In this article, we will finally talk about individual “hardcore” distros, like Arch Linux. After reading this post, you can dive right in and download any of these to try them out. This is the fifth part of the list of distros and here, we will compile a list of the non-Debian distros we think you should know.
This is the list of distros for advanced users. They are not easy to install or use and just “hardcore” distributions. “Hardcore” distros is neither an official term for them nor frequently used in the Linux community, but we found that it describes them well.
Many of these distros are not derived from distros like Debian. They are their own thing, solely based on the Linux kernel. All these distros look and feel different and they do not use the DEB package format, but other formats like ebuild, RPM and tarballs.
A list of the distros that are notoriously hard to install is here. Debian is on the list too, but we think it does not deserve its spot if there are distros without a GUI installer like Arch and packages that you compile yourself on Gentoo
In the following, we will name major hardcore distros and also more user-friendly distros derived from them. It is the very nature of customisable distros that developers will create more accessible variations.
We list them by first mentioning the “hard” distro and then the “easy” derivative.
Arch distros are a family of of customisable OSs that are often used to build other distros like Manjaro. It uses the Pacman package manager or tarballs to install software. Arch derivatives are the most widely used “hardcore” distros.
Arch Linux (pronounced “Artch”) is a “hardcore” distro with community involvement and is intended for advanced users. It is highly customisable, but only the right distro for Linux veterans that are looking for a challenge. This OS really expects the user to be willing make some effort to understand the system’s operation.
Arch Linux focuses on elegance, code correctness, minimalism and simplicity. Than means it follows the KISS principle, “Keep it simple, stupid!”. It uses a rolling release model, so changes are implemented right away and it does not have major releases. Arch Linux is quite popular and installed on around 27% of Linux desktop PCs. A lot of people seem to like a challenge. 😉
The installation alone is a series of countless commands for all configurations, you even have to build up the bootloader manually, so this is only a distro for enthusiasts. The advantage is that you get a perfect, personalized and unique OS if you take the time. With a bit of practice, you can install Arch Linux and the KDE desktop environment in under 10 minutes, as you can see in this video. Here is a 40 min video that describes it very well for beginners.
While the installation is challenging for an absolute beginner, it is nowhere near the complexity of compiling Linux yourself, like you do with Gentoo. The default user interface of Arch Linux is the UNIX Shell Bash command-line interface (CLI), but you can install almost any DE ever created. You can choose from countless window managers that are listed here.
The files you use for installing additional software are either tarballs or the internal structures of the Pacman package manager, which are something like Arch’s native software package format. Tarballs are archives that contains smaller archives with compiled binaries or source code files of a program. At least you can use the Snap Store from Ubuntu as an alternative. The software packages from Pacman are actually also tarballs themselves. The difference to regular tarballs is that they have been compiled with the Arch Build System (ABS), which is a system of shell scripts that help port software to Arch Linux distros.
Arch and other Pacman-based distros are listed on this Wikipedia page.
Arch is a fantastic distro if you are an experimenter and not just a user. This distro can teach you how Linux works in detail, since it does not work if you do not learn all those things.
We have actually installed Arch Linux with the KDE desktop and it worked flawlessly on the first try. It is not that hard to be honest. The “hardcore” reputation of Arch comes more from the fact that you have to install all OS components yourself and have to know what you are doing. As stated above, Arch focuses on code correctness and the command-line interface seems very “intelligent”. Commands are easy to understand and their names make sense.
There is an Arch Linux derivative called Manjaro, which is aimed at beginners. It is very user-friendly and we can recommend it for playing around a bit, but since it is based on Arch, the selection of available software is quite limited.
At least you can use the Snap Store from Ubuntu. The distro comes with many pre-installed programs, so you can get some work done, before you have to install more.
Manjaro is, however, very customisable like Arch. There are over 10 different desktop environments, official and community-maintained. Manjaro used a GUI installer that is similar to the Ubuntu installer Ubuquity. As DEs, you can get Xfce, KDE, GNOME or the CLI. Additional community-driven unofficial editions are available with MATE, Cinnamon, E17 (Enlightenment), Razor-qt, Budgie and even Deepin as a base. As window managers, you can also get i3, Awesome, BSPWM, Openbox and Fluxbox.
