First impressions with Arch Linux
October 9th 2009

I have been considering for some time trying some Linux distro that would be a little faster than Ubuntu. I made the switch from Debian to Ubuntu some time ago, and I must say that I am very pleased with it, despite it being a bit bloated and slow. Ubuntu is really user-friendly. This term is often despised among geeks, but it does have a huge value. Often times a distro will disguise poor dependency-handling, lack of package tuning and absence of wise defaults as not having "fallen" for user-friendliness and "allowing the user do whatever she feels like".

However comfortable Ubuntu might be, my inner geek wanted to get his hands a little bit dirtier with configurations, and obtain a more responsive OS in return. And that's where Arch Linux fits in. Arch Linux is regarded as one of the fastest Linux distros, at least among the ones based on binary packages, not source code. Is this fame deserved? Well, in my short experience, it seem to be.

First off, let us clarify what one means with a "faster" Linux distro. There are as I see it, broadly speaking, three things that can be faster or slower in the users' interaction with a computer. The first one, and very often cited one, is the boot (and shutdown) time. Any period of time between a user deciding to use the computer and being able to do so is wasted time (from the user's point of view). Many computers stay on for long periods of time, but for a home user, short booting times are a must. A second speed-related item would be the startup time of applications. Booting would be a sub-section of this, if we consider the OS/kernel as an "app", but I refer here to user apps such as an e-mail client or text editor. Granted, most start within seconds at most, many below one second or apparently "instantly", but some others are renowned for their slugginess (OpenOffice.org, Firefox and Amarok come to mind). Even the not-very-slow apps that take a few seconds can become irritating if used with some frequency. The third speed-related item would be the execution of long-running CPU-intensive software, such as audio/video coding or scientific computation.

Of the three issues mentioned, it should be made clear that the third one (execution of CPU-intensive tasks) is seldom affected at all by the "speed" of the OS. Or it shouldn't be. Of course having the latest versions of the libraries used by the CPU-intensive software should make a difference, but I doubt that encoding a video with MEncoder is any faster in Gentoo than Ubuntu (for the same version of mencoder and libraries). However, the first two (booting and start up of apps) are different from OS to OS.

Booting

I did some timings in Ubuntu and Arch, both in the same (dual boot) machine. I measured the time from GRUB to GDM, and then the time from GDM to a working desktop environment (GNOME in both). The exact data might not be that meaningful, as some details could be different from one installation to the other (different choice of firewall, or (minimally) different autostarted apps in the DE). But the big numbers are significant: where Ubuntu takes slightly below 1 minute to GDM, and around half a minute to GNOME, Arch takes below 20 seconds and 10 seconds, respectively.

App start up

Of the three applications mentioned, OpenOffice.org and Firefox start faster in Arch than in Ubuntu. I wrote down the numbers, but don't have them now. Amarok, on the other hand, took equally long to start (some infamous 35 seconds) in both OSs. It is worth mentioning that all of them start up faster the second and successive times, and that the Ubuntu/Arch differences between second starts is correspondingly smaller (because both are fast). Still Arch is a bit faster (except for Amarok).

ABS, or custom compilation

But the benefits of Arch don't end in a faster boot, or a more responsive desktop (which it has). Arch Linux makes it really easy to compile and install any custom package the user wants, and I decided to take advantage of it. With Debian/Ubuntu, you can download the source code of a package quite easily, but the compilation is more or less left to you, and the installation is different from that of a "official" package. With Arch, generating a package from the source is quite easy, and then installing it with Pacman is trivial. For more info, refer to the Arch wiki entry for ABS.

I first compiled MEncoder (inside the mplayer package), and found out that the compiled version made no difference with respect to the stock binary package. I should have known that, because I say so in this very post, don't I? However, one always thinks that he can compile a package "better", so I tried it (and failed to get any improvement).

On the other hand, when I recompiled Amarok, I did get a huge boost in speed. A simple custom compilation produced an Amarok that took only 15 seconds to start up, less than half of the vanilla binary distributed with Arch (I measured the 15 seconds even after rebooting, which rules out any "second time is faster" effect).

Is it hard to use?

Leaving the speed issue aside, one of the possible drawbacks of a geekier Linux distro is that it could be harder to use. Arch is, indeed, but not much. A seasoned Linux user should hardly find any difficulty to install and configure Arch. It is certainly not for beginners, but it is not super-hard either.

