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I began my Linux user experience last 7 months ago. My background includes a lot of computer usage and programming, and includes several years of Unix development, so it wasn't completely foreign to me.
The first distribution that I discovered which fit my needs from the perspective of stability, control and learning was Slackware. While I still really like Slack, I found that I wanted to add more cutting edge packages and a bit easier to update.
After poking around I found Arch Linux. It is exactly what I was looking for!
Arch Linux uses a rolling release cycle. A particular version, 0.7.1 in this case, represents an intallable snapshot of the current repository. There is also a testing repository that the devs use to add new, bleeding edge packages to the system, and sort of work out the kinks. When it's good, it moves to the current repository, and so it goes.
Installing Arch from the CD ISO image is straight forward. It uses a text based interface that would be familiar to most Slackware and Debian users. I liked the disk configuration utilities provided, and it gave me complete control of the partitions.
There are a lot of packages on the CD. Arch generally recommends that you install the base package, and update your system to current once you are booted to the command prompt. In my case, I need to recompile madwifi or ndiswrapper for the systems I install, so I usually include the development packages, too. There is an option that will allow you to install everything, and I must admit to having done this a couple of times, too.
Once booted, configuring the system is very straightforward. Most of the basics can be addressed in the /etc/rc.conf file. Here you can specify time zones, network profiles, and modules to be loaded. The hardware detection scheme in Arch is very good, and most modules will be detected and loaded automatically. Still, this is where you go to start samba and cups.
The next thing to do is to update the system. Binary packages are distributed to Arch systems via the pacman tool. This tool reads its source information from the /etc/pacman.conf file. Here, you can select whether you want to enable the testing, extra or community repositories. Updating from testing is for those of us who enjoy living on the edge. I found xorg 7 installed from here within days of its availability. KDE 3.5 the same way.
Pacman is simple to use and manages dependencies well. The easiest upgrade command is "pacman -Syu" which will resync the package data base, and update all of your installed packages. Adding packages is also very easy. For example, "pacman -S xorg kdebase amarok-base amarok-engine-arts" will install some of my favorite stuff.
Living with Arch has really been a pleasure. The packages included with the 0.7.1 ISO are great, fresh and fast. The user community on the Arch Linux forums are helpful and considerate. The wiki is one of the best I've run across. This is a good place to start: http://www.archlinux.org/docs/en/guide/install/arch-install-guide.html
I'd really like to take pages to discuss what I've learned with Slackware, but in the interest of time and space, I'll just say that I've learned a lot.
Slackware has obvious merits to experienced users, and those who are comfortable cruising around a terminal window. But, contrary to popular opinion, Slackware is also for newbies. Newbies that want to learn, to be certain, but newbies nonetheless.
The installation process went well. It picked up most of my hardware, everything except my wireless card which doesn't currently have native driver support. I did use another program for partitioning my hard drive, and also short-circuited things a bit by loading grub as my boot loader. All of those were my decisions, though, and Slackware just chugged merrily along.
The first workstation I installed Slackware on surprised me a bit by cheerfully logging me to a command line prompt. I'd been distro surfing, and this was the first time I'd been dropped of at this point, and thought I'd done something wrong. However, the Slackbook on-line explained what to do next, and before I knew it, I was on the internet learning more about configuring my Xwindows configuration.
Please, if you're new to Linux, spend a some time learning what's available to you in terms of on-line documentation: http://www.slackbook.org/
Many of the distros I tried satisfactorily got me this far. From this point on was where I really developed a loyalty to Slackware.
For all that is said about binary package installation, my experience has been much better with compiling packages my self. Downloading the source, running a couple of commands to build the package and create my *own* binary package is not hard. It's not. The last step was something that I learned from linuxquestions.org's Slackware forum. Installing the package this way leaves some nice bread crumbs to remove the package at some point if you want to.
Second piece of advice, check-out http://www.linuxquestions.org/questions/forumdisplay.php?forumid=14
The people here have been helpful in my experience.
Regarding my wireless cards, building ndiswrapper and loading the drivers that way was painless on Slackware. Probably not the preferred method, but that's not a problem with this distro or Linux but with my card's manufacturer.
Finally, this point. With each step forward in Slackware, my experience has been that my workstations would hold up well and be incrementally improved by the functionality of a package I installed. I really can't say this for most of the other distributions I tried. It seemed like the more I tried to configure or add to them, the less stable the systems seemed to become.
The reliability and stability of Slackware was reassuring to this new user.
So for people starting out, give it a try. For those old hats, you already know the story.