March 21, 2006

My desktop OS: Gentoo Linux

Author: Joseph Quigley

As a Linux newbie, Red Hat Linux 9 impressed me. When that excitement wore off, I jumped cold turkey into Slackware Linux. I tried Ubuntu but it was too slow for my low-end desktop, a 32-bit 1.58GHz Sempron 2300 with 512MB of RAM and no swap file. By this time I was a competent Linux user who enjoyed using the console. I wanted to go beyond distros designed to be user-friendly because I found them to be almost always slow on low-end systems. Gentoo Linux's speed, power, and many application and configuration choices made it an appealing choice for me.Gentoo Linux is fast because every installed package is compiled for the user's hardware. Most packages are source code, but binaries are becoming more common and more popular, as they are quicker to install.

The Gentoo installation process was almost flawless; the exception was that I need the pci-utils package, but the Gentoo Handbook never mentioned the need to install them. I managed to get a response from someone on the #gentoo channel on irc.freenode.net who pointed me in the right direction.

Gentoo Linux is all about choices. Do I want VLC media player compiled with Win32 codecs and Xine or MPlayer with AAC support? Or do I want to scrap that and go with open source formats? Gentoo uses the powerful Portage package manager to install and remove programs. Much of Portage's power comes from USE flags that tell Portage what dependencies to compile a program with. It has a front end called Emerge which the guide recommends for installing programs. To install Xine with AAC support, you can add the use flag and program to /etc/portage/package.use or the command line (USE="aac" emerge xine). Gentoo's customization abilities look attractive when compared to Ubuntu's two choices of take it or leave it.

After I got my base Gentoo system set up, I decided to install KDE 3.5.0 and GNOME Display Manager (GDM). I added the kde and gnome keywords to my /etc/make.conf file and then typed emerge kde && emerge gdm. Portage then downloaded GDM, ran the configure script, and started the compile process. The compilation took about 33 hours on my low-end system. Portage calculated all the dependencies, and I just sat back and browsed the Internet from Links until Xorg finished compiling. Portage allows more than one emerge, which is great if you don't need to use your computer for awhile but really slows it down if you try to emerge more than one package on a low-end system. I was impressed that I could watch a DVD and compile KDE simultaneously with few interruptions or glitches.

In three hours, I got a firewall and an intrusion detection system configured and running. I set up a Bootsplash with a little research. I got 3D acceleration running in five minutes on a Radeon 9200SE video adapter. I then played Trackballs and Tux Racer while Portage compiled Python and Blackdown Java SDK. Both of the games' frame rate didn't go down much during the compile. I did find some quirks with ATI proprietary drivers that improperly render some sky and sand in Trigger. I still have not found a solution.

I didn't have trouble getting my chip reader to work, as HAL and D-BUS detected it perfectly. However, I still don't have a working printer driver for my Canon Pixma 1500; luckily, printing isn't very important to me.

With a little bit of maintenance I can keep my system up-to-date or on the bleeding edge by using the command emerge --update world. The community has a Web site devoted to installing packages, and has a nice-sized wiki for questions such as how to get Google Earth running under WINE or how to update an extremely large system.

For those of us on low-end systems, Gentoo Linux's speed is astounding. If you have a higher-end system, you won't be disappointed either. A Gentoo machine could easily become your favorite graphics workstation, Web server, or programming workstation.

I'm very satisfied with the power Gentoo Linux gives me. It's a distro of power.

What desktop OS do you use every day? Write an article of less than 1,000 words telling us what you use and why. If we publish it, we'll pay you $100. (Send us a query first to be sure we haven't already published a story on your favorite OS or have one in hand.) In recent weeks, we've covered SimplyMEPIS, Xandros, Mac OS X, Fedora Core 3, Ubuntu, White Box Enterprise Linux, Mandriva PowerPack 2006, Slackware, SUSE, GRML, and Kanotix.

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