Comparing CTK Arch Live and ArchBang

My name is Prashanth Venkataram, and I write and manage the blog Das U-Blog by Prashanth, where I write about open-source software and people’s freedoms relating to technology. I’ve used Openbox a bit, so today I’ll be comparing two Arch Linux-based Openbox Distributions: ArchBang and CTKArchLive.

A few years ago, CrunchBang (“#!”) Linux became very popular as a lightweight Ubuntu-based distribution that made the Openbox window manager more palatable and appealing. Since then, it’s only gotten better and more popular, along the way ditching the Ubuntu base for Debian and gaining an Xfce version on the way. Because it was the first very popular Openbox distribution, it has inspired the creation of other distributions that use Openbox on top of various other base distributions. For example, Madbox, which I have recently reviewed, is based on Ubuntu to fill the gap from #!’s move to Debian. The two I’m testing today, CTKArchLive and ArchBang, are, as you can probably guess by their names, based on Arch Linux. Aside from Chakra GNU/Linux, a KDE-using distribution that’s sort of based on Arch that I’ve tested before for FreeTechie.com, I’ve never really used Arch before. Neither of these distributions claim to cater to relative newbies like Chakra does, so I may have to play the whole manual configuration thing by ear, as I’ve never done that before in depth. I will say, however, that I have tried the live session of a previous ArchBang release before briefly in a live session. Continue reading to see how each one turns out. I tested both of these by using the MultiSystem multiboot USB creation script on the two ISO files and trying each via a live USB system. As I just want to focus on the live sessions, I did not install either of these.

ArchBang
The first one I tested was ArchBang 2011.01 “Symbiosis”. After rebooting, changing the BIOS, and rebooting again, I got to the MultiSystem boot menu. I selected the default ArchBang menu entry, saw a bit of text, and then…a black screen. That was frustrating. I tried this once more just to be sure, and got the same result. I then tried the “failsafe” menu entry, and that seemed to work out well. After a scrolling wall of text came the desktop.
The default desktop looks decent. I think the wallpaper has a little too much going on, though; consequently, it looks to be a bit hard on the eyes. The tint2 panel at the top looks very nice, though; it contains a window switcher, a system tray, and a clock. The system tray has applets for both volume and network management, while the clock also contains a calendar applet. Conky is also present on the left. That’s cool. The Openbox right-click menu is pretty full and seems to be heavily modeled after the menu in #!, which is a good thing, to be sure. Unfortunately, as the “failsafe” option meant using the generic VESA graphics driver, the maximum resolution was 1024 by 768, which looked a bit out of place on my laptop whose native (and maximum) resolution is 1366 by 768. Finally, in terms of the aesthetics, the default GTK+, Openbox, and icon themes all look a bit too dark and garish. I’m just not a huge fan of those over-the-top dark techie styles. It’s bearable, though.

Chromium is the default browser, and it worked very well, which is nice. (This also meant, of course, that my ethernet connection was configured and selected out-of-the-box, which is quite nice for an Arch-based distribution). It seems like most codecs are installed out-of-the-box, given that YouTube and similar Adobe Flash-heavy sites worked well. (This also meant that my sound card was detected fine, which is also nice.)

Unfortunately, Thunar is the default file manager, and while I appreciate it for its light weight, my biggest beef with it continues to be its lack of tabbed browsing. I would much prefer something like PCManFM.

I tried installing Cheese Webcam Booth, and this is where I ran into my first challenge, owing to my lack of experience with Arch rather than any real issue with ArchBang. Unlike Chakra, ArchBang has no graphical package manager. The only one present is the CLI Pacman from Arch (which, interestingly enough, is aliased as “Packer” in ArchBang, but typing “pacman” still works all the same). I tried to do “su” and then “pacman -S cheese”, but for some reason nothing worked. I did “pacman -Syy” to update the list of packages, but even that didn’t work. I then looked on the Arch wiki and found out that the repository mirrors might be commented out in a configuration file. I then went to edit (as root) /etc/pacman.d/mirrorlist and uncommented all the requisite mirrors. I then tried the above commands again and they worked beautifully. I always thought APT was pretty quick, but boy is Pacman fast. I will say though that Pacman’s speed alone won’t be enough to convince me to switch to Arch or one of its derivatives. After installing Cheese Webcam Booth, I ran it to find that it recognized my integrated webcam and mic immediately. Awesome!

I did the same thing with Skype, and that installed well; that said, when running it, it recognized my mic, but it seemed to hang while trying to recognize my webcam. Oh well, at least it’s better than nothing.