One of the few gripes I have with it regards the installation of a graphical environment. As it turns out, installing a DE such as GNOME does not trigger the installation of any X Window System, such as X.org Server, as dependencies are set only for really vital things. Well, that's not too bad, Arch is not assuming I want something until I tell it I do. Fine. Then, when I do install Xorg, the tools for configuring it are a bit lacking. I am so spoiled by the automagic configurations in Ubuntu, where you are presented a full-fledged desktop with almost no decision on your side, that I miss a magic script that will make X "just work". Anyway, I can live with that. But some thing that made me feel like giving up was that after following all the instruction in the really nice Arch Wiki, I was unable to start X (it would start as a black screen, then freeze, and I could only get out by rebooting the computer). The problem was that I have a Nvidia graphics card, and I needed the (proprietary) drivers. OK, of course I need them, but the default vesa driver should work as well!! In Ubuntu one can get a lower resolution, non-3D effect, desktop with the default vesa driver. Then the proprietary Nvidia drivers allow for more eye-candy and fanciness. But not in Arch. When I decided to skip the test with vesa, and download the proprietary drivers, the X server started without any problem.

Conclusions

I am quite happy with Arch so far. Yes, one has to work around some rough edges, but it is a nice experience as well, because one learns more than with other too user-friendly distros. I think Arch Linux is a very nice distro that is worth using, and I recommend it to any Linux user willing to learn and "get hands dirty".

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Gracias, NoScript
December 18th 2008

Lo dicho, gracias NoScript por darme la oportunidad de hacer cosas como la siguiente:

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Gmail and browser discrimination
June 4th 2008

Due to Iceweasel (Firefox) being so slow on my machine, I switched to Konqueror, which is reasonably fast and full of features, but nowhere as good as Iceweasel, I must say. However, IW is unbearable, so I'm waiting for FF 3.0 to use IW again.

I use an e-mail client to read my e-mail over IMAP, my main account being a Gmail one. However, I sometimes visit the Gmail site, for example to set it to fetch e-mail from some other accounts. I had always done it with IW, and everything worked fine, but now with Konqueror it doesn't.

With Konqueror I get the message:

and some features are missing (specifically, the option set how to fetch e-mail from other accounts, and some others).

I could understand it if Konqueror were missing some functionality/plugin that IW has and Gmail requires. But it is not the case. I can tell Konqueror to identify itself as Firefox, and THEN the Gmail page shows up correctly, so obviously it's not due to Konqueror's limitations. It sounds like a case of sloppy programming from the guys at Google, with something like:

if browser is one of 'IE', 'Firefox', 'Safari':
  show this page
else:
  show dumbed down page

After years of discrimination to non-IE users, and a tremendous fight to make webmasters produce standards-compliant sites, instead of specific browser-compliant ones, we still have to suffer this shit. And from Google, the "don't be evil" guys, supporters of free software and all that BS.

By the way, this issue is known, and mentioned, for example, in the Wikipedia page for Gmail.

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Linux e-mail clients rant
June 2nd 2008

I am really disappointed at the MUA offer I am finding for by Debian box. I have tried KMail, Thunderbird, Evolution and Claws Mail, and all of them fail at some point. All four errors are different, and all of them almost total showstoppers.

Note: I access my e-mail through Gmail IMAP. I don't really care if these MUAs are good at POP3 or whatever. I want good IMAP.

KMail 1.9.9

The GUI is nice, has all features I want, everything OK... It's just that browsing the remote folders is hopelessly slow. I can brush my teeth in the time it takes to delete a message, and I don't want to go into what I can do in the time it takes to move a message from one folder to another one.

Apparently this could be fixed in KMail2, which will come with KDE4. The problem is that I want it fixed now.

Thunderbird 2.0.0.14

This one is also very good in general. Actually, its problem is not due to itself. Its probably due to some bad interaction with X.org or something: everything works fine, but starting up and subsequent rendering/deleting of the window itself is really slow. If I minimize and maximize it back, it takes ages to reappear. I have this problem with TB and Firefox (actually Icedove and Iceweasel in Debian), and with no other program.