There are options to configure it as a stable system or get the bleeding edge features with Arch’s rolling releases. It usually takes 1-6 weeks, before new Arch packages arrive on Manjaro. The Arch Build System (ABS) is also available on Manjaro.
In our opinion, Manjaro is a great distros if you want to get into Arch Linux. It does not overtax you and you can learn the basics of Arch with the help of a community in forums that is more oriented at beginners than the Arch community. If you learn the ropes with Manjaro, you can get comfortable with Arch. A real Arch veteran does not need things like software packages, they just build software from source code or write it themselves! Manjaro is a middle-ground between beginners and advanced users and gives you full control over your system. At the same time, you can leave the settings alone and just use Arch normally if you do not want to change the system.
Gentoo operating systems are comparable to Arch and you can completely build up the OS to your needs. They are frequently used as a blueprint for other OSs, like Chrome OS. Gentoo is only for people that want to learn the detailed technical workings of Linux and of course those that want to create their own distro. Despite that, it is still used by around 4% of Linux users.
Gentoo and Chrome OS use the Portage package management system. Packages are downloaded and installed with the “emerge”, a command-line tool for Portage, which lets you customize the process.
Gentoo-based distros are found on this Wikipedia page.
Gentoo is another customizable OS for advanced users. It is mainly used by developers to create new distros. Examples include ChromeOS and Incognito. Incognito is a privacy-focused OS that can be seen as a predecessor of Tails OS. The Tails we have today is, however, based on Debian. Gentoo is available for every major CPU architecture, including i386 (32-bit PC), x86_64, ARM, SPARC and PowerPC.
Gentoo is in our opinion even harder to install than Arch. It works fundamentally different from binary software distributions. You do not get an OS, but a large stage3 disk image full of source code and have to compile every feature you want to install yourself. This distro is only for people that want to learn the detailed technical workings of Linux and of course those that want to create their own distro.
The installation alone is a series of countless commands for all configurations, you even have to build up the boot loader manually and compile the Linux kernel, so this is only a distro for enthusiasts. Unless you are a network professional or software developer, this is probably too much. There are few distros that help you learn so much about Linux, but few people actually want that, instead of a working system out of the box.
Gentoo and Chrome OS use the Portage package management system. Packages are then downloaded and installed with “emerge”, a command-line tool for Portage, which lets you customise the process. It is also possible to use ebuild, a bash script that compiles and installs packages. A script is needed for every individual package. Gentoo package management is designed to be modular, portable, easy to maintain, and flexible. Portage is an advanced package management system with features like editing dependencies, fine-grained package management, “fake” (OpenBSD-style) installs, safe unmerging, system profiles, virtual packages, config file management and more. Portage is very efficient, since a single “emerge” command can update, download, compile and install one or more packages. Compiling applications yourself means that you can customise them too, which is not possible with pre-compiled Gentoo packages that are available for major apps like LibreOffice or Firefox.
The advantage of using Gentoo is that you can create your perfect and unique OS if you take the time. Gentoo’s handbook is even a bit more detailed than Arch’s, so this will help you if this is your first “hardcore” OS. You will also be able to build an extremely fast and efficient system, since you only compile and install components you will need later. Fine-tuning the system to your hardware lets you improve performance, e.g. by controlling memory usage.
The installation works the following way (handbook amd64):
You download the minimal installation CD, which is a bootable Gentoo environment and a stage3 archive disk image with installation files. You boot it up and choose the kernel you want to use and hardware configuration for the boot. Then you have to configure the network to download source code. Next, you configure the boot record, design the partition scheme, partition the disk, create the file system and mount the root partition. After that, it is time to install the Gentoo installation files, set time and date, choose a stage tarball from the Gentoo website and unpack it, which then enables you to choose the compile options. Now you can finally configure Portage, install ebuilds, choose a system profile (desktop environment like KDE/GNOME), set the time zone and configure locales (language, units, etc.). The actual installation starts now by downloading the Linux kernel, choosing drivers/file system/CPU architecture/etc., selecting the kernel modules you want, compiling the kernel and installing it. Then, you create an fstab file (maps mount points of partitions), configure the network and automatic network start, setting up the root account and boot configuration. Now, you install system tools like the system logger, Cron daemon (schedules commands for regular use), file indexing, remote access, file system tools, networking tools, etc. You are almost done and can select a bootloader like GRUB/LILO/syslinux, install and configure it. It is over, you can now add user accounts, clean up the disk and consult the documentation for things like using Portage, USE flags, environment variables, advanced network configuration (wireless, modular networking, dynamic management) and things you can later do with Portage (mixing branches, variables, file management, custom repositories),etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.