In terms of appearance and applications, this latest ArchBang release is modeled heavily after the latest #! release (version 10 “Statler”). Even besides Chromium and Thunar, also present are Scrot to take screenshots, Obmenu to edit the Openbox menu, the AbiWord word processor, the Gnumeric spreadsheet program, Leafpad text editor, and Xcompmgr for compositing. Conky has much the same information and even the same keyboard shortcuts (well, not for Conky per se, but information for the desktop as a whole). Even the Openbox menu is organized very similarly to that of #!. Even more telling is what’s not present: a chat program, a mail program, games, and a few other things. Plus, in terms of appearance and tricks, when compositing is turned off, the terminal pulls a similar trick as in #! by displaying the portion of the wallpaper that it is covering even if it is on top of another window. Compositing does work beautifully, at which point the terminal becomes partly transparent, though I think it’s a little too transparent and makes the text a bit too hard to see.
One difference is that Geeqie is the default image viewer; it displays newly-taken screenshots. I found its interface a bit confusing; in any case, I didn’t really explore it too much.
RAM usage at idle, judging from Conky, was around 90 MB. That’s pretty darn good, if you ask me.
Finally, when I was ready to shut down, I got a really pretty shutdown menu. It’s even nicer-looking than the one in #!, though it has the same structure.

Well, that’s all I have to say about ArchBang. With a couple fairly minor exceptions, it seems to be a pretty faithful representation of what #! would be like if it was based on Arch, and I like that.

CTKArchLive
After ArchBang, I tested CTKArchLive 0.6. It’s a somewhat newer project, and before this release with the inclusion of the English language pack it was only available in French by default. It too seems to aim for a nice, lightweight Arch-based Openbox environment.

After rebooting, I got to the boot menu, and selected the menu entry for CTKArchLive in English. (The only other option was French.) Unfortunately, I faced the same problem that I initially did in ArchBang, and here I had no “failsafe” option. Then, I figured that maybe if I included some of ArchBang’s “failsafe” boot options in CTKArchLive’s menu entry, it would work. I pressed CTRL+E at the boot menu on CTKArchLive’s menu entry, typed in “xorg=vesa” and “nomodeset” (both without quotation marks) at the end of the first run-on line, pressed CTRL+X, and went on my way. It worked, and I was able to get to the desktop.

The default desktop looks pretty nice, with a nice-looking wallpaper and an Fbpanel (Fluxbox panel) on the bottom. The only applets present on Fbpanel are a main Fbpanel menu (although this is an Openbox distribution) on the far left and a system tray and clock with a calendar on the far right. All the space in the middle is reserved for window buttons, although of course it is possible to add more applets. In addition, the right-click Openbox menu is also present; although it has everything the Fbpanel menu has and a couple more things, the arrangement is different. Also, as evidenced by installing new applications, the Fbpanel menu updates automatically, while the Openbox menu must be manually edited to show installed or get rid of removed applications. There are two interesting features of the desktop, the first of which is that it is possible to enable desktop icons, though the only icon present when that option is clicked in the Openbox menu is the “Documents” folder icon.

This is because out-of-the-box, Openbox isn’t capable of handling desktop icons; a secondary desktop icon manager like ROX-Filer must be used, and typically most Openbox distributions don’t include that capability. The second interesting feature is that if Fbpanel doesn’t take your fancy, tint2 is also present. However, to switch, it is important to autohide the existing panel and then fix the new panel, all available in the Openbox menu; I didn’t try the reverse order of actions, but I suspect the two panels will overlap somehow and look really messy. Tint2 of course only has a window switcher, a system tray, and a clock (without a calendar, unfortunately), the latter two of which are on the far right. This obviously means that there’s no main menu accessible on the panel, though right-clicking on any empty panel space brings up the Openbox menu. Finally, in terms of aesthetics, the GTK+, Openbox, and icon themes all look too dark and garish, even more so than those used in ArchBang. Oh well, I can live. In addition, as I used the VESA graphics driver, the maximum resolution was, as in ArchBang, 1024 by 768.

Unfortunately, trying the browsers led to errors in loading pages. This is because the wired network wasn’t selected out-of-the-box, so I had to load Wicd from the menu and press the button to connect to the wired network. After that, everything worked fine.
The browsers available are Midori and…Arora? I’ve heard of Arora before, but I’ve never used it; it’s the Qt counterpart to Midori, the lightweight WebKit-based GTK+ browser. Given that this desktop is Openbox with GTK+, I’m not sure what the point of this random Qt application here is. Anyway, I tried out Arora, and it seems like a fairly pleasant, stable, and usable browser. It’s pretty fast as well. That said, no proprietary codecs seemed to be installed out-of-the-box, so I decided to install them.

