We decided to take the Arch Linux based distribution Antergos out for a test drive. Here’s how it handled, out in traffic and on the track.
A few months back, a fellow tech writer mentioned in an email exchange that I might try using the Arch Linux based Antergos distro as a way to grab the latest and greatest versions of popular software titles for review. Mainly because of Arch’s community repositories, in which users suggest and vote on packages to be included, many popular software titles are available within days after a new release. And since Antergos is a simple install compared to Arch, it would be easy to quickly throw up an installation on a test machine just to look at the latest and greatest from LibreOffice, GIMP and the like.
Like Manjaro, Antergos bills itself as an easier way to experience Arch. The distro was first released in 2012 as Cinnarch, using the Cinnamon desktop, but changed its name in 2013 when it switched to using GNOME 3 as its default desktop because of difficulties keeping Cinnamon current in a rolling release, due to GTK compatibility issues. Almost immediately after its initial release, Cinnarch/Antergos developed a sizable following and currently ranks 22nd on DistroWatch’s “Page Hit Ranking.”
About a week and a half ago, I finally found time to take a look at the distro. I figured this would be an interesting experiment, as I’d never played around with Arch nor any of it’s derivatives before. I wasn’t disappointed.
After downloading the latest ISO (2016.4.2) using BitTorrent and creating a bootable USB drive, I booted into live mode on our test machine, an older System 76 Pangolin laptop with a quad core 2.53 GHz processor and 4 GB RAM. As usual, I didn’t look around much while in live mode, my main purpose being to check that Wi-Fi was working before installing to the hard drive. With a wireless connection made, I clicked “install” and sat back to watch the fireworks.
Antergos uses an installer called Cnchi, a name which is probably derived from the distro’s original moniker. The installer is in beta and evidently has been for years, so users are given the use-at-your-own-risk-and-back-up-everything warning right off the bat, which is good advice even when using an installer that’s considered stable.
In my case, no backup was necessary. There was no data on the drive that wasn’t already saved elsewhere and although the drive does contain a partition with the only Windows installation I have at my disposal, I only use Windows once a year at tax time and wouldn’t loose any sleep if it were to be accidently destroyed during partitioning. I might curse a bit, but I wouldn’t lose any sleep.
Installing Antergos is pretty much like installing any other distro, but with a couple of extra steps that aren’t common to all installations.
For example, there’s a step for the user to choose a desktop environment, which is required by some but by no means all distros. Six choices are offered, as well as “base,” which is a command line only system with no graphical environment. For this install I chose GNOME, a desktop I haven’t even looked at since 2002 when it was at version 2.0, choosing it here because it’s Antergos’ default.
As it turns out, it’s important with Antergos to choose the desktop you’re going to want to keep during installation and not try to swith to it later. Although it’s possible to change to another desktop after installation, the new desktop won’t be thoroughly integrated with the Antergos system. I understand that the distro’s developers are working on making this possible, but as of now a reinstallation is required for a completely successful desktop change.
After choosing a desktop, the user is taken to “Feature Selection,” which is basically a list of features that can be added during the install, selected with on/off switches, with “Printing Support” enabled by default. In addition, I enabled Arch User Repository Support, LibreOffice, Flash player, and Uncomplicated Firewall. Other options include support for Bluetooth, extra Truetype Fonts, Firefox, an LTS version of the kernel, Steam and PlayOnLinux for gamers, and Windows sharing.
Disk partitioning is pretty straight forward, but might prove to be something of a stumbling block for new users wishing to install the distro to dual boot with Windows. Surprisingly, the installer only offers two choices: “Erase disk and install Antergos” or “Choose exactly where Antergos should be installed,” a rather advanced option that wouldn’t be appropriate for most new Linux users. There’s no “install alongside” option at all as there is with most distros.
Cnchi’s “advanced” option does little to help guide a new user through the partitioning process compared with similar options on other installers. The user is presented with a list of all existing partitions on the disk and their file systems without identifying the operating systems. Not good for a user who wouldn’t know ntfs or ext4 from ReiserFS or ZFS.
Indeed, with no sliders or other drag and click aids, I felt lucky that I wasn’t needing to resize anything or create a partition where none existed. I merely needed to replace a huge Bodhi Linux partition with Antergos, while leaving a small Windows partition intact. This was done easily enough by leaving the two ntfs partitions alone, checking the ext4 partition and setting the mount point to “/” and then setting a partition already identified as “swap” as Antegos’s swap partition.
After that, there was a “this can’t be undone” warning screen to click through, then it was all over except for creating a user account, pulling the thumb drive and rebooting.
At this point it would be easy to make a hard left and turn this into a review of GNOME 3. I didn’t care much for GNOME 2 when I tried it for a while way back when, and I certainly don’t care for what it’s become. As a friend, another tech writer, said in reply to a disparaging tweet I made about GNOME a few days back, “It strikes that perfect balance between too simple and too obscured,” which I think sums it up well. Suffice it to say, if I were to decide to make Antergos my distro of choice, I’d be choosing another desktop environment.
Like a lot of modern distros, Antergos doesn’t install with a lot of software. All of the GNOME applets such as a calendar, calculator, and the like, are installed, but other than LibreOffice (which I’d ticked for inclusion during the system install) and the Chromium browser, no applications were installed by default — an approach I actually prefer.
Antergos uses Pacman, the package manager developed specifically for Arch Linux, with a large number of repositories included by default. In addition, advanced users can take advantage of the Arch Build System and the Arch User Repository.
I used the graphical installer to install GIMP, which I found easy to use and even simpler than Synaptic. Never having used Pacman before, I opened a terminal and had a look at its man page to find the proper syntax for using it from the command line, where I found that installing an application requires use of the -S (sync) operator to instruct Pacman to include all necessary dependencies.
To install the Bluefish text editor, I entered:
sudo pacman -S bluefish .
Pacman dutifully offered some information on the package and dependencies, and prompted for permission to continue. After being returned to a command prompt, I opened the newly installed Bluefish to make sure the installation was successful, then used the command line to install FileZilla and Firefox. It’s probably not wise to make a judgement on four successful installs, but so far, Pacman looks as easy as apt.
Because of its Arch Linux roots, Antergos is “bleeding edge” insofar as it installs pretty much the latest and greatest version of programs. In this installation, for example, it installed the latest stable version of LibreOffice, 188.8.131.52. Likewise the latest stable version, 46.0.1, of Firefox was installed. Bluefish and FileZilla were also installed in their most recent stable releases.
When not under a heavy load, Antergos is quick and responsive. To see how the system handles when doing some heavy lifting, I opened LibreOffice Writer, GIMP with an open 150 KB image file, Chromium with five tabs open, one running a YouTube video, and Firefox, also with five taps open.
The system performed fine until Firefox was added to the mix, at which point the system became all but totally unresponsive and the laptop’s cooling fans went into hyperdrive. After about four or five tries, I was able to coax the graphical System Monitor that’s included by default in Antergos to open, which indicated the problem to be with CPU use, which was off the chart, as well as memory issues.
Trying to close a few programs to regain control of the system brought “program unresponsive, force close?” dialog boxes. The forced closes worked, and soon the fan speed returned to normal. We had returned to impulse power, so to speak.
I was a little surprised by this, as the old 32 bit desktop running Linux Mint that we use for the majority of our work at FOSS Force has a slower dual core 2.3 GHz processor and half the memory, yet handles similar loads routinely. At the same time, however, I was not surprised and I’m reluctant to lay fault at the feet of Antergos. I’ve seen similar performance issues in the past when running Firefox. Enough so that I no longer use the browser for anything but backup.
Was it live or was it Memorex? Who knows? But it was one or the other.
Needless to say, Antergos isn’t for everybody, nor does it try to be. Although the distro does a good job of simplifying and making the Arch Linux base easy to use, the distro is designed with tech savvy users in mind. The distro would probably appeal most to experienced Linux users with good command line skills who’re looking for a highly configurable operating system with the latest software packages easily accessible.
Experienced user or not, I would be wary of using Antergos in a production situation, such as in an office setting for example, where stability and near 100 percent uptime is required. The fact that the repositories lean towards the most recent releases — certainly a desirable strength in many cases — might quickly turn into a big liability in uses where keeping the computer running and data protected is job one. If running in a production environment, I would strongly suggest installing new software on a test machine first just to make sure nothing breaks.
Although the distro is user friendly enough, most new Linux users have nothing to gain by having a go at Antergos before at least getting their feet wet on more consumer oriented distros, such as Linux Mint, any of the *buntus, Mageia or PCLinuxOS.