Gentoo Linux review
Gentoo Linux is a barebones distribution that – by contrast with most major Linux platforms – makes no attempt to shield users from the technical workings of the operating system. A standard installation boots into a text-only, single-user environment, providing a minimal set of software, including a BASH shell, Perl and Python scripting environments and, of course, the GNU Compiler Collection. All other components of the OS, including the graphical user interface, are left for the user to compile and configure, typically via Gentoo’s source-based Portage package manager.
This approach has certain benefits. Since most software on a Gentoo system is built from source code, a wide range of architectures can be supported, and users can specify hardware-specific optimisations at compile time for the best possible performance. On a modern desktop, with multiple cores and gigabytes of memory, the benefit may not be noticeable in everyday use. However, on older systems, laptops, embedded devices, and just about any system that has limited resources, Gentoo can run faster than a stock distro.
What’s more, since only the packages you choose are installed, Gentoo systems typically have a lot less running on them. Not only does this mean a smaller resource footprint, it also makes a properly configured Gentoo system much more secure.
Gentoo is a meta-distribution, in which most components are selected by the user, so there’s no bundled software as such, although all the major desktops and popular applications can be downloaded in Gentoo-friendly packages. Plus, since it’s a constantly updated rolling release, version numbers aren’t meaningful either. The release schedule of roughly once a week aims to maintain a happy middle ground between the bleeding-edge and the outdated, so you can expect to see support for new features and modern wireless chipsets, without having to worry about buggy beta software.
Gentoo’s extremely high level of configurability brings caveats, though. Compiling everything can leave you with a system that will run only on specific hardware. There’s also the burden of compiling and installing your own software updates when needed. Complicated packages can take as long as 30 minutes to compile on today’s hardware.
There’s also the hazard known in the community as “ricing”, where conflicting or inappropriate optimisations are chosen by inexperienced users. The result is bespoke binaries that run slower than their generic counterparts.
If you want to give Gentoo a try without getting your hands dirty, there’s a live DVD, which offers a selection of desktop managers and popular software. However, there’s no direct way to install the live system permanently to your hard disk – and doing so would miss the point anyway. If you want a system that’s ready to go, Gentoo isn’t for you.
All the same, we wouldn’t necessarily discourage people from trying Gentoo. The extensive online documentation will guide you through the process of setting up your system, and you’ll learn a lot along the way. And if you’re already an expert user, Gentoo makes a fine foundation for a “Linux from scratch” system.
Main wiki contributors: Bleedingsamurai, Ynot 82.
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