Void Linux: A Great Experience (And My Favorite Binary GNU/Linux Distro)

Keywords: #linux #distro-talk #minimalism

This article is a part of the “Linux Views” series. Within it, I take a look at and talk about my favorite distros and linux tools, why, and how they can be practically used, not just for show (remember, there is NO best distro, it all depends on what you like and are efficient with).

Void Linux: But Why?

Void is an interesting distribution. It’s a binary based distribution, just like your Debians and your Arches, and it is a rolling release, so closer to Arch or openSUSE again, but is a bit slower with updates. You still never have to do a “dist-upgrade”, and things genuinely tend to “just work”. I’ve had more issues with Arch breaking during updates than I’ve had any issues with Void. Of course, every distro has to have their “gimmick”, or else why would people switch?

To systemd, or not?

Of course, here comes the big controversy (that doesn’t really matter that much, sorry folks). Void does not use systemd, instead relying on runit. Yes, runit is “ancient”, yes it’s “simpler” than systemd. Personally, I’m used to writing runit scripts, and find them much easier to quickly think up instead of systemd “service units”. There are other concerns with systemd, that are definitely not invalid, but don’t really affect the end user much. I’m not one to start a pointless argument, and this one really is opinion based, but systemd attempts to be too much for me. I’d rather have my init just start services, and that’s all. This does bring up some slight issues, but since runit is the init system of Void, it’s a MUCH better experience than my old favorite, Artix. You don’t need to remember “hm, does that package need a -runit suffix?” and instead just download and use your packages.

Minimalism to the extreme (but not as extreme as source-based distros)

You can find more minimal distros, and you can “technically” be more efficient with more extreme methods, but I have a different viewpoint. My goal, when using any technology, is for it to be as efficient as I need, and work. I’m not a person of habit, and am totally fine with just “dropping” something any day to use something “better”. But in order for that thing to be “better”, it has to make me more efficient. None of the stupid Arch user or LFS jokes, I just mean that it fulfills the goal it has. If I have an email client, it should just work, and show my email. That doesn’t mean the most minimal thing is good (I used neomutt for a year, and just dropped it recently for Thunderbird. Sure, Thunderbird is “technically” more bloated, but it is also easier to read HTML emails with images, y’know, what most emails are), and the most complex also doesn’t mean that it is superior. I find Void a good balance of this. The initial image is very minimal, not even having curl, gcc, and git! But on the other hand, everything is very accessible and well planned (for example, the Debian style “-devel” split for packages, meaning your end package amount will probably be higher than say, Arch, but you’ll have much better organisation). Packages, even large ones like IceCat and Firefox, install in a split second. This is still the ultimate argument I have against source based distributions. Sure, maybe if I had a better computer and a high end Ryzen I could compile things plenty fast and be happy with all my custom USE flags (Hi Gentoo), but myself being not a person of habit, I may just randomly want to try something, and that doesn’t mean I want to sit around and wait while my computer compiles an update to my browser. Speaking of packages…

Xpbs! Er, wait, Xbps!

xpbs is an amazing package manager with weird syntax. First, separate binaries is actually interesting. Keeping your install/query/remove separate makes for a more efficient way of updating, but the naming scheme, really guys? The first thing I recommend doing is going to your .zshrc or your .bashrc (or whatever hipster shell you use) and alias xi to xbps-install, xr to xbps-remove, xq to xbps-query, and update to xbps-install -Su. Now that you don’t have to write a sentence to install a package, you might notice the only other two real “downsides”. Xbps is case-sensitive (so it pacman btw!)… but most packages in Arch are lowercase, unlike Void. Especially in the beginning, you might have issues finding the package you want. The Void Wiki was retired :(, so there are currently three methods to find things:

  • Use the Void Wiki (most things are still relevant)
  • Use the official search page (not a fan of unnecessarily opening my browser, but this is a good system, to be fair)
  • Search the void-packages repo.

Now that third one especially brings up an interesting decision on the Void repos (that I personally like): “restricted” or non-free licensed programs are not in the main, or non-free repos. They are instead kept in a large GitHub repository, and have a special system to make them normal packages. This process is quite easy to learn, and it’s nice to encourage people to use OSS. The repository isn’t just about not open software though, it also includes larger programs, and it’s worth checking if your program is in there if you can’t find it in the main repos. This is a safer approach to something like the AUR, since packages are checked out and kept in a main source instead of just being handled by people at random and loosely monitored. I’ve found more stable and up to date software in the Void repos.

So how do you go about installing software that you have to use, but isn’t OSS and might be considered “large”, like say Zoom for your online classes?

$ git clone git://github.com/void-linux/void-packages.git
$ cd void-packages
$ ./xbps-src binary-bootstrap
# If you would like restricted software (most likely yes if you're doing this!)
$ echo XBPS_ALLOW_RESTRICTED=yes >> etc/conf
# In order to use the "xisr" alias I talk about in the future
$ xi xtools

This’ll get you ready to start using void-packages. The command to then install a package is ./xbps-src pkg <pkgname>. I find it a bit more convenient though to make an alias for this and use the shortcut (I keep the void-packages repo in ~/.local/src, so if you don’t want it there adjust accordingly): xisr to cd ~/.local/src/void-packages && sudo xi. Then all I have to type, using that Zoom example, is xisr zoom. You can then install it as a normal Void package (xi Zoom). I think this separation is a good concept, and helps people to use OSS (although yes, that’s not the only type of thing in restricted, large packages are too), while also still having a convenient way to use restricted software. Using aliases makes xbps one of the best package managers (I haven’t even touched on the advanced capabilities!) and more tolerable to use.

The Downsides

Getting started in Void is quite the task. I consider myself fairly literate with Linux, have used Gentoo as a daily driver, and even make jokes about “speed running a usable Arch install” in about 15 minutes. Void’s package names were just annoying at first, and I was missing a bunch of random -devel packages. I’m positive that now that I have all my dotfiles setup, understand the package manager (and have my aliases!), and have done it two or three times I could do it just as fast as Arch. The initial TUI install is definitely easier than Arch, and if you want to you can still do the install the “chroot” way. I’ve had numerous issues with Steam/Proton that I’ve yet to fix (but I’ll update the article when I find them with solutions), and those package names really are a pain. But otherwise, I have had no driver issues on laptops (Dell and Thinkpad) or my workstation (HP Z420). I use Radeon graphics cards, so I’m not quite sure how the Nvidia install would go, but I doubt any more complicated. The largest issue really was the package names, and even that is just an annoyance.

So?

So I think you should give it a try. If you’re feeling adventurous, try out the muscl build, otherwise use glibc. Runit is a lightweight easy to use init system, xbps is quite powerful and fast, and Void Linux is an interesting balance of minimalism and ease of use. There are options available with a DE (if that’s your thing, or if the computer is for a family member), and otherwise you can do whatever you want with it!

If you’d like to see some more articles about Void Linux, or have questions, feel free to shoot me an email at [email protected] or at Twitter (although I’ll be using Nitter :D) @TheCatster14.