home-built small form factor Biostar IDEQ 200V. The “V” stands for Via, which makes the motherboard chipset (KM400 and VT8237). It includes the normal ports and slots, including Serial ATA and Firewire (IEEE 1394). I have an AMD 2800+ CPU, a gigabyte of 333 Mhz RAM, a Lite-On 401 DVD burner, a Seagate 80 GB SATA drive and an ATI 9200 AGP video card. My SATA drive has my Slackware installation on it, so I installed Ark onto a 20 GB Maxtor 7200 rpm ATA-66 drive. I attached four USB devices in my testing: an Apacer Handy Steno USB 2.0 thumb drive, A Canon PowerShot A40 digital camera, a Canon S450 printer and a Wacom Graphire drawing tablet. I had no Firewire devices handy.

On their web site, the Ark Linux folks state their distribution is for the desktop, primarily for people with no previous Linux experience. They go on to say it is designed to be easy to use, and to include a lot of tools and applications. Combine that with the splash screen displayed during installation (which calls it eXPerimental) and some of the choices they’ve made, and it’s easy to see they’re going after the Windows refugee crowd. This was also noted in this site’s last Ark review, which was of the alpha6 version. There are other distributions out there doing the same thing, though I haven’t used any of them. So I won’t be able to compare Ark to, say, Lindows.

I can, however, compare it to Red Hat, on which it is based, as well as to several other Linux distributions. It is advertised as an alpha release, and while it has its problems it is in the running for the smoothest installation I’ve ever done. Of course, the easier it is, the fewer choices you have. The Ark team no doubt considers that perfect for their intended audience. It was perfect for an evaluation installation as well.

The few choices you do get to make during installation include the language you want to use, the keyboard map and which kind of installation you’d like. Ark won’t install over existing partitions, so the choices it offers are to use the whole drive, to use any free space on the target drive, or resize a partition. I chose to use the whole drive, because it was easy and had the additional benefit of erasing the failed FreeBSD 5.2 installation still on the drive, the vestiges of which might have confounded the bootloader or the partitioning software if I had tried something trickier.

Installation went quickly. I didn’t time it, but it was in the 20-minute range. The Ark team provides the user with a nice blue background and drawing of Tux that makes him look like he’s playing nice to get more fish. If you don’t want to look at the nice penguin the Ark team was kind enough to include Tetrix to play while the installation takes place. I don’t know if Windows converts will realize the fundamental difference the ability to play a game while installing an OS represents, but it is a nice touch nonetheless.

One thing that surprised me about the installation was that my mouse worked from the very first screen. Sadly, it didn’t at the very end. Once the installation routine announced it was done and I could reboot or click the box and keep playing Tetrix, my mouse froze. It seemed to do no damage, and GRUB greeted me after a system reset.

Booting from the hard drive brought up a nice seascape-cliffs background, a progress bar and the option to hit the F2 key and watch the normal output. Red Hat users will be familiar with the display of the normal boot messages. X started automatically and was swiftly followed by KDE. X identifies itself as version 4.4.0-0.20031119.1ark, and KDE as 3.1.4-120031119.1ark. After answering the obligatory Wizard questions, I was staring at Ark’s nice KDE desktop. As I surveyed this new desktop space my system started making an odd sound (a hardware noise), and I got a notice that Ark was giving up on trying to get my sound server to work because it was overloading my CPU. Again, a slightly scary failure that left no apparent damage, as the system continued on for hours without a tic. No sound, but no instability or other oddness.

The first thing to check out once Ark is up and running is Mission Control. It is one of the distribution’s main selling points. Mission Control can best be described as a celebrity-impersonator version of the Windows XP control panel. It’s not a pixel-for-pixel copy, but I’m guessing somebody would have to point that out to the average user. Again, given the market the Ark team seems to be aiming for, this is not a bad idea. Coming from Dropline Gnome on Slackware, however, I had to check which operating system I’d booted up.

In use Mission Control is a front end for the KDE Control Center and a number add-ons, such as Synaptic for installing software and QtParted for partitioning drives. I thought I would quickly dispense with Mission Control and go straight to the programs I needed, but after three days that turns out not to be the case. Mission control is a very convenient one-stop shopping screen for dealing with your system. It presents its control panels as tasks (Intall or Remove Software) or simple headings (Cameras). There’s a link to the KDE Control Center on the panel, along with a link for the command prompt.

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If you choose to open Konsole you find you’re logged in as Arklinux. I had assumed the system had logged me in as root, another Microsoft-like choice some distributions aiming for this market have made in the past. I was happy to see things were a little safer than that. My happiness was short-lived, however: as soon as I typed in “su,” the prompt identified me as root. No password required. The wisdom of that choice is a personal judgment call, and the Ark FAQ notes that the Ark team considers it a perfectly fine option for home users. Enabling passwords and setting up new accounts is easily accomplished using the Mission Control-KDE Control Center connection.

Personally, whether it’s a security risk or not, I think every user should be made to type in a password before getting root privileges. It reinforces the serious nature of the change in status being root represents. Those converting from Windows could probably use the reminder. Then again, they might not be converting to be told what to do with their computers.

