There’s been a surge of Arch users over the past few years, especially with Manjaro. I’ve been curious as to why that is. They have preferred Arch over their traditional Debian/Ubuntu setups, to the point where the meme, “btw I use Arch” has become a thing.
After doing a bit of homework, specifically looking at videos from Chris Titus Tech, I’ve learned that the benefit Arch has over Debian is mainly related to software management – how they’re maintained and upgraded. Arch Linux has updates to your software packages every day – perhaps two or three times a day! This is due to Arch using a rolling release model – as soon as an update has been pushed to one or more of your installed applications, the software updater will notify you, giving you access to bleeding-edge software. This is a huge benefit in contrast to having to use a personal package archive (PPA) for most of the packages that you want to have the latest version for on Debian or Ubuntu; not to mention the fact the PPA can go down later on.
Of course, though, there’s a small catch to having the latest software. Ubuntu may only get updates every six months, but the software is more stable, and would therefore be more useful in an environment where minimal downtime is needed. With Arch, even though we may have the latest and greatest in terms of software, they have had less baking time in the oven and may introduce issues that we might not get with an older, but more stable, release. The frequency of the updates may also irk some users who just want to do their work, whatever that is. If the user wants to bypass the everyday updates, they should get done at least once a month, or better yet, once a week.
Since I’ve never used an Arch-based distro before, I wanted to give it a try. I vouched for Salient OS specifically, since it’s “aimed at Creative Multi-Media and Gaming Enthusiasts.”
The Thing With Gaming Distros
You’re welcome to skip this section if you just want to read my review of Salient OS (believe me, I won’t mind); this is just a side point.
Especially since the time of SteamOS, we’ve seen a lot of distros that are designed with gamers in mind – forks of SteamOS, including Stephenson’s Rocket that includes built-in support for AMD drivers (which is a dead project now); GamerOS, an Arch-based version of SteamOS that’s more up-to-date and has better overall support; Sparky Linux: Game Over Edition; Salient OS; that dude who tried to ask fifty grand for his “gamepad” distro/launcher (I don’t even know which one it is, to be honest here); and now the latest that has entered the fray is the Ubuntu-based Drauger OS. There’s probably more that I haven’t listed. But it’s a lot.
Take my opinion with a grain of salt, but really, I don’t think there’s a such thing as a “gaming” distribution. If you’re running any distro that has the latest NVIDIA or Mesa graphics drivers installed, the performance you’re going to get in games frankly isn’t going to be all that different than that Joe Shmoe distro over there. You might gain a couple extra frames or free up a little more system resources for having a lightweight desktop environment, or no DE at all, but if we compare Ubuntu 20.04 with the 440 series driver from NVIDIA and Manjaro 19.0.2 GNOME with the same driver version, try running a few benchmarks with Shadow of The Tomb Raider. Compare the results. Let me know if you find any significant differences in the numbers.
See, in case you’re not aware, the graphics driver deals directly with the kernel and the hardware you’re using; anything in-between, such as the DE or any other running applications on your desktop, get ignored. The only real difference we’ll get, regardless of what distribution we’re using, is having an older graphics driver versus the latest.
So to me, what makes a “gaming” OS is the software that it includes. Some ship with emulators, others supply open-source games, still others include Steam or the proprietary NVIDIA drivers. Or it might include a lightweight DE such as Xfce and be based on Arch to have access to bleeding-edge software, or based on Debian/Ubuntu with a few extra PPAs added in their own repository. Or it might include Feral Gamemode and Lutris, and have a few changes made to the kernel. There’s a lot of different factors here. But the thing is, all of this can be done to a stock Ubuntu image. Install Xfce, the NVIDIA or Mesa drivers, install Steam, whatever else, and call it a day. Gaming distros just include those features by default so you don’t have to make those changes (although, one thing I will point out is kernel-specific changes that the less tech-savvy users will not know how to do. That would be a plus for them). Or it could make living room gaming a bit easier by having the OS launch into Steam Big Picture Mode/some other type of UI that doesn’t require the use of a keyboard or mouse directly, so that all the player needs is their gamepad. To each his own in the end, though.
Salient OS Install
Opinion aside, I went ahead and took Salient OS for a spin. For those who aren’t aware what Salient OS is, I’ll give a brief scoop on the history of the project.
Salient OS was born from one dude. That dude goes by the alias “Silent Robot”. Silent Robot made an Arch-based distro for himself, but due to popular demand, he decided to release it to the public.
There’s an official Github site for the distribution, and all it does is present to the viewer what Salient OS is and a download link, with some cool constellations moving in the dark background. Salient OS is currently available in two flavors: Xfce edition and Plasma.
After downloading the Xfce ISO (v20.03 “RowdyRobot”) from SourceForge (I wanted to have more resources available to me using Xfce rather than KDE) and flashing the image to a drive, I booted into the live system. Immediately the installer window appears. Salient OS uses the Calamares installer.
Installation with manual partitioning was relatively painless. I say “relatively” because during the installation procedure, there’s an option to install extra proprietary packages, such as the NVIDIA drivers and VirtualBox. I checked the box to both of these options and the installation failed because of these. Installation was otherwise fine without installing the extras.
