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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

By Mayank Sharma on July 16, 2008 (4:00:00 PM)

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There's no dearth of Linux distributions for desktop users or even for running high availability servers. But if you are a do-it-yourself computer user, your choice of Linux distros is fairly limited. You can build Linux from scratch with Linux from Scratch or compile your own set of packages with Gentoo. But if you want a distro that teaches you the basics of Linux as you set it up; is well documented, lightweight, and zippy; and has a dependency-resolving packaging system, you need Arch Linux.

Modern desktop Linux distros hide all the configuration bits behind easy-to-navigate menus and auto-resolving package managers. Old-timers might consider them bloated or resource hogs, but they are popular thanks to good bandwidth, cheap hardware, and the lack of time people have to fine-tune their systems.

Arch Linux is a great mix of the old and the new. From the golden days of Linux, Arch inherits the ability to fine-tune, tweak, and run a customized system, and from the modern era it takes its auto-resolving binary package manager. With an active user and contributor community, what you get is a system that's completely under your control, doesn't eat your whole weekend setting it up, and sports a package manager designed to keep you on the bleeding edge of free and open source software.

Exploring Arch Linux 2008.06

The latest Arch Linux version, released last month, is available both as a traditional ISO image and a USB image -- both about 300MB in size. If your BIOS allows booting off USB devices, you can use the dd command to transfer the USB image to a USB disk and install using that.

Arch Linux doesn't have a fancy graphical install interface. You even have to partition your disks using the command-line cfdisk utility, although there is an "auto prepare" option that will erase your disk and partition it into four partitions (/boot, swap, /, and /home). Arch Linux 2008.06 bundles its online beginner's installation guide under /arch/beginnersguide.txt and a detailed installation guide under /arch/arch-install-guide.txt.

Once the partitions are prepared, the next task is to select packages to install. Unlike a traditional desktop Linux installation, packages in Arch Linux are divided into two categories: Base packages, which are always installed, include the kernel, shell, and bootloader, and the optional Devel packages, which include the GNU toolchain -- GCC, autoconf, automake, and so on. In addition to letting you select these package categories, the install procedure lets you choose additional packages by displaying the full list of packages it bundles.

Arch is known for its Pacman package manager, and Pacman comes into play just before your selection of package categories is installed. The installer prompts whether you wish to keep the packages in the Pacman cache. If you choose to do so, you can downgrade packages to previous versions if a new version causes problems or conflicts with other packages.

Installing the packages shouldn't take much time, irrespective of your system configuration and package selection, since there's hardly anything to install. Once the install is done you won't see an easy-to-use post-install account creation screen or a customized login manager, or even a splash screen. Instead, in tune with Arch's transparent nature, you get a screen full of configuration files that you have to review, tweak, and modify to suit your system and network configuration.

It really isn't as daunting a task as it sounds. Arch has a BSD-style init system, which means it uses a single /etc/rc.conf file that controls all its basic system configuration: keyboard layout, network configuration, modules to load, daemons to start, and so forth. Additionally, unlike the System V init system, Arch houses all daemons under a single /etc/rc.d directory regardless of runlevels. Also, the configuration files are fairly well documented with comments.

I modified the rc.conf file to make Arch Linux pick up my network details via DHCP instead of using the default fixed IP address. I also commented out the entries for the optical drive in the /etc/fstab file, as suggested in the beginner's guide, since I wanted the hardware abstraction layer to handle removable media.

You can set a hostname in the /etc/hosts file and configure which hosts to allow or deny with their respective files. Finally, set a root password and configure the bootloader before exiting the setup.

Expanding Arch

When you're done installing Arch Linux 2008.06 you don't get a full-blown graphical desktop environment. All you get is a solid base and tools to build your own system. The advantage of this approach is that you can tailor your system from the ground up, in contrast to a traditional distro, wherein you'd get a standard set of packages and have to chop off the excess. Arch lets you avoid surrendering package selection to the distribution vendor.

With Arch, if you want just a Web server, you can install Apache and the other components and libraries that you need, and leave out desktop-related stuff. If you want to use your Arch computer as a jukebox, add MPlayer and a codec package that plays most popular formats, and leave out the rest. If you want to use Arch as your daily-use bleeding-edge desktop, install the latest KDE, 3-D compositing manager, and your favorite desktop applications.

