Monday, 11 April 2011

CTKArch - The Other Arch-based Distribution Using Openbox

CTKArch is a distribution, or perhaps more a spin, based on Arch Linux that is using Openbox as default window manager. It's minimal in size, if you believe that anything under CD size is minimal these days, and seems to be designed first and foremost to run from CD or USB as a live system, so it has a lot in common with ArchBang. Only a few days ago, 7th April, v. 0.7 was released into the wilderness of the Linux distribution jungle. I had toyed with 0.6 on and off for a few weeks and thus am in the position to make a few observations.

CTKArch has only recently been added to the list of active distributions, and has also received a major revamp of its website to go hand in hand with the 0.7 release. Actually, it is so much in keeping with the 'Arch style' of design that I was at first confused whether I am on the Arch, ArchBang or CTK site.
It includes a text-based system installer, support for a number of popular file systems, and out-of-the-box support for English and French languages. Development is somewhat slower than with ArchBang, which is not surprising considering that the guy behind it, Calimero, also works on Arch Hurd, a port to the Hurd kernel, but CTKArch actually predates ArchBang as a project. You can read more about author and philosophy here. The forum (also in French and English) is mildly active based on the number of topics, members and posts, but the developer responds in person.

Options in the boot menu
Upon boot you are first presented with the option to choose French or English language, French being default. If you chose the latter you can go with the default US keyboard layout or choose another one  from a sub menu. The same menu also allows loading the system fully into RAM or go into more advanced options, mainly to do with Xorg and boot options. CTKArch allows for a persistent home folder or a home partition and presents several options to detect this or start fresh and also an easy way through the menu to verify or repair a home partition.

CTK, short for CalimeroTeknik, supports the same file systems Arch does plus Btrfs, also known as ButterFS. It is available for i686 (560MB) and x86_64 (582MB) architectures. I downloaded the 64 bit version. The website describes it as a custom setup of Arch Linux, and as you would expect in this case the installer is text based. There is no hand holding or guiding from step to step, so a user will have to know reasonably well what to do as you can move freely between the different steps. That said, if you just follow the sequence and know how to partition or assign mount points if you already have partitioned before you will probably be fine. At the risk of boring you with installer screenshots, here are the most important sections:

From the top left: 1.) A little intro is telling us that 1.7GB will be needed for the install. 2.) Set date and time. 3.) Assigning mount points in the disk preparation menu. 4.) Enter the system configuration sub menu for additional editing if you like 5.) Files to edit.

CTKArch set up my screen resolution correctly. I usually never mention this as personally I haven't had a problem since at least 2006, well, perhaps with Slackware 12, but that's different... This round of CTK comes with the latest stable kernel in the Arch repos,, and claims to have sped up boot time by another 30% when compared to 0.6 through reordering files on the ISO, so that a boot should now only take around 15 secs. The release introduction states that "an average live-cd wastes 20-30s when booting just moving the CD drive head", and that this also carries over into any subsequent installation. It certainly does not take too long. Suspend to swap is now also supported. New is that users can now save the changes of the whole system (not only the home folder) in a persistent data partition. As a side effect of the new kernel my Broadcom wireless is now working and found networks in Wicd, which was not the case in 0.6 which used the 2.6.35 kernel. Special keys on laptops for volume control should now work. It is also stated to work on low-end machines from 550MHz up, with 44MB RAM used at boot.

Startup tips and keyboard shortcuts
There are only a handful of applications included but enough for most common uses, and nothing what could be regarded as superfluous like social networking clients. Instead you get Asunder for ripping, Sylpheed for light weight email, and Midori and Arora for browsing. Both work well and display fonts nicely. I mention this because in some other distributions headline titles looked somewhat 'embossed' for lack of a better word and text colors were slightly off. Here the implementation is slick though. If there was a bookmark synchronization tool like Xmarks for Midori I would most certainly switch to it full-time. Most office needs are even catered for with AbiWord, Gnumeric and ePDFViewer. You also get Brasero for burning, several media players and Leafpad as graphical editor. PCmanFM is the file manager of choice here. Urxvt is included for a terminal emulator. It doesn't have a menu bar or window borders and the look may intimidate newer users, but everybody else can feel a bit more like a hacker when running it. After logging in you get a window reminding of shortcuts in Openbox to make us more productive. Very friendly.

