Gentoo vs the Noob: A Newbie’s Gentoo Review

I am not a seasoned Linux user. I am not command line veteran (unless you count DOS way back in the day). In fact, let’s face it, I am a noob (newbie, nooblar, n00b, etc). For awhile I have been looking at the Gentoo distro hungrily. I have wanted to install it, considered installing it, even downloaded the isos, but I always chickened out before doing it. One look at the installation guide and I would always lose my nerve. However, about two weeks ago I finally got myself together and took the plunge. I popped in my Gentoo 1.4_r2 CD and decided to give it a whirl. I thought there was no way I would really ever succeed, but the results were surprising.The Beginning:
Click for a larger version The install process for Gentoo is infamous. The documentation is intimidating, and it isn’t uncommon to hear stories of people working for months to get this distro installed. I knew if I wanted the slightest chance of success I would need to read up on the process and be prepared to ask for help. This leads me to my first piece of advice on Gentoo. BE PREPARED! This is no Redhat. There is no simple installer to hold your hand. This is scary for most people, myself included. But, if you prepare properly it probably won’t be that bad. The first step to preparation is to print out the install guide. Staple this thing together and keep it at your desk throughout the install process. I made some dumb mistakes that I could have avoided if I checked the install guide more carefully. However, I got antsy and tried to rush through things… don’t make the same mistake. The second key piece of advice is to use the forums. The Gentoo forums are some of the best technical forums I have ever had the privilege of taking part in. The people are polite, intelligent, and helpful. I would recommend browsing the installation forum for a bit before starting your install just to get an idea of some frequent problems that arise. It never hurts to be informed.

Getting Started:
Once I had my documentation printed I decided to jump right in and get started. When it comes to installing Gentoo you have three basic choices or “stages” from which you can start. Stage 1 is the typical starting point. This is where you “bootstrap” your system yourself. It offers the ultimate in customizablitly, and is supposed to take about two to three hours to get through. I passed on that. Stage 2 starts you out with your system already bootstrapped, and this is where I elected to start (stage 3 puts you even farther along, there is information about stage 3 in the installation guide for those that wish to research it).

The Gentoo installation starts by setting up your partitions. There is no easy graphical way to do this. Everything is done with a few command line tools. My partitions were already setup, but I checked the applications out anyways just to see how they worked. These will be usable to most people with a little bit of patience and the willingness to be patient and read the instructions.

Seeing as I was already partitioned and ready to go I went right on with following the instructions in the documentation. This is a fairly straight forward process. I started the “core” system installing while I went ahead and went to class. Upon my return home I found that everything had completed, and I was ready to begin the next step. This is where things got interesting. As I said before, it is important to pay attention to the documentation and follow the steps IN ORDER. Unfortunately I didn’t. Instead I opted to skip straight to setting up Grub without compiling a kernel. In retrospect it should have seemed strange to me that I hadn’t done this, but for whatever reason it didn’t occur to me. I set up Grub as per the instructions and rebooted.

Upon completion of the reboot the Grub bootloader appeared on my monitor. I thought I had it made. However, selecting Linux yielded an error that I couldn’t interpret. Off to the forums I went with my Windows XP machine and it wasn’t long before someone helped me figure out the problem. I got a kernel compiled and setup and my next boot was gold.

When you finally get booted to the kernel you are in a pretty sparse environment. This is a basic command line with very few apps installed by default. However, this is one of the strong points of Gentoo in my opinion. I just found it to be a lot of fun to select my own apps, desktop environment, etc. I am used to just taking the default, but here there was no “default”. I wasn’t just building a Gentoo system, I was building customized system exactly how I wanted it. This is a liberating experience, and the best part is that it wasn’t that hard. Portage takes care of the worst of it for you. For those of you who aren’t aware, portage is Gentoo’s version of a “package manager.” However, unlike most other systems portage downloads everything for you and compiles it from source. This allows you to easily develop a completely optimized operating system, made to work specifically with your hardware, and have fun doing it.

Click for a larger version I more or less setup my desktop following the examples in the Desktop Setup Guide at The guide explains how to setup a system with either KDE or GNOME. If you read the guide and think “that sounds easy,” well you’re right, it is. I emerged xfree and configured it using the built in configuration program. Then I emerged GNOME (this takes awhile). Eventually I also got around to emerging enlightenment and fluxbox. They all worked “out of the box” with no intervention on my part. This was a relief as I was ready to get off the command line for awhile. It should be noted that KDE and GNOME come exactly as the development teams intended them. I much prefer this to getting Redhat’s crippled KDE or SuSE’s ricidulous GNOME. I have included screenshots of both my GNOME and KDE desktops to give you an idea of how they look.

Is It Worth It:
Those of you who currently use easier to install operating systems probably wonder if Gentoo could possibly worth such a long install. Well, I have been using it for two weeks, and I can already say that I am hooked on Gentoo. Gentoo may not be the easiest distro to set up, but by going through the Gentoo install process I learned how Linux works. I learned how to edit my config files by hand. I learned how to setup xfree from scratch, and I learned how to make alsa work on my own. Before using Gentoo, I had never compiled a kernel; I rarely installed programs from source, and I was more or less ignorant as to the real machinery beneath the GUI tools I was using in Redhat, SuSE, and the other distributions I had tried. Now, I am not saying I have become some sort of guru, but I am more than comfortable being dropped on a command line, now. I have no problem doing things like setting up the fstab myself, running the dhcp script by hand if dhcp doesn’t start correctly, or loading specific modules that didn’t load on boot. When I first saw my fresh new GNOME desktop load up I felt a glowing sense of pride. Something I never felt with other distros. When you setup a Gentoo system it is really yours. You earn the desktop you get. It is made for you, by you. I have never enjoyed using Linux so much.

The Breakdown:
This is kind of trite, but I think it is time for a pros and cons breakdown.

— Completely customizable distributions
— Programs compiled optimized for your hardware
— Excellent support from the Gentoo forums
— Portage, my personal favorite method for managing dependencies in any distro
— Free, as in both
— Untainted desktop environments. You get GNOME and KDE the way they were meant to look and behave.

— One of the more difficult installations of any distro I’ve used
— Long compile times, especially on slower machines (I have heard tales of KDE taking over 24 hours for some poor souls to compile)
— Lots of downloading. Broadband is more or less a necessity when you are downloading everything as you install.
— No “true” tech support

I hope you have all enjoyed and learned something from my review. I encourage you, if you have considered Gentoo before, but didn’t try it because you were afraid, don’t let the fear stop you. With a little patience you can get there. Gentoo has honestly solved all of the problems I have with Linux. So called dependency hell is non-existent, and you never have deal with a “crippled” desktop environment. If you haven’t tried Gentoo, I encourage you, take the plunge, and give it a shot. What, besides your RPMs, have you got to lose?

About the author:
Dustin Wilson is a 21 year-old Computer Science major at Kansas State University. He began using Red Hat Linux for a networking class, and has been using various distributions ever since.


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