Way back in the year of 2012, I made a decision that would change the way that I used a computer from that day forward. Just like many other people, I had always used a version of Microsoft Windows as the operating system on my computers, even the ones I built myself. Using Windows for doing work, however, was becoming increasingly frustrating. It was a huge pain to do development work, especially for a fledgling scientist who had only taken a single programming course and had to figure out everything for myself. The code I had written was slower than molasses on an Alaskan winter day, but the part that was the slowest could be done in parallel. I already had used OpenMP to parallelize the for loop, but it was still going to take forever to run. I learned about GPGPU, OpenCL and CUDA that day. CUDA was the most appealing as it used simple C-like syntax, and I was a C++ programmer. To use CUDA on Windows, I would have needed to purchase Visual Studio, not easy to do on a graduate student’s salary, but I learned you could use it for free on Linux. That was it. The decision was made. That day I installed Fedora 17 on my work desktop, and never looked back.
Initially, it was my work operating system. Existing only on the hard drive of my desktop that lived in my campus office. I was the quintessential noob. I tried to get proprietary graphics drivers to install by just downloading them from NVidia and double clicking, which simply opened and eMacs window, and I didn’t even know what that was! Eventually I got it figured out. I got the drivers installed, CUDA up and running, and went about my work. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot and can now much more easily manage my systems. I now run Fedora on all my computers, aside from the one I’m currently typing on, but I’ll get there in a minute. I do maintain a Windows installation on my newest laptop for gaming, but I boot it in Fedora for everything else.
Five years of using Linux, and all five I’ve used Fedora. I’ve booted other distributions from live USBs. I played around with Scientific Linux to be able to better help the graduate and undergraduate students on the research workstations where I currently work. But Fedora has been my “daily driver.” Reliable. Up-to-date. Fast.
On July 11th of this year, Fedora released version 26. I haven’t upgraded any of my computer to version 26 just yet. And, as of today, I can say that I may never do so. Since I do CUDA programming to speed up portions of code, in fact for the past 4 or 5 months I’ve been running various CUDA programs almost non-stop, I have to use proprietary NVidia drivers. Every time I’ve tried to just upgrade the system through yum/dnf, it never quite works. I managed to get it to “work” going from Fedora 23 to 24, but I ended up doing a fresh install anyway when things kept behaving oddly. So, a new version of Fedora inevitably leads to a couple of days upgrading my laptop and desktop and getting all the software I need reloaded. I used to get excited about the idea of getting a fresh start and checking out the new version, but with this latest release, I just feel exhausted.
The new versions are typically incremental changes from the previous one. There’s hardly any noticeable changes so it doesn’t feel like you’ve installed a new OS. It just feels like I’ve installed the same OS again and then had to reinstall all of my software. So, I decided to look into some “rolling-release” distributions. Why not long-term-support (LTS)? Well, LTS versions tend to be stuck with old versions of compilers and other software in addition to the kernel. This can sometimes prevent you from being able to use new language features, or getting a bug fix for software you use everyday. One of the things that I liked about Fedora was that you get new software pretty quick. A rolling-release distribution may even get you the software sooner!
I had recently seen a mention of Manjaro, so I decided to check it out. I made a live USB, plugged it into my trusty old HP Pavilion dv6-6135dx and gave it a boot. I was greeted by a grub-like menu where I could select some options. One was for drivers. It was defaulted to free, and I could switch it to non-free. My dv6 has an old AMD-A8-3500M processor which has an integrated Radeon HD 6620G and a discrete Radeon HD 6750M with 1 GB of GDDR5. These cards have been dropped by AMD, even for Windows. I haven’t been able to get the Catalyst driver to work in Fedora on this laptop for a couple of years now. For kicks, I selected non-free, then selected the option to boot into Manjaro. I opened a terminal window, typed glxgears, and was getting an average of 1485 frames per second (fps)! With the open source driver, I would be lucky to see 300 or 400 fps. I checked the Settings category in the application launcher, and sure enough Catalyst control center was there and already set to use the discrete GPU for maximum performance. My old dv6, which recently passed it’s sixth birthday, is running peppier than it has in many years.
I was able to install Google Chrome, my preferred browser due to Firefox taking 30 seconds to over a minute to actually open after clicking on its icon, directly from AUR. There was an icon in the applications menu which, when clicked, installed Steam for me. LibreOffice was pre-loaded, and Calligra was not present at all saving me the step of removing it. I’ve gotten this computer essentially ready to go for a normal work load, and it was all quite easy.
Of course, it hasn’t all be completely smooth. Pacman is still a mystery to me. It seems quite a bit different from yum/dnf that I have always used. Octopi is a descent GUI package manager, but still not a simple as I would have liked. Having to right-click on a package in a list to install it is a bit cumbersome. Pamac is a bit better, and may become my most used package manager if I stick with Manjaro, which I just might.
The thought of having an always up-to-date, always the latest-version OS is very appealing. The ease of installing proprietary drivers. The fact that CUDA appears to be in a default repository (haven’t been able to test given this computer’s lack of an NVidia card). According to reports on the Manjaro website, even NVidia Optimus is supported out of the box, very appealing given the Optimus laptop sitting a few feet away from me. All of these things are making me think it may be time to switch to a new Linux distribution.
Before I move my other computers over, I’m going to spend a few days, writing some code and doing other work on this computer. If all goes well, instead of installing Fedora 26, I just may be installing Manjaro on my computers soon. I’ll write a full review of Manjaro after using it for a while, and if I decide to switch my other computers.
Have any experience with Manjaro? Let me know what you thought in the comments below!