Installing from the repositories, and Htop
CTKArch is using the same dark black/blue overglossed-hybrid color scheme that has got to be the trademark of all Arch respins, with Azenis icon set. In addition there is a nice collection of wallpapers here that I haven't seen anywhere else, and the generally dark theme has been complemented  with a bright one in this new release. Wallpapers in these two folders can be made to load at random if desired. There are small features like the autohiding Fbpanel that can with an entry in the Openbox right click desktop menu be switched to fixed position, or even exited and Tint2 started instead. It is just as easy to switch to the white theme or enable fake transparency, with or without shadows. This is another thing CTK has with ArchBang in common. A Tray section has been added at the bottom of the menu to start Sound volume or Battery monitors and Wicd. On the whole has the Openbox menu greatly improved, in 0.6 it was barely functional and the Applications section was empty, thereby greatly relying on the menu in Fbpanel. While both menus are mostly duplication, if you opt to use Tint2 or no panel you won't have access to it, and the right-click shell menu provides some additional features just detailed. Staying with Fbpanel gives you a nice Arch menu icon as a perk. A Flash player is not present, but mp3 playback is enabled and there is even a test file in the home folder.

Being based on Arch puts all packages in that repository at your disposal, and AUR is now enabled by default as well. This really is just a custom setup and is as clean as all distributions that adhere to the KISS philosophy. In fact, the documentation section encourages use of the Arch wiki. There are no layers of control panels but under the hood it runs slick and well oiled. In the day and a half I ran CTK from CD I did not experience any problems or unpredictable behavior, power management worked as well. This ties in with my experience from ArchBang, which is still running great after eight months of constant updates. It is often said that rolling nature means one or the other breakage, but I haven't experienced a single one so far. I expect the same for CTK. Using a smaller environment with less packages than the big desktop environments will go a long way towards that, what isn't installed can't break.

Bright theme and improved Openbox menu
But although this is quite a minimal setup it is by no means bare bones. For instance the Avidemux video editor is installed by default, which is not exactly essential. One still gets a good set of applications to start with which will probably not need much customising. That said, CTK feels, as polished as it is now, of somehow more subjective taste and a bit less approachable than say ArchBang. That may just be conditioning though, because I am used to the ArchBang/CrunchBang look and design by now, and to Xfce4. It's not that different to LXDE overall as you can see. CTK is just as valid and can just as easily be transformed into any sort of Arch system you like. However, for a proper install, if this particular setup is not to your taste you will be better off using Arch instead.

There are small but interesting differences to Arch and ArchBang. CTKArch 0.7 is more polished than the previous version and loose ends have been tied up. The question is why would anyone use it over ArchBang or other distributions. Perhaps its biggest strength is as a Live system, something underlined by all the options on offer at boot-up which put it firmly in the same league as Slax or Knoppix. Although ability to run 'live' is nothing special in the days of easy tools like LiveUSBCreator and Unetbootin, I believe a stripped down linux system with a small window manager like Openbox is better suited to this than say loading a full Gnome or KDE desktop. For some French speaking users the built in language support will be important. In the end it all depends on your preferences and whether you are comfortable with an Arch based system. It may also be good as an educational tool to copy and draw inspiration from, a la 'how does this script work that's stopping Fbpanel and starting Tint2?'. One of the distributions to take apart for ideas.

I like CTK very much, but you cannot keep using everything. Perhaps it will replace Fedora or Slax/Porteus on one of my memory sticks one day, but in reality I never plug them in.


  1. I didn't manage to start it from USB.

  2. @Anonymous
    That's interesting. Did you try Unetbootin as well to see if that works? Thanks for the feedback! Much appreciated.

  3. you need to dd the iso to usb

  4. I managed to start from USB without any issue. And made it persistent.
    My review:

  5. @Barnaby this iso doesn't include unetbootin support! (I don't find it clean so I didn't include that)
    To use it “as is” dd must be used; otherwise you can copy the files to a partition and label it as the CD, then install syslinux on the disk.

  6. @Calimero
    Thanks for clarifying Calimero. And good luck with the project!

  7. I just tried CTKarch a couple days ago.
    "...CTKArch is a minimalistic Arch Linux setup (and not a distribution)..." -according to ctkarch website.
    But needless to say, thanks for your review, and I really like the fact that CTK is truly based on Arch, ala you can install with just like a base Arch if you like. ?
    also ya, Copy to ram, the panel switchers,... are very nice features.
    I've heard some rumors that cp2ram may have trouble with the new arch linux kernel 3 ???,
    but I hope not.

  8. @Anonymous
    Ah yeah, I also used to call ArchBang a custom spin of Arch. There's always an argument about what exactly makes a distribution, like having their own repositories, forum etc. AB and CTK meet some of these criteria, but not all. Then again, some projects are called distributions and aren't offering more than these two. Whatever.

  9. Excellent pieces. Keep posting such kind of information on your blog. I really impressed by your blog.


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