What Comes Out Of The Box
According to the SourceForge download page for Salient OS, “it comes pre-configured with various applications out of the box to aid you in getting started quickly without having to download these applications yourself.” The page goes on to mention DXVK, Lutris, and Proton have been automatically designed so the user has minimal hassle getting these up and running.
Seeing as Salient OS is garnered towards both gamers and content creators, it comes packaged with the following applications:
- along with the rest of the applications supplied in vanilla Arch/Xfce/KDE
Amazing to think all of this was packed into just a 2.6 GB ISO. Though I found it strange it doesn’t ship with LibreOffice.
The Xfce Desktop Environment
The current version of Salient OS ships with Xfce version 4 and uses a dark GTK theme and icon set. It comes with some pretty slick wallpapers:
There’s too many others to put here, but they’re great nonetheless.
A cube icon rests on the top left corner to bring up a list of the installed applications. Running applications will have an icon next to this. System icons, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and sound are displayed on the top-right. A third panel stretches across the bottom that resembles a similar layout to Mac OS and Plank. It’s pretty nice; I haven’t had the need to change the layout or themes at all. Using htop, I find out the system is using less than 1 GB of RAM without any other applications open. Nice!
As someone who has long used only Debian-based distributions, I found making the transition to Arch with Salient OS wasn’t as difficult as I anticipated. I learn that the default package manager that comes with Arch is pacman.
The learning curve here wasn’t all that bad; matter of fact, I found it more simple to install packages with pacman -S <name-of-package> than sudo apt install <name-of-package>. I haven’t even needed to run the sudo command; I still got asked for the root password and installation worked. Updating software takes even less typing than having to run two separate commands on Ubuntu; instead of sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade, with pacman all one needs to run is pacman -Syu. The “-S” flag tells pacman to synchronize the package(s), “y” fetches a fresh copy of the master package database, and “u” will then upgrade the packages that it finds out-of-date. Removing packages is as simple as pacman -R <name-of-package>.
So I couldn’t install Spotify since it’s not in the official Arch repository. I then discovered what is called Arch User Repositories (AUR). Spotify is one of them. If we look for Spotify in the AUR, we find the git clone URL for it – https://aur.archlinux.org/spotify.git. So we clone that with
git clone https://aur.archlinux.org/spotify.git
We navigate to the new directory that was created via the terminal, then simply enter
Done. Spotify is now installed on the system.
Note that this is without an AUR helper. Salient OS comes with yay. Using yay, we can simplify the installation by running:
yay -S spotify
In this way, it behaves much like pacman. Updating AUR packages can be done via:
Now let’s talk about the NVIDIA drivers. You might recall I couldn’t have them installed through the installer itself. So, installing the NVIDIA drivers post-installation went like this:
pacman -S nvidia
Adding 32-bit support:
pacman -S lib32-nvidia-utils
Then a restart. Not quite as simple as installing on Ubuntu, as we’ll have to configure the driver after restart to ensure it will work properly, but still fairly trivial.
Installing software through the “Add/Remove Software” application is non-existant. I couldn’t find any software in any of the categories, although I can search for software with the search bar.
With OBS, I was able to record an interview between myself and Thomas Castleman, the sole developer behind Drauger OS. We used Discord to talk to each other. Strangely, though I set OBS to only record my microphone, it recorded both that and the desktop audio (i.e. it recorded Thomas’ voice as well). Not too big of a deal, however; he sounded just fine.
With the interview recorded, I used Audacity to edit it. I’m not sure if this is an Arch-specific issue or with Audacity in general, but I did experience some intermittent crashing while I was editing, particularly when playing the audio, stopping it, changing the start time slightly forward or back, then playing again. After suffering through that a bit, I finally had the version I was satisfied with and exported the edited audio.
One last thing I wanted to touch on, I was able to install Zoom through the AUR and was able to log in to my meetings successfully, mic and webcam all working. So for the most part, all the software I have used in the past week of me using Salient OS has worked great.
Now, what most of you readers out there are probably interested in most here, is how games perform in comparison to other distros. I took F1 2017 and ran some benchmarks. Bear in mind, I’m running these benchmarks with the following hardware/software:
- GTX 1050 Ti
- 8 GB DDR4 RAM
- Pop!_OS 19.10 w/ Budgie DE w/ driver 440.64, kernel 5.3
- Salient OS 20.03 Xfce edition w/driver 440.64, kernel 5.5
One thing I found interesting with this data, it appears Salient OS caps a few frames over Pop!_OS in terms of the Ultra Low and Low presets. On the other hand, Pop!_OS appears to be the winner from Medium to Ultra High. At any rate, there’s not much of a difference. Like I mentioned earlier, the results are mostly going to depend on what driver version is installed. Little tweaks can be done here and there with the DE and the kernel, but performance is going to be about the same, whether we’re using Ubuntu, Fedora, or Arch.
Am I Going To Keep Using Salient OS?
Glad you asked! I think I will! My experience with Arch so far hasn’t been that bad. I wrote this review on this distro with Firefox. It will be nice to have access to bleeding-edge software with Salient OS, with most of the guesswork taken out than, say, using vanilla Arch. But gaming-wise? It won’t be much different, if at all, than with Pop!_OS anyway. Go ahead and give Salient OS a spin if you dare. If I continue to use Salient OS a few months from now, I’ll give an update and see if I still like it.