Once again, this might sound daunting, but thanks to Pacman it really isn't. The install guide covers installing everything from an ALSA sound server to the X server to your favorite desktop environments. There's really nothing to it. For example, the command pacman -S firefox mplayer mplayer-plugin codecs flashplugin will install the latest Firefox browser, along with the Flash plugin, and the audio/video player MPlayer and its browser plugin along with codecs. Since Arch Linux is a rolling release, which means its releases aren't separated into different branches or versions and new packages are simply added to the existing repository, you can update the entire system with a simple pacman -Syu command.

I installed Arch Linux both via a CD-ROM and one of its FTP mirrors on a 2.0GHz E4400 Core 2 Duo desktop with 1GB RAM and a wired Ethernet card. The network adapter was detected and configured via DHCP. After installing the base packages I followed the install guide to setup a basic Xfce system and then one with KDEmod, a modular and tweaked version of KDE optimized for Arch Linux. I installed the unstable branch of KDEmod, which is based on KDE 4.1.

The best thing about Pacman is that it installs only what I ask it to. For example, it allows me the freedom to install just the KSnapshot program instead of the complete KDE graphics package. So I not only end up saving disk space, but also get bloat-free, ligtening-fast performance. The Arch Linux 2008.06 install boots and drops me to the KDE desktop in less than 20 seconds, and all apps launch almost instantaneously.

Conclusion

Arch Linux is a distro designed for users who like to be in control of what apps are installed on their systems. Unlike other distros with similar objectives, Arch doesn't sacrifice ease of use completely. It uses BSD-style init scripts, which eases configuration tasks, and a dependency-resolving package manager that helps keep the system updated. All in all, Arch is a nice distro for users who wish to learn about Linux and mold their Linux systems without breaking into a sweat.

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 65.2.142.170] on July 16, 2008 04:44 PM
I mainly use Ubuntu, and while I like the speed and ability to customize of Arch, it does not have the level of polish I'm used to. Synaptic is way more useful than any of the Pacman interfaces I've tried, for one thing, and of all the guides I've followed I could not get Arch's fonts in Firefox to look as nice as Ubuntu's did out of the box.

For a rolling release distribution there aren't really enough developers to stay on top of things. I've encountered some out of date packages (in the AUR as well) and ones that did not even work for the longest time, such as the GNOME system tools.

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Re: Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.188.197.43] on July 16, 2008 07:04 PM
Out of date packages are easily brought up to date via the Arch Build System (ABS), or a simple edit of the PKGBUILD from the AUR.
Also, I would not judge pacman by its 3rd party GUIs. pacman is simply one of THE best binary package managers out there, both in simplicity, dependency resolution and speed.

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Re: Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Brian Masinick on July 18, 2008 06:00 AM
Arch Linux is a distribution that is optimized to perform package management in an outstanding way and to only configure precisely what you instruct it to configure. These are the two differentiators it has from Slackware - the roots from which it evolved. With Slackware, particularly in the old days, you installed numbered groups of packages, though you could select additional packages or remove packages from those lettered groupings. Those letters were originally based on packages included on floppy disks! I cannot imagine even a tenth of those packages within most of the letters even beginning to fit on one floppy these days!

Today's Slackware typically just installs the entire set of packages. Arch is different. By default you install only a core operating system and core utilities. From there, you decide what to install, and you also set up the configurations yourself. That is where Arch does help. There are not fifty different configuration locations to deal with. All of the run configuration programs can be found in the same directory and they are driven off of a single configuration startup location, as described in the article. You have to set that up yourself. If you are not familiar with doing such things, it takes a while to get used to this the first time or the first few times, but after that it can be a very rapid experience - copying and editing the contents of a simple text configuration file. Installing the software is even easier. There is no binary packaging tool that is faster or more effective than pacman.

I say all of that while continuing to be a Debian based system user. I definitely keep a copy of Arch Linux on a test system though. I ran it last weekend as I updated all of my test systems and Arch was easily the fastest system on that box, Other systems were pretty tightly clustered together in overall speed and responsiveness, but Arch stood out. Once initially set up, it is painless to maintain, even more so if you take a few minutes extra to either write an alias or two to speed up typing commands or completely hands off if you use cron or some other scheduler to periodically update your system at your convenience. But tying in sudo pacman -Syu from a console terminal once a month is no big deal, and that is all it takes to maintain Arch Linux once it is initially set up!

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 158.38.40.59] on July 16, 2008 05:18 PM
I use KDEmod4, and I've never had out of date packages, they get updated almost before they're out. And Shaman, the graphical package manager, beats Synaptic hands down (it should have been worth a mention in the article too).
So I would say, even with the limited amount of manpower they have, they achieve more than Ubuntu.

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.159.245.243] on July 16, 2008 05:49 PM
I ended my distro-hopping habit last March, when I installed Arch. It is truely a great distribution, worth tweaking to fit your desires.

Pacman is very stable and complete. Maybe it is not as feature rich as dpkg, but at least it is helpful when solving updates or dependency problems, which happen rarely.

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 96.228.149.153] on July 16, 2008 05:55 PM
In your article you make it appear that Arch Linux is the only distro to pick if you really want to learn how Linux is put together and make one to believe that all Gentoo has to offer is to compile your system from scratch. Well I have to strongly disagree with you. I am fairly new to Gentoo so I don't want you to think that I am some sort of Gentoo evangelist but in my humble opinion I will strongly ascertain that Gentoo is one of the best documented Linux distros out there, there are other good ones too but you brought up Gentoo. Yes if you are a lazy user and go for the quick install that they now offer on their live DVD you will not gain a lot of knowledge, you don't even need to compile anything at first. However if you really want to learn you should at least pick the minimum install CD that initially boot straps your system and go from there, if you really want to get into the nuts and bolts forgo installing from a stage 3 tar ball and learn how to do it from a stage 1. Yes I know that is not their recommended install method now in 2008 as they clearly state in their documentation the stage 1 or stage 2 is now mainly for the developers of Gentoo and also for anyone willing and who wants to learn. So in my opinion, as good as Arch Linux is for the DYI Linux user Gentoo is still better mainly because of the tons of high quality of documentation that they have produced on about every topic one could think of. If you dive in you just naturally learn a lot.

I have been a long time user of Linux starting with Suse 6.1 and used that distro up until they were bought out by Novel. I was concerned with what was happening with them and my fears were confirmed after Novel got into bed with Microsuck that I have since been a distro refugee. I have been trying to find a new home and there always seems to be a deal breaker for me with every distro I have tried and I have downloaded and tried most of the well known ones and even some of the obscure ones. At first I was angry with the various distros, couldn't understand why my hardware would work out of the box on one and not on others or would work on one release but was broken on the next release (not to point fingers but Ubuntu comes to mind). But there always seemed to be some fundamental flaw that they possessed that stopped me from using them long term. Then the more I mulled things over I became more angry at myself for not learning enough along the way so I would know how to fix things myself. So instead of complaining about a particular disro I decided to try and learn how every thing is put together and configured in a Linux system. I hate to say it but if all you ever do is rely on the GUI tools that the various distros provide for configuration and system admin you will never learn anything, you will just be a transplanted windows user still relying on what is put in front of you often being frustrated when something does not work like you think it should and continually being frustrated at the incomplete control that the GUI tools leave you.

After I decided I needed to learn a lot more I started looking at the various distros that force you to learn something instead of feeding you pablum. I started looking at Slackware at first and there are a lot of things I liked about that distro except I could not understand why they haven't yet begun to support the 64 bit systems, I looked at Debian as well and I like their package system, then I looked at Arch Linux, Linux from scratch and Gentoo. I have settled on Gentoo at this point in time because of their superior documentation, I have several PC's in my network so I intend on setting up a compile farm using distcc on the various PC's on my network. I know that this will increase the learning curve at the beginning but should greatly lessen the compile times for my systems. I also will force myself to do everything at least at the beginning from the command line even if there are some GUI tools that may have been created for system administration. Hopefully this will not prove to be too painful in spite of my short term memory problems. I am not a programmer or a developer in any since of the term just an average user who has decided to take control of my system and to make it work the way I want it to.

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Re: Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 89.181.12.124] on July 23, 2008 05:43 PM
I loved read your comment because i have a expirience like yours. I started a long time ago using linux (redhat 5.0) but just for a short periot of time. Than i restart using linux with opensuse 10.1, and i tryed lots of distros that didn't work of my pc's. Than i start trying to learn something and tried sourcemage and others. In the end i tryed archlinux and love it.

P.S. Sorry my bad english

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 87.102.36.164] on July 16, 2008 06:00 PM
Great review, I've been using Arch since early Februaru, and Arch exclusively since around March. It truely is a great distro that can become anything you need. I'm surprised you didn't mention ABS, that's one of Arch's greatest features.

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 66.92.90.34] on July 16, 2008 06:03 PM
One thing to keep in mind is that Arch is *not* Ubuntu, or Suse, or any of the other distros like that. It's far closer to compare it to Gentoo or Slackware.

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 172.27.207.175] on July 16, 2008 06:36 PM
Good article, though your readers definitely have their favorite distributions and they never let their criticisms go unheard.

I think that I need to finally get around to trying Arch Linux. Though I appreciate the intelligence brought to the community by such distributions as Fedora and Ubuntu, I do enjoy doing things myself. Because I don't mind satisfying dependencies and compiling some of my own packages, I stick to distributions like Gentoo and Slackware. From what I gather I would feel right at home in Arch.

Thanks for the great review. :)

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 85.29.98.13] on July 16, 2008 06:59 PM
Arch Linux is truly an excellent distro for advanced GNU/Linux users. Another great distro for people who want to learn the nuts and bolts of the GNU/Linux system is Sourcemage GNU/Linux, which uses a source-based and dependency-resolving package manager like Gentoo Linux. With Sourcemage you can easily rebuild your whole GNU/Linux system with your preferred optimization flags, using the simple command "sorcery rebuild".

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 199.190.174.226] on July 16, 2008 11:20 PM
For those who want a more advanced frontend for pacman, try out yaourt: http://archlinux.fr/yaourt-en

It has support for AUR as well as pacman, which is _extremely_ useful. I really miss it on my laptop, which I had to switch to Ubuntu because of superior hardware support. I really, really love Arch. I hope I get my graphics driver problems fixed soon so I can come back home :(

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.187.222.233] on July 17, 2008 12:22 AM
As an ex-gentoo and ex-Slackware user, I can confidently say that Arch is king. Installation is quick, binary, and no tedious stage 3 compiling.
Documentation is absolutely terrific. Hat's off to the author of the Beginners' Guide especially. Along with the FreeBSD handbook, The Arch Linux Beginners' Guide is the most perfectly written and presented, high-quality document for unix I have ever read.
I've only been using Arch for 6 months, but in that time it has proven to be clean, stable, predictable, quick, and most importantly, it stays out of my way.
Great review!

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.162.138.52] on July 17, 2008 07:31 AM
I've been using Arch for well over a year now. I love its tweakability without having to deal with any insane setup-times. I recently created a fast-boot system on a high speed solid-state drive using Arch, and it rocks. From grub to fully loaded(!) desktop in under 15 seconds. Tip: You can use "@" before any daemons on the list in /etc/rc.conf to make that part of startup run in the background, great for anything that is not critical but takes a while to load.

While I love Ubuntu's ease of use, for pure customization without frustration no other distro can beat Arch.

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 195.252.92.138] on July 17, 2008 10:26 AM
Quote:
I really miss it on my laptop, which I had to switch to Ubuntu because of superior hardware support.

How come? I thought all linux distributions uses linux kernel, right? There is nothing superior there, kernel is just kernel. You just failed to setup it right. You have to know what hardware you have and what are all those options in kernel.
I use gentoo for years now and that will not change, but I have to say that Arch is great, compared to gentoo it seems a litlle primitive but I was very pleased when I installed it and configured in less than 2h, with gentoo that will be 1day (if not some old hardware). But then again with gentoo and arch you only have to install your system once and update later! I tried ubuntu last year I think, it didn't lasted one day , when I saw what steps I have to perform in order to just compile my own kernel i wipe it from my hard drive.

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 127.0.0.1] on July 17, 2008 04:51 PM
One of my favorite features of Arch is net-profiles. Similar to network manager I suppose, except it runs at boot-time allowing the user to choose which network(s) to join right away and not after the user has logged in.

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 67.34.213.28] on July 17, 2008 06:58 PM
A few points...

1) Nice overall review, but it this is the third review for Arch 2008.6 that has failed to review the package I'm mos interested in - Arch Build System (ABS). Everyone already knows about pacman, but most people aren't even aware that ABS exists. I'd like to know a little more about it before I consider switching from Gentoo.


2) Quote:

"How come? I thought all linux distributions uses linux kernel, right? There is nothing superior there, kernel is just kernel. You just failed to setup it right. You have to know what hardware you have and what are all those options in kernel."

I think that's the point you're missing. You don't have to set up Ubuntu, nor do you have to know what hardware you have (which isn't as easy if you're running a recent motherboard). With Ubuntu, it just works. I'm not advocating for Ubuntu, but I understand where he's coming from.


3) Gentoo's documentation is good, but I wouldn't dare call it one of the best. It's a tad bit unorganized, and would greatly benefit from some centralizing of information. Secondly, I've always failed to understand how dealing with Stage 3 tarballs makes you "learn so much." Granted I'm not new to Linux, but I learned a minimal amount at best, and most of what I learned is only useful on Gentoo, because other distros have better configuration methods. I love my Gentoo installation, but I'm honest enough to admit that had I not already been familiar with Linux, I probably would have just quit out of frustration.

In other words: Gentoo is great if you want to learn how your system is put together - pending you already have a significant amount of Linux knowledge.

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Another way

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.204.223.246] on July 17, 2008 10:51 PM
If you want something similar for Debian/Ubuntu (sid branch), try grml.org and grml2hd installer. It only installs "text tools" so you start from a similar point. It also gives X.org.

Generic admin tip - don't use "dd" but "dd_rescue" instead. Way nicer.

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 216.86.214.121] on July 17, 2008 11:58 PM
Many of the posts cover mostly other distros such as gentoo, but the subject is archlinux.

One omission from this presentation of archlinux in review is the Larch "Live" system permitting a Live CD or DVD or USB flash to load and run archlinux. This requires some skill not the usual burn a CD from a download but permits a user to design his own archlinux.

Another omission is the very fine application of archlinux,pacman,and a pacman GUI called ..pactrac is found in the Faunos USB flash portable operating system. It permits the download of a USB image which is entered via dd program into a 2GB flash drive(1GB minimum).

I feel this system is the easiest and fastest install of 600 pacman packages that has ever been provided in linux. It is upgradable, including kernels and runs in ram. With no hdd's enabled, can be shutdown immediately...

The Faunos system can be modified...downsized with pactrac.

I see it as an extension of KISS, the archlinux motto.

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 202.7.95.69] on July 18, 2008 05:04 AM
Simply brilliant. Tried them all, been with Arch now for several years which ended my distro shuffle, though I keep up with the likes of Ubuntu through friends, so compare regularly (and yes, they switch to Arch). What is most fascinating is that you can have two distro's both running say KDE say, but the Arch one just flows along, everything works, easy to update, like driving a finely tuned car. Makes no sense, but there you have it. Excellent wiki and forum and list. Been using linux since I put Debian gui on a DX100 many moons ago.

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 213.156.52.120] on July 18, 2008 06:29 AM
>1) Nice overall review, but it this is the third review for Arch 2008.6 that has failed to review the package I'm mos
>interested in - Arch Build System (ABS). Everyone already knows about pacman, but most people aren't even
>aware that ABS exists. I'd like to know a little more about it before I consider switching from Gentoo.
I tried to answer your doubts with my review to arch
http://archpropaganda.blogspot.com/ hope you like it

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 192.168.44.110] on July 18, 2008 06:29 AM
I really liked Arch. Easy to install and maintain. Only problem may be that some packages are not present in repository and take time to install without pacman.

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 75.145.180.221] on July 18, 2008 07:03 PM
I'm somewhere in the middle between a lazy Ubuntu user and a hard core tweaker--I want to be able to tweak and configure and play around to good effect, but I need a lazy/average-man's fallback for those times when I need to do something new in a short amount of time and don't have time to learn (for example) the binary name of the configuration panel for services, or worse, which rc.? file to open/edit.


That, and I have a Broadcom wireless card.


I tried Arch for an afternoon, couldn't get my wireless working and shot it the bird and put Ubuntu back on my machine. Effort just wasn't worth it to me. Maybe one day.

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Arch Linux for the DIY Linux user

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.108.172.87] on August 09, 2008 07:47 AM
I've been using both Arch and Gentoo for about 5 years now. Arch long surpassed Gentoo in usefuless and stability. Here are the differences that I think separate Gentoo and Arch.

Gentoo is a bit more flexible. One may install Gentoo on more architecures such as SPARC. Use flags also make things easier, -for example, its easier to install mplayer without x11 to use w/ framebuffer than it is in Arch linux. The documentation is better than Arch's documentation and is more portable, -for example, Gentoo's install guide teaches chroot and has more detailed info on creating users and configuring grub and fstab.

Arch is faster and more stable (Gentoo has many different portage overlays with a lowered quality and consistency. It eventually accumulates and forces breakage in the operating system functionality). Gentoo's community leaders have community problems and often solve them by locking threads and kicking users and in the Arch community that is not the case. Arch leaders maintain a very accessible and friendly presence in the community. Arch is a lot easier to use, -it has one configuration file and if one chooses not to use Arch's package management and configuration tools to get things done, that's OK. Installation and configuration that is done without those tools tends to work most of the time. The analogous Gentoo scenario will usually not succeed without a lot of troubleshooting (subjective, maybe, but that's my experience).

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