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Gentoo 12 review – the product of an established community

Say “Gentoo” and most people think of a source code based DIY distro. However, this is a pre-built desktop system that comes as 3.4GB disk image. Michael Reed takes it for a spin…

Pros: Good community behind it. Lots of desktops and applications.
A good way of demonstrating desktop Linux.
Cons: Beyond using it as a demonstration appliance, you’d have to be a
Gentoo expert. A bit unwieldy for every day use.
Gentoo Homepage

First released in 2002 and based around source code rather than pre-compiled binary packages, Gentoo has become famous for the flexibility it offers. However, the Gentoo live DVD is a different beast altogether, leveraging existing Gentoo technology to provide a ready-made desktop that boots from removable media such as a DVD or a USB flash drive. It’s a comprehensive system with a wide variety of applications along with a selection of the current desktops. The disc includes current versions of Gnome 3, Xfce, E16, Fluxbox, LXDE and XBMC and KDE4, and there is a distinct bias towards KDE applications and desktop applications in general.

If you’ve used a recent build of KDE4, you’ll already have an idea of what to expect from the KDE4 desktop. As with most of the desktops environments on the disc, the backdrop contains icons for: the bug tracking system, installing Adobe Flash, a link to the Gentoo IRC channel, a link to the support forums and the user handbook. Those icons give a clue to one of the advantages of the lineage of this distro: it’s the product of an established community.

With several desktops and such a huge set of installed applications, this thing’s a monster. Exploring the application launcher confirms what we expected, this application load-out is extremely broad. On the one hand, this means that this might be a viable complete desktop system in situations in which adding additional applications via the package manager is inconvenient. On the other hand, there is a lot to wade through, including a lot of smaller, slightly obscure KDE applications (KBruch, the fractions tutor anyone?). Amongst the more mainstream applications, there’s quite a lot of redundancy and overlap. For example, there are at least five fully fledged web browsers, and this holds true for every category of application.

There is no GUI hard disk installer included with this live DVD, and this fact won’t surprise long-term Gentoo users as even the regular distribution relies on manual installation from the command line. It is, however, possible to carry out an installation from any working Linux installation, including the Gentoo live DVD. The fact remains that the lack of a GUI installer is at odds with what people have come to expect from a live distro.

The way in which it handles persistent storage of user data is an important feature of a live distro. Again as there is no GUI for doing this in Gentoo, you’ll have to set up the partitions and create the needed file by hand. Although, the location for the file is quite flexible. Once persistence is up and running, it should be possible customise the distro using Gentoo’s Portage package management system that fetches source code packages ready for compilation. Frankly, it’s for time-served Gentoo enthusiasts only and probably not the intended focus of the live DVD.

A live system from the developers of one of the most techy DIY distributions was always going to be a strange animal. It might sound a bit mean-spirited to point it out, but although Gentoo is a well established distro, it’s not as well known as some of the others. Consequently, if you want to install it or begin to modify it, you have to be familiar with the the Gentoo way of doing things. It’s important to remember that in the case of a desktop distro, you might, for example, be forced to give a non-expert instructions over the phone, and that just isn’t going to work in the case of Gentoo.

Verdict: 3/5
In theory, this live DVD image could be used to provide a Linux desktop on portable media, but its bulk and relative inflexibility mean that it wouldn’t be our first choice in that role. It is however a first class portable demonstrator of what desktop Linux can offer. Existing Gentoo experts will probably be pleased with it.