As in ArchBang, CTKArchLive has no GUI package manager; only the CLI Pacman is present. Thankfully, all the requisite repositories were enabled from the start, so a simple “su” followed by a “pacman -Syy” and a “pacman -S flashplugin” installed Adobe Flash quickly. After that, it worked in Arora, though strangely enough, I was asked to click a button in the middle of the YouTube video I tried labeled “Load Flash” for the video to work. I guess this is good in that Adobe Flash components don’t automatically load in order to preserve performance on older systems. Also, the sound card was detected fine, which is good.

I used similar commands to install Cheese Webcam Booth and Skype, both of which produced identical results to those in ArchBang. Plus, Skype could use already-installed Qt libraries, so the installation went even a little faster.

PCManFM is the default file manager, which is nice for its light weight and its tabbed browsing.

The terminal, unfortunately, doesn’t pull the cool trick of displaying the part of the background image that it covers; plus, it has no window borders, so it isn’t obvious how to close that window unless Fbpanel is used (where it’s possible to right-click the window button and choose to close it).

Pidgin is installed for instant messaging, while Sylpheed is present as the mail client.

Neither the screenshot utility Scrot nor the menu editor Obmenu were installed, so I had to install these through Pacman as well. After that, I was able to take screenshots fine.

Some other installed applications include AbiWord, Gnumeric, Leafpad, some multimedia applications, the Tux Racer game (which didn’t work because of the generic 2D graphics VESA driver), the GPicView image viewer, GIMP, and GTKam (KDE’s Digikam for GTK+, I think). For the multimedia applications, a song is even included in the home folder for testing purposes. Xcompmgr is present for compositing as well.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t gauge RAM usage because the Htop system monitor didn’t display numbers for total RAM usage.
Unlike ArchBang, which has a nice shutdown menu, CTKArchLive’s shutdown main menu option is just a call to “sudo shutdown -h now”.
Overall, it seems like CTKArchLive just goes its own way in terms of applications and desktop appearance, where ArchBang tries hard to emulate #!.

Verdict
1. ArchBang
It’s more mature and gave me less trouble, from the boot process to recognizing the network to letting me do things like take screenshots and gauge RAM usage for this review. That said, the disabling of repositories by default is a little annoying.
2. CTKArchLive
It’s a younger project, to be sure, and it does things its own way rather than trying to emulate a particular project, but the fairly serious boot and network problems relegate it to runner-up.

About ben.kevan
I am ben kevan.. Well yeah. .that's about it.

5 Comments on Comparing CTK Arch Live and ArchBang

  1. nice review. i have installed archbang and running it for 6 months and i am quite happy with it. tat was the the fastest and easiest way to install arch linux

  2. Thanks for the review, Ben. I’ve been dabbling with Arch Linux in the past. ArchBang might be a good way to get back into it. Will give it a try soon.

  3. Hello !
    Nice to hear from another external point of view :)

    By the way, as the author of ctkarch, I noticed some mistakes:

    So sorry X doesn’t work out of the box on your PC! But there are, in fact, a lot of ‘failsafe’ options in the Misc. options menu at bootup.
    CTKArch is older than archbang, see http://archbang.org/news/bravo-calimero
    When something is in common in the two, it comes from ctkarch ;)

    In order to edit the entries in the bootloader, you used and , not Ctrl+E and Ctrl+X.

    The openbox Applications menu is dynamic! It does update automatically when installing new software! For this, I use openbox-menu.

    When you select tint2 as the panel from the openbox menu, fbpanel is killed, and vice versa. There should be no problem with this.

    Scrot *is* installed. (but yep, no menu entry, you can run it with Alt+F2.)

    The shutdown entry doesn’t use sudo shutdown, but the Consolekit call.
    See ~/.config/fbpanel/default

    Some remarks!

    The lack of window decor on the terminal is a choice, and of course you can move it with Alt+Left-click-drag, resize it with Alt+Right-click-drag and close it with Ctrl+D.

    Yes, I don’t like proprietary software. :)
    Add-ons allow you to add flash and so on to your ISO image before burning/dd-ing it!

  4. Calimero. I am enjoying ctkarch. I installed both, but ctk is less crowded than archbang. I love the dynamic application menu!!. Congrats. So far my favorite.

  5. Ben. Really nice site. A lot of information with screenshots. Very nice, boss.

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