A Manjaro Review

I’ve primarily run Fedora on my desktop since it became clear that Windows 10 was going to be persistently buggy on the little HP Slimline Desktop 270-a016 (AMD A9-9430 with eight gigs of RAM). Fedora runs like a champ on the unit so long as I’m using xorg instead of wayland but I got a wild hare and took off distro hopping.

I tried CentOS for a few days and liked the stability and long-term support aspect of it. I was able to get the applications I wanted via a combination of EPEL, RPMFusion, and the nux repo. All was going well until I saw that Red Hat had agreed to be acquired by IBM. Who knows what IBM will decide to do with CentOS, it being a RHEL clone and all? With a hearty cry of “Freedom!”, I renewed my distro quest.

Manjaro has been at or close to the top of the popularity list at distrowatch.com for a while now, so I decided to give it a shot. My first hurdle was getting a functional version of the darn thing on my hard drive since it steadfastly refused to boot up after installation. I had been able to reuse the same partitions when installing Fedora or Ubuntu on the machine but finally gave up, copied my music and documents to a thumb drive, wiped the drive with a GParted live disk, and was then able to successfully install Manjaro with the XFCE desktop.

What’s a little different about Manjaro (maybe a lot different, depending on where you’re coming from) is it’s a rolling release. So, instead of having to upgrade every six months, nine months, two to 10 years, whatever, the version you have now will be gradually upgraded to the latest, greatest version a few pieces at a time. In other words, so long as you regularly install package updates, whatever rolling release you have now will gradually become version next over the course of time.

Trying to avoid the potential hassle of a big system upgrade like what you would have to deal with when running Ubuntu or Fedora sounds like a good idea but it comes with its own set of drawbacks. Prepackaged OS versions go through extensive testing to be sure all the pieces play nicely with each other in order to produce a functional, cohesive whole. (Note Microsoft’s recent epic fail regarding Windows 10 regarding same). However, when your rolling release installs a handful of the latest, greatest, versions of packages of X,Y, and Z, the other files on your system may decide they don’t want to play with these new packages. Stuff may break. Some stuff may break badly. And then you better have a live CD to access your files and the gumption to figure out what the heck just happened and the best way to fix it.

Manjaro is based on Arch Linux*, the current king of DIY, bleeding edge rolling releases. I installed and configured Arch twice in years past and it was adventure both times. I liked the extreme configurability Arch offers but maintaining the system for daily use just became too much hassle so, after a few weeks or months, I had moved on. Manjaro brags about simplicity but I think it’s only simple when compared to its daddy. You still need to know what to do when pacnew files are created and it’s good watch the forums for any problems caused by the latest bundle of updates. (Manjaro’s maintainers release package updates in batches that have supposedly been tested to keep from breaking anything too badly.)

Manjaro uses Arch’s versatile pacman package manager in the terminal. Manjaro also adds a GUI package manager (Pamac on XFCE) that doesn’t suck up the system resources that the Gnome Software Center does. You might not think got Arch or Manjaro would have many packages in their repos compared to larger distros but Pamac on Manjaro gives you access to the Arch User Repository (AUR). The AUR contains a slew of community-contributed applications. So far, I’ve installed Chrome, Dropbox, and Signal Messenger from the AUR and they all work just fine. Something to note is that the AUR consists of packages which need to be downloaded and compiled on your machine. No binaries to be found there.

I’ve been running Manjaro for a week and all is well at this early stage. I blacklisted a file after a kernel update as per the terminal recommendation, took care of a pacnew file generated after a grub update (don’t jack up your boot loader), and got some advice on the user forum regarding how to make Perlbrew compile new perls (use –notest option during Perl install due to the bleeding edge bugginess of some files). MP3 and mp4 playback works fine out of the box. Suspend and resume work great. I’m not a huge fan of any of the default color themes but I’ll get over it.

I’m hopeful that Manjaro and I will get along well for the foreseeable future. It will require some care and feeding to keep rocking along smoothly but I like distros where I get my hands dirty a little and it’s nice to see what the latest versions of various applications are without having to deal with a full-on Arch installation. Who knows, this may be the first time I contribute $$ to a distro. I can’t see these guys getting bought out by M$, Apple, Google, or Facebook for 34.5 billion but one never knows.