Welcome to heaven! Or hell???
Chrome OS is a web-focused OS derived from Gentoo. It is a proprietary OS developed by Google for affordable Chromebook laptops. It is not a full-featured OS.
Instead, it is basically only a web browser that allows you to run Google applications like Search, Google Chrome, Google Docs as office suite, GoogleDrive for storage and so on. In fact, Google Chrome is the default user interface, it does not use any of the common Linux DEs. Chrome OS started as a fork of Gentoo Linux, but Google implemented many changes and unfortunately many restrictions. All user and application data is stored in the cloud.
Originally Chrome was really limited to a web browser, but then it received support for a few ported Android apps in 2014 and eventually a larger selection of apps from the Google Play Store in 2016. The performance of the apps varies of course, since they were developed for Android’s Java environment, not for use on Gentoo Linux or netbooks in general. Support for Linux software is still in beta and when it launches, it will probably only run the very few applications in Portage’s ebuild package format for Gentoo. This OS is still mainly a bootable web browser for Google apps.
The limited features and questionable usability are, however, not the problem we as privacy advocates have with Google’s operating system. Chrome OS is probably the best way to let Google know exactly what you do on your machine, so stay away. Additionally, you cannot even install software that does not come pre-installed on ChromeBooks, even if it has the correct ebuild format. Only Google’s web apps or official resources like the Play Store are accepted by the OS. Google did this, even though Chrome OS could easily run almost any Gentoo program. They want you to use their official software from a marketplace in which they earn fees for every app you buy.
Although there are open-source repositories available under the name Chromium OS, Google’s version of the system is miles away from being open-source.
Chromium OS disk images to install it on your PC are not readily available, so you can only compile it yourself or use the proprietary version from Google. The latter is definitely not an option if you value your privacy.
We do not know exactly what Google has added to the proprietary Chrome OS and that puts your privacy in danger. Therefore, we cannot say with certainty how malicious it is. That said, it is probably extremely privacy invading. When you look at what Google does on its Android platform and on the web, you know what to expect from the Data Kraken Google and ChromeOS!
If you for some reason want to get this system, you can search the internet for Chromium OS build instructions that help you compile it for your PC. That is much safer than buying a Chromebook, you also learn how building an OS from the source works. Chromium OS is definitely not the same spyware as Chrome OS, but why would you want to use an OS that can only run web applications in the browser and nothing else, anyway?
Linux From Scratch (LFS) is not an actual distro distro, but a type of Linux installation, named after a book of the same name, written by Gerard Beekmans. With this method, you build an entire system from the source, so this is the starting point for creating your own distro. It uses cross-compiling techniques to build the system for any CPU architecture.
All program are compiled as well. The book “Linux From Scratch” is more like a documentation than giving you a finished OS, but we highly recommend it if you are into low-level issues and would like to understand your PC better.
Today LFS is a big community project and there are sub-projects that explain how to build more than the basic system from the original LFS. The sub-projects are called Beyond Linux From Scratch (BLFS), Automated Linux From Scratch (ALFS), Cross Linux From Scratch (CLFS) and there are projects for Hints and Patches. They expand the basic OS you create in LFS with functions, so you can assemble an entire distro that is a finished and usable product.
There is nothing that comes even close to LFS’s customizability. It is a great project for Linux education and learning its inner workings.
Other special use distros exist for education (e.g. Edubuntu), scientific use (e.g. Scientific Linux by Fermilab), Asian markets (e.g. Ubuntu Kylin), media editing, internet of things (e.g. Ubuntu IoT), routers, low memory and resource use (lightweight distros), smartTVs or privacy and security. These niche OS’es have their own chapter and you can read it for additional information, but it is not required for your security education.
This chapter is part of our series on^Linux distros. You can also read the other posts at: