The Gentoo Experience

So it’s been almost a year that I’ve switched to Gentoo Linux, and I’d like to share my experience with those that are curious and want to try it.

Gentoo Linux has a reputation in the Linux community for being the most hardcore Linux distribution there is, second to perhaps “Linux from Scratch”. This reputation is kind of well deserved because a Gentoo Linux user is not your typical Linux user. Essentially a Gentoo Linux user commits to building the entire operating system from scratch, including compiling the Linux kernel and customizing every little detail. Initial installation as a new Gentoo user can take some time as you are learning new things but eventually after you figured everything out it doesn’t take that long.

The main experience with Gentoo is all about learning, you get to learn basically a little bit of everything. If you are the kind of person that usually loses patience when something doesn’t work right, then Gentoo is probably not for you. But on the other hand, if you’re willing to invest the time to learn Gentoo then you will be greatly rewarded.

How will you be rewarded? Well that answer is relative. For example if you use a distribution like Ubuntu and you plugged in a brand new hardware, there’s a chance that the hardware might not work because support for that hardware is not available in the kernel.

Perhaps your hardware requires a special firmware that needs to be downloaded manually and built into the kernel or may be a special FLAG needs to be set in the config file when you are manually compiling the kernel. If you have experience with Gentoo, you probably would be familiar with all these stuff and perhaps can fix the issues on your own for the most part. Thing is compiling the kernel is not as intimidating as it seems, as a Gentoo Linux user you get so used to compiling kernel that it becomes a habit. Sort of like drinking your morning coffee 🙂

Anyway, the point is investing the time in learning Gentoo is worth it. If you are using an Open Source Operating System like Linux, sooner or later you will definitely run into issues. That is just the nature of how things work in the Linux world 🙂

The skills that you pick up along the way as a full time Gentoo user are quite useful, so you can pretty much debug the hardware/software issues on your own without relying too much on the developers for support. Not to mention Gentoo forum is one of the best places for getting support. I’ve seen a lot of distributions for example Arch Linux where the community is very strict, you need to be careful when posting in Arch Linux forums as there’s strict rules related to forum etiquette and in general they are not as friendly to newbies. Compared to that Gentoo Linux community is welcoming and friendly to newbies.

Personally I’ve learned a lot using Gentoo, it made Linux fun for me again. At some point (in my early years as a Linux user) I was kind of disappointed with the Linux community because I was unable to debug and fix my hardware / software issues on distributions like Ubuntu. Filing bug reports and expecting them to get fixed was taking too long and I can’t really blame the developers because  most of the contribution towards Open Source software is done by people on their free time and a lot of them don’t get paid for doing so. As I gained more experience I realized that it’s not actually them to blame but my mindset or to be more specific my lack of knowledge.

Linux is fun, it is exciting for the advanced users who have invested years learning it and have figured everything out. But at the same time it can also be quite frustrating and intimidating for the beginners. It is just a question of how much time you are willing to invest, either way it is worth it.

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Gentoo Linux Review

So it’s been a month that I’ve switched to Gentoo Linux. I must say that I gave it a very long and careful thought. I was intimidated at first with the idea of even spelling the name of Gentoo Linux and there is a reason for that. Thing is from the very beginning, since the day I first made the switch from Windows to Linux a thought was planted in my brain that Gentoo is the most hardcore Linux distribution there is…but as I learned that is far from the truth.

Basically you compile everything from source, it’s not like a traditional binary Linux distribution. You build it from scratch, step by step and you decide what and how you want things to be built. The end result is that you get a very highly customized Linux operating system that is fine tuned for your hardware and all the software is built on that same machine as well as optimized for your architecture. Not only does it result in a boost of speed but the main benefit I saw using Gentoo was in the customization of software using what they call USE flags.

USE flags are a pretty interesting concept. Let’s say you want to install a software like Firefox. You can see what USE flags it uses and then you can add or remove the flags  to enable or disable certain features like whether it should use pulseaudio or alsa for audio playback. Whether Firefox should have native language support for your country built in or if you want to add gstreamer support to have native video decoding capabilities. There’s hundreds of different USE flags depending on the type of software you are interested in and they can all be tweaked to suit your needs. This customization option is pretty much unavailable on a binary distro unless you are compiling stuff manually which for the most part can break a lot of stuff in your system. Thus this makes Gentoo a really attractive Linux distribution for experienced Linux users.

Anyway for me personally it took me two weeks to have a fully working system with all issues fixed from touchpad to suspend to ram, audio, etc. now working perfectly fine. It was a rather interesting learning experience for me as for the first time I learned how to compile the Linux kernel from scratch…actually I had to do it 5-6 times to have a fully working setup.

If I had to reinstall Gentoo from scratch may be I would have to give it a second thought because it is quite time consuming. Most of your time is spent reading and learning from the wiki, very less time on actually doing something trivial. But once you have figured it all out you know what to do so the subsequent installations should be much faster. A good idea is to always clone the image of your Gentoo install and back it up elsewhere once you have figured everything out.

Is Gentoo for you? Well if you can set aside time for it and you have the patience and the will power to learn then it is definitely worth it. Personally there were times while setting up Gentoo when I felt hopeless, frustrated and was about to give up. But the burning desire in me to cross over to the other side and be with the elites of the Linux world kept me going. Some of the most talented and smartest people I know in the Linux community use Gentoo and you will never understand what Gentoo is like until you have actually installed it. I think if you are a serious Linux user and you just want to learn how all the underlying parts of the Linux operating system fit together then this learning experience is definitely worth it.

After having used Gentoo, I can never look at another Linux distribution the same way again. On my previous Arch Linux install (on my netbook) I had issues with browsers like Chromium and Firefox, they used to crash randomly especially during video playback but after having installed Gentoo it didn’t even crash once. Smooth, stable, fast in my opinion the Gentoo experience is second to none.