* (Using Arch is an adventure. The installer is really just a collection of shell scripts. You the user install every blessed application you want with the exception of the most basic, low-level stuff. And you edit text files to configure that. Better keep an eye peeled for potential show stoppers with every significant package update.)

A Geek and a Spare Desktop

So, a few weeks ago I pulled my old Windows 7 laptop out of the closet and found out it still worked. (Won’t hold a charge and the battery and DC adapter have already been replaced but it works fine while plugged in.)

I did a clean install of Win 7 Pro with drivers (glad to finally have an excuse to use that back up image), downloaded a metric buttload of updates, installed Chrome, Java, GData, and Minecraft, and gave it to my 8-year-old son. He was ecstatic to be able to play Minecraft with his sister and I got my old Linux desktop back.

The desktop is an old eMachines T5234 32-bit that originally came with Vista (ack!). It didn’t take long for the power supply to crap out, so that got replaced by a much improved unit (a Thermaltake, maybe?), an extra cooling fan was installed, and I maxxed out its RAM to a full 2 gigs (crazy!).

I had used a plethora of Linux distros on it over the years. Over the course of the two years or so my son had it, the desktop had ran Slackware, Fedora (when Chrome started getting wonky), and then CentOS (when Fedora started locking up).

It had been a few years since I had tried to install a modern Linux distro on the machine. This time around, I focused on the LXDE desktop to try to get the most of its limited resources (the aforementioned 2 gigs of RAM, an AMD Athlon 64 dual core, and a NVIDIA GeForce 6150SE chip) and quickly started running into problems: openSUSE had insane video tearing, Fedora had disappearing menu icons, Lubuntu 14.10 was almost stable but Firefox caused massive video tearing when launched. Ditto for Linux Mint with the MATE desktop.

A Debian netinstall with LXDE exhibited the same video problems when I upgraded to Testing. I did a fresh install with Stable and it was, well, stable. However, IceWeasel ESR was sluggish on Facebook and I found myself switching back and forth between Chromium for speed and IceWeasel when I need to use Flash. (Should have checked to see if a pepperflash plugin was available for Chromium.)

I wound up going back to what was already on the desktop when it came back to me: CentOS. No video tearing with the old reliable Gnome 2 desktop (Gnome 3 is an abomination. It’s like the Gnome developers looked at Windows 8 and said, “Pshaw. We can make a desktop suck worse than that. They ain’t seen nothin’ yet!) and CentOS is as stable as the day as long.

Same blessed problem with Firefox ESR, though – it’s just too sluggish! I tried to find some way to install Chrome but Google isn’t showing the Chromish love to old Linux kernels. A popular user repository installed an old version of Chromium and scripts for pepperflash. Problem was that pepperflash didn’t work.

Which left me with the nuclear option: Arch. This distro’s installation process isn’t as scary as Linux From Scratch or FreeBSD but it’s not for the faint of heart. I had tried to install Arch at some earlier point in this saga but it refused to boot despite having been on the same machine in years past. My problem was likely rooted in trying to preserve my /home partition in the install process to avoid having my old data wiped out. I rsynced my home onto an external hard drive, wound up using GParted to partition the eMachine’s drive to Arch’s liking, and made it through the install process.

After several hours of pain and suffering (most of which involved trying to figure why the flip the USB drives wouldn’t automount), I had a working, lightweight LXDE desktop. It didn’t come with Firefox (Arch doesn’t come with much of anything; you build it yourself) so I installed Chromium and a working (!) pepperflash plugin from the AUR for speedy browsing. And there haven’t been any video issues thus far but it’s only been a few days.

Arch is a bleeding edge, rolling release so maintenance will definitely be required. At this point, however, I’m a happy camper. Everything is working the way it’s supposed to and the old desktop is almost speedy when unburdened by extraneous cruft. (Well, it’s not like I’m using it for video editing.) My digital life is good.

There may be a full write up on my Arch experience in the future. It’s a fun distro but bleeding edginess can sometimes cause kiniption fits. We’ll see how things work out.