It must have been my curiosity that drove me to exploring Arch Linux a few weeks ago. Its coming on a Linux Format DVD and a few kind words about its being a cutting edge distribution were enough to set me installing it into a VirtualBox virtual machine for a spot of investigation. In spite of warnings to the contrary, I took the path of least resistance with the installation even though I did look among the packages to see if I could select a desktop environment to be added as well. Not finding anything like GNOME in there, I left everything as defaulted and ended up with a command line interface as I suspected. The next job was to use the pacman command to add the extras that were needed to set in place a fully functioning desktop.
For this, the Arch Linux wiki is a copious source of information though it didn’t stop me doing things out of sequence. That I didn’t go about perusing it in a linear manner was part of the cause of this but you have to know which place to start first as well. As a result, I have decided to draw everything together here so that it’s all in one place and in a more sensible order even if it wasn’t the one that I followed.
The first thing to do is go adding X.org using the following command:
pacman -Syu xorg-server
The -Syu switch tells pacman to update the package list, upgrade any packages that require it and add the listed package if it isn’t in place already; that’s X.org in this case. For my testing, I added xor-xinit too. This puts that startx command in place. This is the command for adding it:
pacman -S xorg-xinit
With those in place, I’d go adding the VirtualBox Guest Additions next. GNOME Shell requires 3D capability so you need to have this done while the machine is off or when setting it up in the first place. This command will add the required VirtualBox extensions:
pacman -Syu virtualbox-guest-additions
Once that’s done, you need to edit /etc/rc.conf by adding “vboxguest vboxsf vboxvideo” within the brackets on the MODULES line and adding “rc.vboxadd” within the brackets on the DAEMONS line. On restarting everything should be available to you but the modprobe command is there for any troubleshooting.
With the above pre-work done, you can set to installing GNOME and I added the basic desktop from the gnome package and the other GNOME applications from the gnome-extra one. GDM is the login screen manager so that’s needed too and the GNOME Tweak Tool is a very handy thing to have for changing settings that you otherwise couldn’t. Here are the commands that I used to add all of these:
pacman -Syu gnome
pacman -Syu gnome-extra
pacman -Syu gdm
pacman -Syu gnome-tweak-tool
With those in place, some configuration files were edited so that a GUI was on show instead of a black screen with a command prompt, as useful as that can be. The first of these was /etc/rc.conf where “dbus” was added within the brackets on the DAEMONS line and “fuse” was added between those on the MODULES one.
Creating a file named .xinitrc in the root home area with the following line in there makes running a GNOME session from issuing a startx command:
exec ck-launch-session gnome-session
With all those in place, all that was needed to get a GNOME 3 login screen was a reboot. Arch is so pared back that I could login as root, not the safest of things to be doing so I added an account for more regular use. After that, it has been a matter of tweaking the GNOME desktop environment and adding missing applications. The bare bones installation that I allowed to happen meant that there were a surprising number of them but that isn’t hard to fix using pacman.
All of this emphasises that Arch Linux is for those who want to pick what they want from an operating system rather than having that decided for you by someone else, an approach that has something going for it with some of the decisions that make their presence felt in computing environments from time to time. There’s no doubt that this isn’t for everyone but documentation is complete enough for the minimalism not to be a problem for experienced Linux users and I certainly managed to make things work for me once I got them in the right order. Another thing in its favour is that Arch also is a rolling distribution so you don’t need have to go though the whole set up routine every six months unlike some others. So far, it does seem stable enough and even has set me to wondering if I could pop it on a real computer sometime.