Evolution 2.22

Again, almost everything is fine. Almost. The single problem is that if the "To" and/or "From" fields in the message list contain non-ASCII characters, they appear garbled. Nowhere else does this happen. Even other fields, such as "Subject" can contain accents or ñ with no problem, as can the text body.

This would be a cosmetic issue I could live with, but there are two problems I can not tolerate: I do not want these errors to appear in the messages I send when replying to garbled messages, and more importantly, I have sometimes had recipient lists containing non-ASCII characters mangled. I don't want to click "Reply all" and end up sending the message to only 3 of the 10 recipients.

This problem will supposedly be fixed in version 2.23.

Claws-mail 3.4.0

Again and again, almost everthing is right. Now messages can contain non-ASCII chars anywhere, browsing folders is fast, manipulating/drawing/erasing the program window is fast... BUT, replying to a message, regardless of the settings one chooses, does not include the original message quoted. This seems a minor error. It isn't.

The thing that bugs me most is that I can not understand how these problems happen with free software packages. If you take KMail, Evolution and Claws, each one has a single error that the other two have already fixed... Couldn't they just copy each other? That is precisely the whole point of free software.

Couldn't KMail browse/scan/manipulate the IMAP folders with the efficient method Evolution and/or Claws use?

Couldn't Evolution display the message fields with the error-free method KMail and Claws use?

Couldn't Claws quote the original message as anyone else in the Universe does?

If only the three errors where not spread among the three MUAs, there would be one that I could use!

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Application of the week: Evolution
May 20th 2008

Around 1 month ago I said I had made the switch from KMail to Thunderbird for managing e-mail. Well, now I must confess I am making another switch, this time to Evolution, the native e-mail client for GNOME.

The main (sole) reason is that Icedove (Thunderbird) was unreasonably slow lately. Maybe it's a matter of versions (I'm running the latest in Debian Lenny), but it was driving me crazy. And so is Iceweasel (Firefox), but that's another story. Evolution seems to be as fast as KMail to start up/minimize/maximize/quit, and as fast as Icedove to manage the IMAP folders (something KMail was seriously lacking).

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Firefox 2 beats IE6 at my site
April 29th 2008

I regularly check the visit stats at this blog, and today is the first time that the browser with most accumulated visits is Firefox and not Internet Explorer. IE began ahead because some Chinese hacker(s) used the Windows XP/IE6 duo to try some nasty things at the site, and generated a lot of visits. After I banned these IPs, the visits from Firefox users have gone up steadily, and now the total visit stats are:

  1. Firefox 2 (33.5%)
  2. Internet Explorer 6 (32.6%)
  3. Firefox 1.0 (10.4%)
  4. IE 7 (4%)

Regarding OSes, Windows XP is still the most prominent one, with 53% of the visits, followed by generic Linux at 12.9%, then other versions of Windows and specific Linux distros.

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Minipunto para Arsys
February 17th 2008

Vaya por delante que no conozco nada de Arsys, y que (por ahora) no tengo nada que ver con ellos. Simplemente quería compartir el hecho de que he vistado su página (fantaseando con adquirir un dominio propio), y he visto esto:

arsys_ff.png

¿Nada raro? Pues fijáos en que, como buen servicio relacionado con Internet, tiene una fotico con un señor y un navegador web abierto... ¿Internet Explorer? Yo creo que no...

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Flash: better without Flash
January 6th 2008

Remember my previous post about a problem with Flash in Firefox/Iceweasel? Now the second part.

After following my own instructions, I ended up with a Flash instalation that could play YouTube videos correctly, but some other Flash animations would not work. By chance, my computer at work would reproduce any Flash animation just fine, so... why would that be?

To find out the reason, I have compared what Flash-related packages I have installed in Homer (my computer at work) and Heracles (the one at home). The result is quite surprising:

Homer[~]: aptitude search flash
p   flashplayer-mozilla       - Macromedia Flash Player
p   flashrom                  - Universal flash programming utility
p   flashybrid                - automates use of a flash disk as the root filesystem
p   libflash-dev              - GPL Flash (SWF) Library - development files
p   libflash-mozplugin        - GPL Flash (SWF) Library - Mozilla-compatible plugin
p   libflash-swfplayer        - GPL Flash (SWF) Library - stand-alone player
p   libflash0c2               - GPL Flash (SWF) Library - shared library
p   libroxen-flash2           - Flash2 module for the Roxen Challenger web server
p   m16c-flash                - Flash programmer for Renesas M16C and R8C microcontrollers
p   vrflash                   - tool to flash kernels and romdisks to Agenda VR
Homer[~]: aptitude search swf
p   libflash-swfplayer        - GPL Flash (SWF) Library - stand-alone player
p   libswf-perl               - Ming (SWF) module for Perl
p   libswfdec-0.5-4           - SWF (Macromedia Flash) decoder library
p   libswfdec-0.5-4-dbg       - SWF (Macromedia Flash) decoder library
p   libswfdec-0.5-dev         - SWF (Macromedia Flash) decoder library
v   libswfdec-dev             -
p   pyvnc2swf                 - screen recording tool to SWF movie
v   swf-player                -
p   swfdec-mozilla            - Mozilla plugin for SWF files (Macromedia Flash)
p   swfmill                   - xml2swf and swf2xml processor

Yes, Flash works perfectly at Homer because it has no package installed with swf or flash in their name! And I don't have any Gnash package installed, either. I removed all swf/flash-related packages on Heracles, and now Flash works perfectly in my home computer too.

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More Firefox vulnerabilities
April 27th 2006

It's getting old already. Not Firefox, mind you. What upsets, bores, or downright outrages me, are those "impartial" vulnerability reports that newspapers, blogs and web sites publish, regarding both IE and Firefox bugs and exploits.

The last one, so far, I found at menéame. Their source of info is an article at Hispasec. In the name of "political correctness", they reveal a bug in IE, and another one in Firefox. The reader gets the impression, not only that no browser is perfect (which is true), but that both have comparable vulnerabilities, which is a screaming lie.

The IE vulnerability they report is that a web page with specially crafted OBJECT tags can stop IE from working, and leave it in a state where arbitrary code could be injected into it and then executed. Pretty scary news, if the second part is true.

The Firefox vulnerability, on the other hand, consists on a JavaScript code piece than can crash Firefox. The code snippet can be found here, or directly tested visiting this page. Beware that the latter will cause your Firefox to crash.

Now, they are comparing apples to oranges again. The IE vulnerability can render it in a potentially dangerous state, whereas the Firefox bug merely crashes it. Yes, it is grave. Yes, it is annoying. But it is not risky for your computer. Secondly, I visited the link above, and... hey! nothing happens here! What is this bug they talk about? Well, as it happens, I have the NoScript extension installed, so the rogue page could not execute its malicious JavaScript code and make my browser crash. I had to manually accept the site in the list of sites that my Firefox accepts JavaScript to be executed from, in order to have it crash my browser.

Which bug would you prefear to bear with, even not taking into account that the Firefox bug will be fixed much faster?

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Firefox 2 - Microsoft 0
March 28th 2006

I am shocked to read this article in El Pais, regarding yet another bug in Internet Explorer, for which there is no official patch as of now.

What shocks me is that, in the same line, they go bash Firefox because "it also has its issues". The example they give is the following: a guy browses to some date-finding web pages, instructing the browser not to save the passwords. Next, his girlfriend uses the same computer, but from her account, to surf the web (with Firefox), and apparently, when setting herself some password-related options, she comes across a list of sites that had the option "Do not save the password for this site"... the sites her boyfriend had visited. Result: a) they split up, and b) a bug gets reported (by the woman) to Firefox, regarding a user privacy breach.

Now, the reputed bug consists in the fact that the privacy settings (list of sites for which passwords are and are not saved) for a user (the guy), was supposedly accesible for another one (the gal). This would indeed be a security hole, and worth a big fat bug warning.

However, this was not the case. First, what seems to have happened is that the guy actually used her gf's account to surf the web (when he set up her account), so there you are.

Second, they were running Firefox under Windows. If somehow the private settings of one account were accesible by the other one, it would be Windows' fault, not Firefox's. When running under, e.g., Linux, the privilege separation of users would not allow for that, no matter how wickedly wrong Firefox would have been made!

In short: the journalist reports a grave bug of Internet Explorer (product of Microsoft), and then tries to level the MS/Open Source battlefield by charging Firefox with another "bug" that is either due to user incompetence, or the OS's fault (Windows, which is a product of... yes, Microsoft again). In my view, it's a 2-0 victory for Firefox/Open Source movement, trying to pass as a 1-1 draw for IE/MS.

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