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Feature: Gentoo

Gentoo's new Secret Sauce is sweet and sour

By Mayank Sharma on May 30, 2007 (8:00:00 AM)

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After several delays, Gentoo finally released version 2007.0, code-named Secret Sauce. Despite the extended period of development, the installable live CD and DVD versions didn't work as they should, thanks to obvious bugs with display drivers. That said, if you discount the live CD and DVD and install Gentoo the manual way it's popular for, the new version is smooth as ice.

Gentoo 2007.0 is available in several formats for various platforms. As per its torrent download statistics, most popular are the live DVD, the live CD, and the minimal CD for x86 and AMD64 platforms. The live CD contains Linux kernel 2.6.19, Xorg 7.2, GNOME 2.16.0, OpenOffice.org 2.1.0, Firefox 2.0.0.3, Thunderbird 1.5.0.10, Evolution 2.8.2.1, and X-Chat and Gaim (now Pidgin) for IRC and instant messaging. The DVD version has everything the CD has, along with KDE 3.5.5, XFCE 4.4.0, GIMP 2.2.14, Abiword 2.4.6, KOffice 1.6.1, and several other applications, tools, and libraries.

I tried the 32-bit DVD and CD versions on a dual-core desktop, a Celeron 1.7GHz desktop with an ATI card, and a Celeron 1.4GHz IBM laptop. Both versions failed to bring up X on the desktop with ATI card. Andrew Gaffney, a Gentoo developer, explains on the project's Bugzilla page that "sometime between 2006.1 and 2007.0 the xorg-server ebuild changed to using video_cards_{mach64,r128,radeon} instead of video_cards_ati, and the default VIDEO_CARDS in the profile was never updated to match. Because of this, none of the ATI drivers got built on the x86/amd64 LiveCD/LiveDVD."

To work around the problem, I manually edited the xorg.conf file to use the no-frills vesa driver. On the ATI box, this worked with the live DVD, but the live CD refused to bring up X. However, the live DVD failed to bring up X even on the laptop with the Intel 855GM chipset using the i810 driver; even the vesa hack didn't work.

The Gentoo Linux Handbook says the live CD and DVD environments should have a link to an offline version of the handbook, along with links to the graphical and command-line Gentoo Linux installers. When I logged into X with the startx command after editing the xorg.conf configuration file to use the vesa driver, all three links were missing. But when I ran the live CD on a virtual machine with VMware 6, I was directly logged into X, and the GNOME desktop had the three links. VMware and other virtualization software use their own minimal graphics card. To my surprise, on the same virtual machine, when I swapped the live CD ISO with the live DVD ISO, X again failed to show up. Again, just as on the Intel laptop, the vesa edit didn't work to get X with the live DVD.

Impressive installer

Installer thumbnail
Click to enlarge
Gentoo's main claim to fame is that its users compile their distribution from source, which results in a system that's optimized for the user's machine. Some time ago, Gentoo started work on an installer, to help administrators reduce time installing Gentoo on multiple machines by using settings from one installation to automate installation on other machines. It used the install profile from one install on another machine, skipping all the configuration and starting installation.

But faster automated installs were the original goal of the installer. As per its FAQ, the Gentoo Linux Installer (GLI) is now focused on helping relatively inexperienced Linux users install Gentoo. Both the live DVD and CD versions of 2007.0 can be used as network-less installation disks thanks to GLI. The latest version of the installer included in the CD and DVD is far better than its predecessor. I successfully installed Gentoo using both the graphical and command-line versions of the installer.

The installer is still closer to Slackware's or FreeBSD's installer than Ubuntu's or Fedora's, because it doesn't always move cleanly from one operation to the next. At certain stages, such as after setting up partitions or adding mount points, users have to save their settings and go back to the previous menu to continue installation. Because those screens have an OK button, the proper next step may not be apparent to new users. Here, if a user has just set up a partition, clicking OK will take them through the process they've just completed. The Gentoo handbook, which users can find on the desktop, details the installation procedure with screenshots.

People who are used to installing Linux will be comfortable using the installer. It's not only easy to navigate, but also retains the power Gentoo installs are known for. You can still customize your compiler options and set flags for your particular platform.

LiveCD thumbnail
Click to enlarge
But rough edges exist with the installer as well. The installer on the CD refused to complete installation, failing just before the partitioning step. On the laptop, I installed Gentoo using the command-line version of the installer, which installs in a terminal window. While Gentoo was being installed, I went to work on the other machine. When I came back after a few hours, there was no sign of the terminal on the desktop and no message prompting whether the installation had completed or failed. It took a reboot to find out that Gentoo was installed successfully.

Before starting the installation process, the installer asks whether users want to create a file to store information about the choices they make during installation. This file later helps with GLI's original objective of replicating installations on other machine. The file stores all options and settings made during the installation, including creating the partition, which kernel to use, services to start at boot, and user information. It also includes the root and user passwords, but they are both encrypted using the MD5 hash algorithm.

The only installation I attempted that worked without any issues was the one using Gentoo's traditional Stage 1 method via the minimal CD. I selected several packages, including a complete GNOME desktop, on a modest 1.3GHz Celeron desktop with 512MB of RAM and old IDE hard disks. The packages were all fetched from the Internet over a slow 256Kbps Internet connection. It took about a week, which might sound surprising to non-Gentoo users. A Gentoo install first fetches all packages to be installed from the Internet, then compiles them from source. This compiling process can take a lot of time, depending on the processor, the physical RAM, and the hard disks on the system. To reduce this time, Gentoo now encourages users to do a Stage 3 install.

Using Gentoo

Once you've got Gentoo up and running, it's again a mixed experience. The distribution boots quickly and the desktop displays nice icons, themes, and wallpaper. Common applications such as OpenOffice.org and Firefox launch without much delay. But for some strange reason, the installed Gentoo doesn't allow normal users to run any administrative applications. When you try to run an application that requires superuser privileges, such as opening a root shell or changing boot parameters, Gentoo prompts you for the root password, but it won't accept it. On the other hand, if you change to root manually using su -, followed by the root password, you are instantly authenticated.

Thanks to its use of a recent kernel, hardware support in Gentoo is good. Apart from the graphics cards, which were properly detected but didn't have proper drivers, Gentoo 2007.0 recognized and configured all my devices, from PCMCIA wireless cards to USB mice, keyboards, cheap PS2-TO-USB converters, pen drives, and cameras. Gentoo doesn't automount USB devices; to use the devices, you have to connect the device and look for the device address in dmesg, then manually create the mount point and add the appropriate mount information in /etc/fstab. This is a little inconvenient, considering there are a dozen distributions that don't require this labor.

Once a USB storage device is mounted, though, you can view pictures, read PDF files, or listen to MP3s or view AVIs stored on it. Gentoo also plays DVDs, and includes the popular DVD ripper dvd::rip.

Once you've installed the operating system, you can use Gentoo's Portage package management system to add more applications and update your system. These apps will be downloaded over the Internet and compiled from source. The procedure is detailed in the Gentoo manual, which is on the live CD and DVD, but not on the installed system.

If the documents don't help you, ask your questions on the official Gentoo forums. It's actively moderated and useful threads are moved to the top to help others. There are also several mailing lists and IRC channels to dicuss Gentoo on the desktop or particular hardware architectures.

Gentoo developers should be applauded for trying to make Gentoo accessible to users spoiled by see-before-you-try live Linux distributions. Gentoo's GLI isn't only easy to use, but also lets users retain the control and flexibility Gentoo installs are popular for. But the graphics card driver issues in both the CD and DVD mean that a majority of the thousands of people who've downloaded these versions may turn back disappointed, failing to even log into X.

There isn't anything wrong with 2007.0 release itself, but there is a lot of scope for improving the live versions.

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on Gentoo's new Secret Sauce is sweet and sour

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install gksu or gksudo

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 31, 2007 12:45 AM
you must install gksu or gksudo for the run as admin panel to work.

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Re:install gksu or gksudo

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 31, 2007 01:26 AM
And ANOTHER reviewer that gets it all wrong.

Gentoo is not about "optimizing software for your cpu". Gentoo is about learning how your system works. About learning why a certain package has so much dependencies and others don't. About easily living on the cutting edge. About not relying on software packagers for your system.

But not about being user-friendly. Yes, gentoo is not user-friendly. Gentoo tries to learn users how a linux system works and takes you deep down into its core.

And gentoo should stay that way: a distribution for power users, that need the flexibility of portage (easily incorporating a patch, or using a CVS version of a certain package).

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Re:install gksu or gksudo

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 31, 2007 01:36 AM

This shouldn't be discouraging for anybody. I've been running Gentoo for two years with a single install, and it is certainly more current than Ubuntu. I'm using the 2007.0 profile with the latest gcc, glibc, kernel, openoffice, etc. and it runs great (though updating the toolchain [gcc/glibc/linuxheaders/bintools] is not for the faint of heart).

I don't use gnome, but maybe you need to be in the <tt>wheel</tt> group. Perhaps the gentoo install should ask if you want to be in the wheel? It should not be a default, though.

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Re:install gksu or gksudo

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 31, 2007 02:49 AM
A couple of points about your review:

1. Gentoo automounts usb devices flawlessly (e.g. better than Debian). You have to emerge hotplug and add your account to the plugdev group:
% gpasswd -a yourname plugdev

2. You should have no problems with admin. You need to make your user account a member of the wheel group:
% gpasswd -a yourname wheel

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Re:install gksu or gksudo

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 31, 2007 06:49 PM
"Gentoo automounts usb devices flawlessly (e.g. better than Debian). You have to emerge hotplug and add your account to the plugdev group"

There's no need for the distro-griping. Under a recent install of Debian this would happen without any user-setup. hotplug, udev, gnome-volume-manager, etc, would be installed by default.

The software, udev, or hotplug, is identical - so it is hard to believe that Gentoo is in any way "better than Debian".

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Re:install gksu or gksudo

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 31, 2007 07:28 PM
Gentoo is better because, unlike Debian, it does not decide for you. Gentoo's tools and documentation enable the user to make such decisions with minimal effort.

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take a peek at Sabayon

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 31, 2007 06:28 AM
SabayonLinux is a binary distro based on Gentoo. It's actively developed with the latest versions (actually the current release uses kernel 2.6.20). Great hardware support, very solid configuration (default is KDE not GNOME), Beryl configuration is done automatically, and the installer on the live DVD uses RedHat's anaconda, so it's really easy. And becuase it's based on gentoo, it's got access to the full portage tree. I recommend it.

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Re:take a peek at Sabayon

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 01, 2007 06:18 AM
it is good IF you like qt arst kde.. for gnome users it sucks

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Re:take a peek at Sabayon

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 04, 2007 01:40 PM
I agree completely. Sabayon works just fine and gives me almost all the goodies from Gentoo without tearing my hair out trying to figure out what Gentoo is trying to do. The other benefit is that you can then tailor the kernel in Sabayon just the way you want it just like Gentoo. The best of both worlds - the modern Linux world and the Gentoo world as well.

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WHEEL group to allow su-ing

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 31, 2007 02:58 PM
You need to add the user to the wheel group in order to use su.

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Re:WHEEL group to allow su-ing

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 31, 2007 06:17 PM
Thanks for the suggestion, but I did add the user to the wheel group from the installer itself. --Mayank

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none of the NVIDIA drivers got built either.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 31, 2007 04:25 PM
"none of the ATI drivers got built on the x86/amd64 LiveCD/LiveDVD"

Don't worry,... Gentoo is always deliberately broken,...

none of the NVIDIA drivers got built on the x86/amd64 LiveCD/LiveDVD either.

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Mistake to Begin With

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 01, 2007 10:34 PM
I think Gentoo has made a mistake by suddenly trying to be a newbie distro. Its strength has always been in its user base, in that base's knowledge pool. You completely take that away from it by putting it in the hands of newbies.

I don't want to sound "l33t" here, but other distros fit the bill for those users that aren't knowledgeable enough for perform the manual Gentoo install. I realize the Gentoo Installer was originally envisioned for automating the manual install (for admins' ease), but I think they made a mistake by thinking they should also tailor the installer for newbie installs.

I think Gentoo is generating a bad taste in many discussions these days particularly because of install-by-newbie discussions that didn't have pristine results.

Stick to your strengths, Gentoo... it's what made you great in the first place. Don't try to become the McDonald's of Linux... you'll just continue burying your good name in the grease.

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Gentoo doesn't automount USB devices

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 02, 2007 12:02 AM
IF you mean by "Gentoo doesn't automount USB devices" that a gentoo dev doesn't come to your house and mount the device for you, you are correct, but I don't think any distro's include that service.

Gentoo does include software to auto-mount or just click to mount usb devices. Gnome and KDE both include this.

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Stage 1 ? Stage 3

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 02, 2007 12:19 AM
I think you got mixed up about stage 1 and stage 3 installs. A stage 3 install still compiles almost all of the packages that are installed on your system. The only difference is the stage 1 install needs to be bootstrapped and the tool chain compiled. With stage 3, you start with the tool chain and compile everything else. I doubt you did a stage 1 install, if you did, it was pretty much a waste, which is why doing a stage 3 install is recommended. Stage 3 isn't graphical, it just starts with a bootstrapped system and a toolchain. If you want to build the rest of your system with an optimized tool chain, emerge -e system, before you install anything else (takes a couple hours to compileAlso, by default, gentoo fetches a package, builds the package and fetches the next package.

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Re: Stage 1 ? Stage 3

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.66.7.239] on August 01, 2007 04:54 AM
after /usr/portage/scripts/bootstrap.sh (stage 1), emerge -e system (stage 2) takes half a friggin week to [download and] compile

also, emerge -e system only stage2's a stage3, so u cant completely 3ptimize the toolchain as with stage1 on stage2

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1 week to download?????

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 02, 2007 12:31 AM
One week is 604800 seconds. At 256 Kbps, that's 154,828,800 Kbits or about 15,500,000 KB allowing 10 bits per byte (for overhead) or about 15 GB!

I've never had the total download of all installed packages be over 2GB. You could check yours by checking the<nobr> <wbr></nobr>/usr/portage/distfiles directory. This is where they all go.

At 256 Kbps, it should take no more than a day to download everything you need.

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Re: 1 week to download?????

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.34.147.243] on December 01, 2007 11:29 AM
I think it was the compilation, not downloading, that took the majority of the time.

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Secret Sauce is sweet and sour: depends who you are

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 125.20.39.39] on September 07, 2007 02:18 AM
Good review! Gentoo is sweet for them who have considerable hands-on machine experience on linux platform, but sour for them who are just migrating from windows. Newbies and home desktop users should go for an OS that just works on the fly. And that is PCLinuxOS. Visit <a href="http://pclinuxos2007.blogspot.com">Tweaking PCLinuxOS</a>.

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Gentoo's new Secret Sauce is sweet and sour

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.165.141.171] on January 31, 2008 08:34 AM
"Posted by: Anonymous Coward on June 01, 2007 10:34 PM
I think Gentoo has made a mistake by suddenly trying to be a newbie distro. Its strength has always been in its user base, in that base's knowledge pool. You completely take that away from it by putting it in the hands of newbies.

I don't want to sound "l33t" here, but other distros fit the bill for those users that aren't knowledgeable enough for perform the manual Gentoo install. I realize the Gentoo Installer was originally envisioned for automating the manual install (for admins' ease), but I think they made a mistake by thinking they should also tailor the installer for newbie installs.

I think Gentoo is generating a bad taste in many discussions these days particularly because of install-by-newbie discussions that didn't have pristine results.

Stick to your strengths, Gentoo... it's what made you great in the first place. Don't try to become the McDonald's of Linux... you'll just continue burying your good name in the grease. "

I disagree totally with this person's perspective, noobs need to learn somewhere, I guess you just started out knowing every fn thing? I just started out on linux based OS two days ago, and managed to install and configure, Debian, Ubuntu, and Gentoo just fine, all with Triple booting Vista, XP, and Linux. Now gonna try Sabayon. As far as previous OS, I concentrated on MS architecture and manipulation. including Vista. I've been building and designing computers and programming for 2 years now, and never touched one before that unless it was a N64 or PS2. Never went to school for any of it. I guess you could still call me a noob since I hadn't tried Linux, everyone starts somewhere. That's the beauty of Linux, so many options and platforms to learn from, Gentoo isn't difficult to grasp if you get some background from the other Linux OS's. Besides, didn't you ever ask someone for help on something when you started out or did you go to school for that? Some people don't always have a mommy and daddy to pay for their misused college yrs. The great thing about noob's is some of them actually want to learn. Maybe Gentoo wanted to get those people in on what they're missing, instead of dickn around with a useless OS like Vista. I think a lot Linux OS are striving to open people's eyes on a diversified choice of OS's. The mentality has been Microgates is the only OS for everyone. SO in the process, they intended for the installation process easier for the average person. Maybe they didn't get it all there to 100 percent, but godamn it they tried. And if people like you keep whining about your Linux OS trying "to be the McDonald's", then what the fk is Microsoft. OK let them win huh dipshit?! No offense. Oh by the way the Gentoo install was a breez. Can't wait to try Sabayon. In two days I've totally switched to Linux OS's. Can you imagine if that many more people realized what their missing out on? Instead of giving the WGA shaft to the customers, MicroGates would be taking the Genuine Advantage in the arse. Lol. L8r olbs

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