A clarification: Gnome on Arch

I’m going to make a slight retraction, not because I think I was necessarily wrong, but I think I clouded the issue by referring to one particular version of a thing, and insinuating that all things of that type had the same characteristics. An error of generalization, so to speak.

Let me be direct. A few days ago I rattled the Gnome cage again, this time for mentioning that a perfectly healthy 2.2Ghz Celeron machine with only 256Mb of memory was suffering the death of a thousand cuts trying to keep up with the Ubuntu Gnome desktop. Doubling its physical memory cut back dramatically on swapping, boosted the speed and made everybody — especially the owner — much happier.

All those facts are true; the error occurred when I ascribed that behavior to all Gnome setups — and that’s where someone should have rattled my cage back. Truth be told (and I admit this fully), there’s a huge difference between plain-Jane Gnome and the version the Ubuntu crowd trundles out every six months.

Here’s proof to the contrary: Gnome on Arch.


And just so we’re clear, I added nothing to the stock Arch installation on this machine except the gnome, gnome-extras and gdm groups, along with the mandatory X suite and Intel video driver. Nothing was stripped out or shaved back, tweaked or adjusted, except to add gdm (and hal πŸ‘Ώ ) to rc.conf. Oh, and I also added ttf-dejavu, just because I happen to prefer that font over the default one. πŸ™„

And as you can see in the photo, a clean boot requires only about 70Mb to stand up, and that includes the space the system monitor and the screenshot program themselves take up. There is a strong selection of fundamental software available in just those groups, you have screensavers, screen lockers, device automounting, power management, some great applications (Epiphany is quite nice, you know …) and games. The amount of disk space required is quite large, but if you want to make an omelette, you’re going to have to break a few eggs.

So you can call this a correction, or a retraction, or a clarification, or a prevarication, or whatever you like: It is possible to run a Gnome desktop on a much smaller chunk of resources, and that you should be aware that some distros will overwhelm an otherwise perfectly usable machine with too many bells and whistles, thingamajigs and doodads, and make you think your computer is a dud.

Now for the punch line. (You knew this was coming, didn’t you?)

Seventy megabytes is still considerably larger than the “desktops” I am used to. Any machine after 2001 or so can expect to have enough memory in it to handle that, and if the processor and underlying hardware can keep up with the demands, then by all means, I suggest running it. In fact, if you have a trustworthy Pentium 4, or perhaps even a late-model high-end Pentium III with a fairly strong video card and a perky hard drive, I might even suggest trying it.

Keep in mind that the example machine is a core duo, and the video card is quick and nimble, and the hard drive is a zephyr, and in this case, it has just about everything going for it. Seventy megabytes and some healthy hardware, and yes, Gnome is a viable contender.

But dump this on my 550Mhz Celeron? Downscale the entire business to squeeze it into my Pentium?

No chance, no way, no how. Mostly because it’s not to my liking, but also just because I don’t believe it would be quick or responsive at low clock speeds. It works in the example because that machine is only 3 years old. Triple the age and … I just don’t think so. And 70Mb? That just sounds huge to me, if all you’re doing is turning on the computer.

To sum up, yes, I made a small mistake and I will try to be more precise in the future. Yes, it is possible to install Gnome by itself, and not suffer horrific performance. And yes, I will be sure to aim my criticism more precisely in the future, rather than shotgunning an entire desktop environment because one version of it runs like molasses.

But no, I have not turned to the dark side. In fact, as soon as I finish this post, I’m stripping all that Gnome stuff back out again. I have a few console applications I want to try next. … 😈

Edit, 2010-03-20: I added a screenshot of some of the running processes, because someone asked and because it was pertinent. That’s a rebuilt system though, which is why the screens look a little different, and the dates are off. πŸ˜‰


14 thoughts on “A clarification: Gnome on Arch

  1. Bryan

    In all honesty, as long as your daily tasks fit within the 512MBs of RAM that machine has onboard, you should rarely see paging (unless you have a high swappiness value or something similar) and, as the saying goes, unused RAM is wasted RAM.

    Understanding that KDE and Gnome are behemoths compared to what you normally use (and in all honesty – they’re large compared to my normal load out as well), they provide a lot more functionality and convenience to daily computing.

    I just upgraded my PC to 4GB of RAM because it was the max this motherboard could take (with the old 1GB stick sitting in a box waiting for a few more parts to fill out a media PC – hence wasting nothing). With the new found RAM, I switched from DWM and a host of supporting programs to KDE 4.4 and I must say that I’m rather impressed. The change is dramatic, no doubt, but it’s not unplesant. (Having also tried the latest gnome release, I have to say that it was less than stellar) I’m using about 850MB of RAM as I type this, but that gets me drive indexing, automounting, amarok for media, a webbrowser with ~15 tabs open, two consoles, a nicely composited environment, instant messaging, and both inkscape and gimp open. Another 1.5 to 2GB cached, but that’s rather irrelevant since I’m still not paging and, as I said above, unused RAM is wasted RAM.

    Not that I disagree with your frugality with RAM. For you, it’s a precious resource and for a long while I was as well, though I’ve never been as strapped for RAM as you are. Like you discovered with the 32MB limit on the Ubuntu installer, having upwards of 1GB of memory changes the playing field immensely.

  2. John Bohlke

    I just wanted to chime in and note that on a clean install of Debian Lenny that gnome uses about 90 MB sitting at the desktop. This is with no tweaking. Which of course I will be doing very soon. πŸ™‚

  3. MK

    I have to say, 70MB for a running Gnome is quite astonishing, well done Arch. I wish you’d posted the list of running processes before removing it. However, this post begs a question, ‘Why didn’t you install Arch+Gnome or Debian+Gnome on your friend’s computer from the start?’.

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  10. shamefulWindozeuser

    Things like this make me feel like I’m running a supercomputer; that I’m spoiled.
    I have an HP G62 running Windows 7
    4gb ram
    Intel i3


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