Most of what the typical user will need is in Mission Control in any event. I had no internet connection upon boot, but clicking a few times past the Internet and Networking panel started up DHCP. I ran through the hardware control panels and found that Ark had correctly identified my video card. A quick search at any Linux forum will turn up evidence that getting a fairly recent ATI card configured can be a daunting task in many distributions. Likewise with the Serial ATA drive. It showed up in QTParted as /dev/sda (because the 2.4 kernel sees SATA drives as SCSI), with all the partitions correctly identified, though not mounted.

I had less luck with my USB thumb drive. It caused an icon to pop up on my desktop, but it was a CD icon, and it was quickly followed by a message that the system couldn’t mount this new CD writer I’d just hotplugged in. This configuration error resisted casual tinkering. Three days later the icon is still on my desktop, even though the drive is no longer plugged in (I don’t have KDE set to display unmounted drives on the dekstop). Odd, but on the plus side, this is much further than I’ve ever gotten with Slackware and the USB drive.

Ark had an easier time with my Canon camera and printer, as well as my Wacom tablet. The proper icon appeared for the camera, and a single click brought up a Konqueror window. The JPG and AVI files on the camera displayed and played without complaint. The Wacom tablet was a simple plug-and-play experience. Another trip to Mission Control made adding my printer as simple as selecting it from a list.

That was the essential nature of adding software as well. Ark installed 563 packages on my system (by its count), using more than 2 GB of space. To get more programs I went to Mission Control, which brought up Synaptic, a nice front end to apt-get. It connects to the Ark software repository, and offers you several filters and many categories. I installed Mozilla Firebird and Thunderbird using this system. It identified and installed a library dependency and added the appropriate entries to my KDE menu.

One piece of software not on the Synaptic menu was Rox, my preferred file manager. I downloaded the Red Hat RPMs from the Rox site to see if they would work. Synaptic didn’t seem to offer the option of installing from the hard drive, so I chose the advanced software management option in Mission Control, which brought up KPackage. This installed both RPMs (Rox and the Shared Mime Info), though I was forced to download the Rox RPM again. KPackage complained about the package (didn’t note the exact error). I downloaded it again, using a different link, and it worked fine. I don’t know if the packages were slightly different despite having the same file name, or if the first had been corrupt.

Having successfully added programs two different ways, I turned to the distribution upgrade. This is also done via Synaptic. Hit the “Upgrade System” icon on the tool bar and Synaptic walks you through listing, queueing and installing all available upgrades. The system identified 157 packages that needed upgrading. That took more than a few minutes, but no user intervention once set in motion. Once that finished I had 569 of the 1579 packages listed by Synaptic. While many upgrades were listed, the only one that seemed a significant upgrade was the GIMP, which was bumped up to 2.0-pre1. That, along with Open Office 1.1, Scribus, Xine and the usual array of KDE applications and makes for a well-rounded system able to handle pretty much any user task.

Because I planned to write this review of the experience, I went a step further and decided to upgrade the kernel via Synaptic. Ark installed kernel 2.4.23-2ark, and it was working smoothly, so most users will simply keep it. Synaptic listed 2.6.1 as an option, so I had it download and install the newer kernel. It booted with some error messages about hotplug files and a failure to get my USB mouse and keyboard to work. I don’t have a USB mouse, so I wasn’t too surprised when my cursor was stuck in the middle of the screen (it’s a candy-apple red cursor, so it’s hard to miss). I got around the system using the keyboard enough to prove to myself that the system itself was working, then put the 2.6 kernel upgrade process on the “still alpha” side of Ark’s ledger.

The rest of the system seems out of alpha and at least into a later beta. Open Office behaved as expected, as did the K-named programs I tested. There is such a wide array of programs I have only been able to test a couple in each category, but those I did test performed well.

In you read OSNews’ last Ark review (from March of 2003), the author noted a couple of problems the Ark team seems to have fixed. Screen redraws are fine, and window-dragging leaves behind no oddities or artifacts. Another complaint was font rendering. The selection of fonts now seems much wider than the average Linux distribution. The two font sources I haven’t seen in Linux before are Larabie fonts and Macromedia. It reminded me of my Mac days to see font names such as Chinese Rocks, Goodfish, Chevara and Squealer alongside the more familiar Luxi, Bitstream Vera and Nimbus. Font rendering is uniformly good.

Overall, Ark Linux seems to be a few configuration details away from being solid success. I think the Ark team is being modest calling it an alpha release. Despite a few problems the system is stable and suprisingly fast. I’m not sure it’s as snappy as Slackware, but it certainly feels snappier than the last Red Hat 9.0 installation I had on the same machine (though to be fair, I ran Ximian Gnome exclusively on that installation).

To sum up, Ark has a very smooth installer, an excellent control panel set up, an easy software management system and an array of programs that covers all the basic computing needs and a few not-so-basic needs. KDE is well configured, speedy and looks as good as any other KDE I’ve seen.

The few negatives I encountered — the sound problem, the misidentified USB drive and the kernel-upgrade mouse failure — are understandable in an alpha-branded release and would seem to be problems the Ark team could fix before declaring the distribution ready for release. Once those details are fixed I believe Ark will have earned a place in the first rank of the perennially recommended newbie-friendly distributions, Mandrake, Suse and Red Hat (Fedora). I’ve found it to be speedy, stable and very easy to use.


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