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I followed the same path you did... Gentoo was my introduction to Linux on the desktop (2003-2005) and I ended up giving up on it not because of Portage and breakage, but that setting up things like sound servers and automounting was just getting to be a major hassle, that and the pressure to keep updated and compiling all the time. Went to Ubuntu, and nearly made a fool out of myself trying to tweak everything the Gentoo way...
On the other hand, at the same time (and for a few months after I switched my own machine) I was maintaining a very old, very slow computer for general use around the department. It was a Pentium II 333 MHz machine, but with a bit of care it was usually running faster than the 1.8 GHz Pentium IV computers we had running Windows XP.
It's not the compile-time optimizations that made it fast, it's that Gentoo allowed me to be very selective about what software I installed. I used a kernel that only had built-in drivers for the hardware in the machine, no sound system, XFCE 4.2, Firefox, OpenOffice (which was admittedly dog slow) and very few other things. Gentoo is great if you know exactly what you want the computer to do (and probably even better if you can just set it up and forget about it)
The other thing I will say for Gentoo is, if you want to compile a newer version of a program (say, for beta testing or because you need it and it's not in a repository), it was much easier to do so on a Gentoo system, since you were guaranteed to have a compiler and all the header files for everything on your system.
I hope Gentoo gets out of its current slump (granted, since I haven't heard much about it lately it must have abated or entered a less-newsworthy phase), and I hope Paludis works. I remember reading about Paludis back when I used Gentoo (so this is not a new thing either), and I remember Ciaran being... well, acerbic and opinionated, arguing with the other developers. Hopefully things have changed for the better since then.
Heh, these days setting up sound servers and automounting is done for you quite automagically (well, with the proper use flags that is :p ).
But I can remember in the beginning. Back then automounting worked rather randomly.
gentoo is quite newsworthy but the very rolling structure of gentoo means releases don't make much sense and as such there aren't any of those to talk about. But that doesn't mean gentoo isn't taking big strides constantly. It is just done without fanfare.
The Fedora and Ubuntu-devs tend to scream out loud everytime they fix a detail, gentoo-devs just post a reply in a bug-report when a detail is fixed. And then we all rejoice