In Hinduism and Buddhism, a chakra is one of several centers of energy in the body. In free software, The Chakra Project is a fork of Arch Linux. The name is appropriate, because, like its mystical namesake, Chakra concentrates on several centers of development within the general body of Linux, including a design that is simple yet aimed at intermediate users, the creation of a system that consists of only KDE/Qt applications, and an original selection of default software. Some of these concentrations are well-advanced, while others are still in early development.
According to project leader Phil Miller, Chakra began as a sub-project in
Arch Linux to develop a version of KDE called KDEMod. It differs from
other KDE versions in that it split and reordered packages and added a few
minor usability enhancements, such as extra options in the Dolphin file
manager's context menu. The same sub-project also started developing a Live
CD and a graphical installer.
However, he said:
As time passed by, we [had] troubles keeping up with the fast updates Arch
Linux had. KDEMod packages were more broken than working because of updates
in libraries or kernels (we needed a special patched kernel for our Live
Developer Jan Mette wrote scripts to create packages from the Arch Linux
repositories, and eventually created a new repository called core, which
was working toward a fork. Then, abruptly, he disappeared from IRC and forums. When news came that Mette had died, Miller said, those in the sub-project "decided to go on with his dream and started the fork. We honor Jan with the Chakra distribution."
Today, Chakra maintains its own repositories, with a schedule that Anke Boersma, one of the founding developers, describes as a "half-rolling release" as opposed to Arch's continual updates. In other words, while many applications are continually upgraded, they are tested and released in sets to minimize potential problems. In addition, core packages are upgraded on a semi-regular schedule. In this way, Chakra hopes to avoid the problems its founders found in maintaining KDE support for Arch.
Technically, Chakra differs from Arch Linux in several ways. Boersma explained that, for one thing, Chakra is developing a package manager that, instead of using text files like Arch Linux, uses a true database, and supports a graphical interface rather than a text-based installer.
In addition, Chakra developers are dedicated to creating a distribution consisting entirely of KDE/Qt applications, without any GTK2 build dependencies or libraries. This policy affects many aspects of Chakra, including its development priorities and application selection.
However, Boersma said, the major difference from Arch is philosophical:
Arch prides itself in being completely bleeding edge, always being the place where any and all new gets tested and tried first. Chakra developers felt that approach was not always in the best interests of its KDEMod users. Having a fully rolling KDE, [for] apps and games, but being much more conservative with the base packages, would be more appealing to many users and developers alike.
In other ways, Chakra continues to resemble Arch Linux, sharing an emphasis on speed, minimalism, and hands-on administration. The main differences are opinions on how to attain those goals and user-friendliness. If Arch Linux can be characterized as intended for experienced users, then Chakra could be described as aimed at intermediate users. Or, as the online help for the Live CD suggests, Chakra is aimed at "KISS-minded users who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty."
Boersma described the relationship today between Arch Linux and Chakra as "mostly mutual respect, where a few Arch developers communicate regularly with Chakra developers, giving advice, and exchanging ideas about found bugs, and how to correct those issues found."
Today, Chakra is developed by about ten regular contributors and enjoys a moderate popularity. Its first release series was downloaded nearly 115,000 times, while the 2012.02 release (codenamed "Archimedes") was downloaded 40,000 times in its first week, according to Boersma. At Distrowatch, Chakra is currently in thirteenth position for page views, which, if nothing else, indicates a strong curiosity in the free software community about the young distribution.
True to its basic policy, Chakra is developing its own Qt4-based installer,
called Tribe. Tribe
is currently in Alpha release, and its interface is sometimes illogical
— for instance, at the partitioning stage, users must click the
"Advanced" button rather than the "Format" button. Functionally, it is
about equivalent to the Ubuntu installer, offering much less user control
than Arch's installer, although more control of the installation process is
planned for later releases.
Tribe is different enough from other installers that users should read
Chakra's comprehensive Beginner's
Guide before plunging into an installation, as well as consult the Welcome widget, a small Plasma application that opens when you boot the Live CD's desktop to display release notes.
For instance, since you are never asked to set a root password, you might
assume that Chakra uses sudo without a root password, the way that Ubuntu does. In fact, sudo is set up, but Tribe also automatically assigns the root user the same password as the user account you create during installation — a practice that saves a step, but which security-minded users might want to change immediately after their first login.
