Quick Look: Unity for Arch

A precursory glance at the above screenshot might give the impression that this is yet another Ubuntu Linux review. However, a closer look at the logo in the bottom left corner reveals that nothing could be farther from the truth. Today we’ll be taking a quick look at the Unity desktop environment… on Arch Linux.

Why would anybody want to do this?

Cries of heracy will surely abound at the mere mention of Unity on Arch. The goals and philosophies of the two projects are diametrically opposed. Unity is meant to be the flagship desktop environment for Ubuntu, which, at least in the past, claimed to be “Linux for human beings”. To that end, Ubuntu developed and maintains the Unity desktop, which is complex in design but fairly simple to use for the average computer user. Arch Linux, on the other hand follows a K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) creed, which is anything but simple for the average computer user, to say nothing of human beings in general. Therefore, both Ubuntu’s Unity and the Arch Linux project respectively tend to elicit strong, polarized reactions that can generally be classified as love or hate. This does not bode well for a potential marriage of the Unity desktop to an Arch Linux system. Nevertheless, for users who can see beyond the rhetoric, there is a truly fascinating and attractive option in the form of Unity for Arch.

The Unity desktop is generally easy to use, and offers a refreshingly modern take on the Linux Desktop with a heavy focus on aesthetics. Unity in its default configuration is truly gorgeous, with a complementing color scheme and a lot of attention to detail. It is often criticized for being unconventional, but at the same time it offers a workflow that many users find to be very efficient after getting used to it. Unity’s search mechanism does a great job of melding frequently used applications with frequently used local files. It intelligently offers search results that usually give the user quick access to whatever (s)he wants to launch with only a few key letters. Unity also makes good use of screen real estate by moving the launcher panel to the left side and merging the window buttons of maximized windows into the top panel. Unity really is a very attractive environment that embraces a lot of inexperienced and seasoned Linux users. The Ubuntu base distribution, on the other hand, is even more controversial. Some dislike the direction in which Ubuntu developers are taking the distribution. Others find Ubuntu’s fixed releases to be limiting, with more complexity in upgrading releases and finding current versions of software during the support cycle.

Enter Arch Linux. Arch uses a rolling release methodology, which means that it isn’t developed with a view to creating a stable release every six or nine months. Instead, Arch Linux releases a steady stream of very current package releases, all of which are reasonably stable and tested. This eliminates the need to upgrade to a major release, and it offers the latest versions of most software packages at any given point in time. Although not officially blessed by the Arch Linux project, there are some third party distributions that package the Arch system into a much more consumable live CD with sane defaults and automatic hardware detection, resulting in a system that even beginners can use with relative ease. Two of my favorites are Antergos, which builds an attractive desktop directly from the Arch package repositories, and Manjaro, which constantly copies new Arch packages into their own repositories with the intention of creating an even more stable and predictable experience for end users. In my opinion, the Arch Linux base combined with the Unity desktop provides a best-of-both-worlds solution for Ubuntu Unity users who want a stable, rolling base system and access to the latest versions of Linux software.

Unity on Arch

This should be prefaced by stating that the Unity for Arch project is unofficial and unsupported by both Ubuntu and Arch. It is the brainchild of a talented Arch Linux developer that generously makes his work available to like-minded adventurous Arch users.

To begin, start with an installed and configured Arch Linux system. I installed the Gnome Shell community edition of Manjaro Linux, and then switched it to the Unstable branch to make it more compatible with the upstream Arch release. From there, I followed these simple steps to install Unity for Arch:

1. Add the Unity for Arch package repositories

In a text editor running with sudo privileges, open /etc/pacman.conf and add the following lines at the very top of the enabled package repositories:


[Unity-for-Arch]
SigLevel = Optional TrustAll
Server = http://dl.dropbox.com/u/486665/Repos/$repo/$arch

[Unity-for-Arch-Extra]
SigLevel = Optional TrustAll
Server = http://dl.dropbox.com/u/486665/Repos/$repo/$arch
2. Update the system

sudo pacman -Syu

When it asks about replacing version of the packages with an -ubuntu suffixed version, accept the change.

3. Install the Unity packages

sudo pacman -S $(pacman -Slq Unity-for-Arch)

It is also recommendable to install the following packages from the unity-extra repository:

sudo pacman -S lightdm-unity-greeter unity-tweak-tool ubuntu-wallpapers ubuntu-themes ubuntu-default-settings

4. Enable the LightDM login manager with Ubuntu theming

First, disable whatever login manager is currently being used. For example, in my case I had to disable the GDM display manager:

sudo systemctl disable gdm

Then enable LightDM with Ubuntu theming:

sudo systemctl enable lightdm

5. Reboot and enjoy

After rebooting and logging into the Unity session, you should see the following results:

Conclusion

If the conflicting philosophies of Ubuntu and Arch are ignored, Unity on Arch can be a very attractive and functional option for pragmatic individuals who want to use Unity on a rolling-release base. It works very well, thanks to the hard work of the Unity on Arch developer. Many thanks to him for his tireless efforts to bring Unity to Arch.

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2 Comments

beaverusiv's picture

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You say we have to replace arch packages with their -ubuntu counterparts, any idea what ones they are? I assume this means you are essentially freezing certain packages to certain versions?

There are quite a few

There are quite a few replacements of packages with their -ubuntu counterparts, but it will automatically prompt you. You won’t have to manually freeze anything, since the Unity repo is added above all the other package sources, the necessary -ubuntu versions will be offered as replacements the first time you install, and subsequent updates will automatically maintain the latest versions of the -ubuntu packages, even if the default Arch version of the package has a higher version number.