Oh Gentoo

Well it’s been a couple of months now since the start of Experiment 2.0 and I’ve had plenty of time to learn about Gentoo, see its strengths and… sit waiting through its weaknesses. I don’t think Gentoo is as bad as everyone makes it out to be, in fact, compared to some other distributions out there, Gentoo doesn’t look bad at all.

Now that the experiment is approaching its end I figured it would be a good time to do a quick post about my experiences running Gentoo as a day-to-day desktop machine.


Gentoo is exactly what you want it to be, nothing more. Sure there are special meta-packages that make it easy to install things such as the KDE desktop, but the real key is that you don’t need to install anything that you don’t want to. As a result Gentoo is fast. My startup time is about 10-20 seconds and, if I had the inclination to do so, could be trimmed down even further through optimization.

Packages are also compiled with your own set of custom options and flags so you get exactly what you need, optimized for your exact hardware. Being a more advanced (see expert) oriented distribution it will also teach you quite a bit about Linux and software configuration as a whole.


Sadly Gentoo is not without its faults. As mentioned above Gentoo can be whatever you want it to be. The major problem with this strength in practice is that the average desktop user just wants a desktop that works. When it takes days of configuration and compilation just to get the most basic of programs installed it can be a major deterrent to the vast majority of users.

Speaking of compiling programs, I find this aspect of Gentoo interesting from a theoretical perspective but I honestly have a hard time believing that it makes enough of a difference to make it worth sitting through the hours days of compiling it takes just to get some things installed. Its so bad that I actually haven’t bothered to re-sync and update my whole system in over 50 days for fear that it would take forever to re-compile and re-install all of the updated programs and libraries.

Worse yet even when I do have programs installed they don’t always play nicely with one another. Gentoo offers a package manager, portage, but it still fails at some dependency resolution – often times making you choose between uninstalling previous programs just to install the new one or to not install the new one at all. Another example of things being more complicated than they should be is my system sound. Even though I have pulseaudio installed and configured my system refuses to play audio from more than one program at a time. These are just a few examples of problems I wouldn’t have to deal with on another distribution.


Well, it’s been interesting but I will not be sticking with Gentoo once this experiment is over. There are just too many little things that make this more of an educational experience than a real day-to-day desktop. While I certainly have learned a lot during this version of the experiment, at the end of the day I’d rather things just work right the first time.


  1. I had the same experience, and I have tried for years, believe me, because I wanted to prove to myself that I could deal with it. I could deal with it, but looking back, it was mostly a waste of time. That said, I have learned quite a few things in the process.

    I started using Gentoo in the early days (around 2003), and it seemed quite impressive at first.
    Over time, I could not be convinced.

    The major flaw of Gentoo is the package manager. Installations often do not work, especially for complex compilations (e.g., openoffice) and it seems a waste of time to figure out that openoffice did not install (after hours of compilation; interesting complex programs take long to compile, even with relatively fast processsors).

    You mention that you did not install things out of worry for the fatal or endless installation. I had the same. I also noticed that many Gentoo packages are not the latest.

    If you are keen of tinkering, Arch might be a good alternative. It works surprisingly well, and if it goes wrong, you won’t have much time wasted.

  2. Being one of very few source code-based distributions, and a rolling release distribution as well, Gentoo is definitely not for beginners or for those who want very quick installation of packages. That said, for people who do want to get under the hood or who want fine-grained control of their Linux installation, it is an excellent distribution. However, it does take a long time to learn how to use Gentoo properly.

    I find Gentoo’s package manager Portage highly usable, and compilation of source code on my Core i7 laptop is fast enough to make installation of most packages fast and painless. However, on older machines it certainly can take a long time for the bigger packages to build or for e.g. the several hundred packages of KDE to install, but I personally don’t regard that a show stopper given the benefits Gentoo provides.

    Portage has progressed a lot over the last five years, and these days I have very little trouble when installing packages: Portage resolves many blockers automatically or tells me what I need to do (such as add or remove a USE flag) in order to install a package. The fact that Portage is powerful and very flexible is borne out by the fact that it is the package manager used by the developers of Google’s Chrome OS (see e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Chrome_OS).

    I would never recommend Gentoo to a newcomer to Linux or to someone who wants quick installation of pre-built (binary) packages, or indeed to someone who does not want to have to tinker from time to time. However, for someone with several years experience using Linux who wants to learn more about how Linux works and does not mind tinkering, Gentoo can be very rewarding.

