Gentoo : First thoughts after the switch

I’ve recently switched to the Gentoo Linux distribution (mostly to experiment with this Linux distro) and I don’t regret it so far. This post is about my first impressions about Gentoo.

Gentoo installation

Gentoo is more suitable for Linux power users than to the beginner mostly because of the installation process. Indeed, getting Gentoo installed on your computer is not as straight forward as you might expect it to be, even if you can get it to work by following the excellent documentation (which is very extensive and, in my opinion, one of the best assets of Gentoo).

Basically, installing Gentoo is performing manually what other distributions have an installer do for you. One might find it a bit tedious, but you do it just once and you get the extra bonus of getting more knowledge about your setup. For example you’ll be guided through building your own Linux Kernel, something most basic users would rather die than do, but your kernel will then exactly fit your hardware and needs.

If you are a basic linux user, it might take you a few tries or more to get it working and you might have to perform adjustments afterwards, as you get more knowledge about your system.

If you are an experienced linux user, you might just have fun.

Installing more software

Another difference with mainstream distros : at the end of the installation process, you have a barebone linux installation. You won’t get that fancy KDE/Gnome/Whatever desktop you might be expecting. You mostly have to already know what you need / want (with or without Xorg ? Which windows manager ? with KDE or Gnome or none ? and so on)

The packaging is also way different from mainstream distros. Portage (the package manager of Gentoo) is one of the main features of Gentoo. Basically it will automatically download, patch, build and install additional software for you. Why build and not just use binary packages as other distros you might ask ? One of the answers is that mainstream distros have to build the packages so that they will work on most machines. In Gentoo, you can modify parameters that will modify the building of the packages (either on a by package basis or system wide) so that you get another chance to customize your installation.

You can decide that, on a system wide basis, you’ll use Gnome but not KDE, or to use specific features of your CPU to further optimize the built software and so on.

Don’t worry about that “building packages” thing, Portage is really easy to use. Installing a package is still done by running a simple command and all the download/patch/build/install is done automatically by Portage.

On the other hand, the building itself can be tedious and might take some time on slower machines.

Use it or not ?

I’d suggest Gentoo if :

  • You are an experienced Linux user and you want a finely tuned Linux installation
  • You already have a basic Linux experience and you want to learn more with the help of the available documentations
  • You have an older machine and you want a small footprint installation to run on it

I’d advise against Gentoo if :

  • You’ve never used Linux
  • You have no interest in computer stuff
  • You just want an easy to install and to use general purpose distribution

5 thoughts on “Gentoo : First thoughts after the switch”

  1. “You have an older machine and you want a small footprint installation to run on it”

    That sounds like overkill since older machines have low RAM and not so powerful CPUs.

  2. @Greg : that was pretty much the point. On such a low powered machine, you have the possibility to easily fine tune your gentoo installation so that you don’t run a single extra service, so that your packages will be specially optimized at compile time for your CPU, so that your kernel won’t have any extra driver or feature you don’t need and so on…

    If your machine is to slow to compile the packages in a fair amount of time, you can still build them as binary packages on a fast machine and install them on the slow one.

    @kyanh : archlinux is definitely something I’ll try at some point 🙂

  3. One reason I’d always recommend Gentoo is the excellent user forums. I’ve rarely come across an issue that could not be resolved by a few minutes searching on there!

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