Even more importantly, just before you install, you confront a button
inviting you to "Download Popular Bundles". Contrary to what you might
first think, "bundles" are not
Chakra's jargon for packages. Rather, they are Chakra's way of permitting
the use of GTK2 applications without actually adding their libraries and dependencies to the system. While Qt-based applications are installed via normal packages, GTK2-based ones are made available as loop-mounted squashfs/lzma filesystem images that also contain their dependencies.
This approach may seem like an overly complicated way to ensure a pure
KDE/QT system. However, what it means in practice is that if you want
applications like Audacity, Chrome, Firefox, Inkscape, GIMP, or
Thunderbird, you should select the button during installation, even though nothing in Tribe itself indicates why you might want to. Otherwise, you face installing GTK2 apps afterward with a bundle manager that is currently little more than a list placed in a window.
But even without such idiosyncrasies, Tribe leaves something to be
desired. For one thing, it has no provision for selecting individual
packages and bundles within the installer, which is unlikely to to please Chakra's target audience.
For another, Tribe does not work consistently on some hardware. In my experience, it seems especially prone to display corruption at the partitioning stage. A workable but annoying solution is to repeat efforts to install three or four times until they succeed. Overall, Tribe is an interesting preview, but unfinished enough that perhaps it should not be included in the current release.
Desktop and software selection
With GTK2 applications banished to Bundles, Chakra has a KDE orientation
whose thoroughness is unusual among current distributions. Boersma told me
that Chakra's founders decided that having too many desktop environments would only create a "splitting of resources," so that the distribution would end up "not doing any desktop environment the way it could be done, if it had the full and only attention." The founders chose KDE, Miller said, because "we want to showcase KDE as it should be."
For this reason, Chakra offers what appears to be a largely unmodified
version of KDE 4.8, using the standard Oxygen widgets and icons with the
main menu in its usual position on the bottom left along with the basic selection of Activities. Branding is confined chiefly to the Chakra Project wallpaper.
The main difference in KDE on Chakra is that — subjectively, at least — it is much faster than most installations. Boersma attributed the apparent speed to the removal all traces of GTK2 from core packages. "Because Chakra has stripped all of its base packages of any GTK libs, it does start showing a difference in lightness," Boersma insisted. "Strip it from one or two applications you run, you won't notice so much, but keep multiplying it by so many base packages that carry everything to run on both GTK2 and QT/KDE based systems, and the end results start adding up. ."
Where possible, Chakra's software is free-licensed, although it does include the common proprietary drivers and proprietary-dependent free tools like Q4wine, a Qt interface for WINE. Much of the software, too, will be familiar to KDE users, such as Marble, KDE's answer to Google Earth and Maps, or KNetAttach, the wizard for integrating network resources for the desktop.
However, much of Chakra's software will be strange even to many KDE users. The default browser is Rekonq, and the lightweight music player Bangarang. Chakra also borrows SUSE Studio Imagewriter for creating bootable USB drives, and Ubuntu's System Cleaner for removing unwanted files. Other menu items, such as miniBackup, are merely shell scripts to automate a process. Taken as a whole, they make an intriguing change from the standard applications in most distributions, and are enough by themselves to make an afternoon's exploration of Chakra worthwhile.
In the current release, Chakra uses Arch's Pacman for package installation, and CInstall, a rough and ready interface which the project site calls a "temporary GUI" for bundles. This division is inconvenient — especially if you cannot recall or have no idea whether a particular application uses Qt or GTK2. However, Pacman is scheduled to be replaced in the near future with a new package manager called Akabei. Eventually, too, package and bundle installation will be combined into a single utility, possibly based on Arch Linux's Shaman, a front end for Pacman.
One to watch
Chakra's latest release may inspire mixed reactions. On the one hand, the incompleteness of the installer and the mixed system of packages and bundles is irritating. Granted, the development team makes no secret that Chakra is incomplete, yet could the release not wait until these things were more polished? Or does the project not consider initial setup and application installation part of the core that needs to be reliable?
On the other hand, these shortcomings offer few difficulties that Chakra's target users should not be able to overcome. Moreover, Chakra's traditional virtues — speed, efficiency, and do-it-yourself maintenance — are likely to have a deep appeal to its target users. At a time when many major distributions hide complexity for the sake of helping newcomers, Chakra aims for simplicity with a hands-on approach. Add an original selection of applications, and many users might be able to forgive the distribution's uneven edges.
Others might prefer to wait until Chakra is out of rapid development before using it as a main desktop. However, no matter what the immediate verdict, Chakra is among the most innovative of newer distributions. What it accomplishes in the next release or two should be worth watching.
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