  3. I was a Gentoo user on PPC (NAS) and on my primary laptops an x24 and then a T61 (x64) ThinkPad for about 4 years, I had this idea that It was the only way to _really_ understand Linux… looking back it was overkill…

    Gentoo really is a powerful distribution…. but if you don’t run:

    emerge –sync && emerge -DavNut world && emerge –depclean && revdep-rebuild

    like once a week _at least_ you wander off the Gentoo brick road…. it won’t be long until you end up in a world of pain… In some cases if a dependency falls out of the portage tree… and you can’t find a suitable overlay… You may end up very sorry indeed…

    More than a few times I could not upgrade via portage. Granted there may well be an arcane way of manually compiling your way out of the hole, but deeper the hole the more your arse hurts… after more than a few long compiling sessions rebuilding your box… you are left with the distinct feeling the Gentoo package managers have gang raped you in some type of cyber jailhouse showers… I just hurts too much to keep picking up the Gentoo soap …

    Like me, you may end up deciding that life it too short for Gentoo.

    After some rehab using Arch Linux… I have moved on… I have young loving family, the sun is shining and I run Debian Linux. There is life after Gentoo. 😉

  4. I must disagree on what comes to arch linux. For me it has been much bigger trouble as it’s hostile towards any proprietary software (including drivers). Developer are more concerned about if the software is not the bleeding edge than stability.

    For me Gentoo is quite stable distribution and allows great flexibility for programs. For example you could quite easily change java version used and binary versions of display drivers doesn’t break anything if you install it. For example in ubuntu, these things usually overwrite some system binaries and therefore uninstalling can’t be done without breaking things (need to re-install some packages). Actually for me, almost every program seems to install and work nicely when you have upgraded your system correctly. Maybe problem for most have been that they have missed some step from update procedure that’s usually done automatically in most distributions.

    You’re right that gentoo needs quite a lot of maintenance in short term, but as you get used to it, you are able routinely to update system without bigger problems. Actually dist-upgrades usually have quite much problems determining how to migrate old configurations to new version of the distribution, which might cause user to want to re-install the whole distribution if configurations tends to be too far away from what user wanted. Sure, world is not perfect and in the gentoo it’s also pain in the ass to resolve how to migrate to new configuration, but at least user can keep track on what configurations have been changed.

    I can’t recommend this distribution to most of the users out there, but some nerdy guys who are willing to read manuals before getting started, this might be one good solution.

    And main rules how to not get in to trouble with gentoo: update regularly (same thing BTW seems to be in arch). when updating the system, use command: “emerge –sync&&emerge -uavD world&&emerge –depclean -av&&revdep-rebuild”. Don’t also try to go too experimental, so try to keep in software marked as stable, and it’s usually good idea to use global use flags if alteration is needed.

    I have used gentoo, debian, ubuntu, arch and centos. All has it’s good and bad things. Debian is hostile towards binary software (even flash has to be upgraded separately), ubuntu hits you hard if you don’t use the defaults configured, arch is unstable if you have any binary drivers and centos is stable but most software are like 10 years old.

  5. This is funny!..

    I mean from story, down to last comment, its all so funny.

    First, I am and was no way this technical as OP, yet two years ago, PulseAudio sound worked on my Gentoo install everywhere.

    Then, to reinstall whole KDE-based desktop system from scratch, took exactly 12 hours on quadcore athlon II x4. For todays measures, its around G2020, a CPU for 40$.

    The OS was pretty nice, and compilation speeds were pretty good (you can update system in background, you know?). The system is stable and sleek.

    Configuration — I don’t know weed what commenters were smoking, but there are at least 4 automated configuration management and migration tools. One of them even manages to outbeat Debian (yes) and Ubuntu. It is able to detect and differentiate upstream changes from user changes and automerge the new config.

    That said, OP did not test Gentoo the amount he should have. Gentoo is not some “funhouse” like Sabayon, Mint etc.

    The true problems with Gentoo are increasing amount of bureacracy; a bit wrong approach on portage tree; and a necessary rewrite of emerge. All of this was taken care by “Exherbo” system.

    The need to have basic desktop is also valid, but not because you “need it fast” or “spend hours compiling”. This is pure lie. The reason is when you need basic desktop and don’t see the need for that amount of control equipment in your case. That was why I quit using Gentoo as main distribution, yet I still my heart gets warm when I hear that word.

    … And Arch? I quit using it after 5 months, straight after Gentoo. Having mostly unstable, way insecure repo of multitude of same packages just with different build configurations (USE flags say hello here), that tend to break with high probability on upgrade – was definately not my horse to ride. For me, Arch was way more time demanding than Gentoo. But its wiki – its completely different reality.

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