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I'll agree with howard's assessment that gentoo's a good 'learning distro'
..A few years back it had been years since i'd done a (very little) unix and linux work at uni. i'd not done any programming at all in the intervening years, not much outside OS experience outside mac/windows really, I *dabbled* with beos/haiku and m68k netbsd on some old macs, but got a bit frustrated with them.
but i decided to install gentoo on an old g4 powerbook
....and, as stated, had to compile from scratch. was a little tricky, but learnt a bit about all the relevant config files that you *certainly can* avoid much of the time if you go through the gui install route of a lot of other systems. I wouldn't want to have to do it regularly though without good reason -setting compile time options to eek better performance from long in the tooth hardware isn't something i feel the need to do generally. kde compilation was a bit of a pain though, had teething problems.
around the same time, i played with ubuntu for a bit
-found it 'boring' really, and certainly on the machines i tried it on, the gnome interface was horribly laggy, lots of window tearing -i'd like to say it was x windows issues- but some other distros fedora, suse never seemed as bad.
MY VOTES FOR NOWADAYS THOUGH (simply coz i've tried them in the last few weeks and days ) are:
Slacko-puppy -for old machines.
and Linux-mint Debian Edition, XFCE flavour -for newer machines without any high-end graphics.
(beats hell out of Ubuntu IMHO)
And, leaving linux for a minute, I REALLY like the BSD based FreeNAS, once you get used to installing the jail PBI, and jailed plugins, e.g. subsonic.
An ARM version of FreeNAS for a sheevaplug or the like,, I might wet myself a little for. Edited 2012-10-22 15:33 UTC