If the above does not mean anything to you or you are pressed for time a live DVD is a good way to get a feel for the operating system without committing hours and days first to actually get there. As this new release had piqued my interest I managed to free some time and downloaded the hybrid x86/x64 edition that comes in at a whopping 3,452 MB. There's also a x86_64 multilib edition available which, at 3,716 MB, is even bigger in size, but I decided to go for the smaller image for testing purposes. Torrents are available as well, check out this page on DistroWatch for a quick introduction and jumping off hub.
If you know me, I hardly go for anything above CD size as I think projects should be able to squeeze enough into this to get people started. It avoids wasting bandwidth and you can just add what you're missing. Of course these days that is starting to exclude most KDE 4 variations. Submitting to this huge download means I'm really quite keen.
I've been running this DVD on my fairly modern Acer Aspire 5551 Phenom X3 laptop now off and on for weeks since it came out. So, what did we find? In a quick summary, this live image is one nicely put together labor of love. It comes with all the major desktop environments and several window managers in common use today, but you won't find any duplicates or overlapping shortcuts on your desktop as is so often the case when projects include several of them (think Trash bin and Home folder).
The image comes with Linux 3.1.6, X.org 1.10.4 and supports the ext file systems, XFS, ReiserFS and JFS out of the box.
When starting the boot screen allows to choose between booting the 32 or the 64-bit version, or to boot an existing OS from first or second hard drive, which in my case did not work and just brought me back to the boot menu.
Digging a level deeper, there are plenty more choices for boot images that let you launch a hardware detection tool, FreeDOS, the Ranish partition manager, a tool to reset passwords on Windows installations with NTFS partitions, a hard disk diagnostic tool, the GAG graphical boot manager, and Dban, a tool to securely wipe data.
Make sure to have a look at the Readme in the top directory, it details all boot options that can be enabled via cheat codes. The nousb option for example disables autoloading of USB modules which is useful for debugging USB issues. From here one can also enable a screen reader at the console and connect a synthesizer for output with the speakup kernel option speakup.synth=synth.
Once booted up you get a wide selection of choices to log in to, among them the Awesome window manager, XBMC media center, and the more widely known desktop options of course. KDE starts with the default login, and a scrambled password is already specified and filled in automatically for you after logging out to try the other desktops, so there's no hunting around for it. Internal hard drive partitions stay unmounted, and due to the user not knowing the password cannot be mounted unless you specified your own at boot time. An exemplary security arrangement in my book that keeps people just experimenting with Gentoo live from deleting perhaps valuable files from their primary installations. I found USB sticks to mount without problem and was able to save my screen shots there.
I found Gentoo Live to be very KDE centric, and as such a major portion of the applications included is Ksoftware. No big deal as they integrate and run very well under other managers and environments. It seems the whole arsenal has been included, and the list of pre-installed software would be far too long to mention. If you can think of it it's probably here. Anyway, it's quite beautiful. Several KDE utilities like Jovie are aiding accessibility.
|Default KDE after logging in|
You´ll find some shortcuts have been placed on the desktop that quickly let you go to the support forums or check the bug tracker, or enter the Gentoo IRC chat channel to ask your questions there. Another link is there to install the current Adobe Flash. Firefox also includes several links to online pages and the forum.
|Put a cow in your boxen. Would that be the Milka cow?|
KDE is in version 4.7.4, confirmed in the next screenshot, but will probably be up to 4.8 now in the repos.
|KDE 4 version|
Further desktops included are the older branch of Enlightenment e16, but for reasons only known to the developers no trace of e17 which has been around for years.
|Enlightenment e16, very light, integrating GNOME and KDE apps well|
Fluxbox is also on board, again GNOME and KDE applications all feel like they're integrating seamlessly into these smaller windowing environments and I wasn't able to discern any noticeable lag starting them.
|Fluxbox with default wallpaper and color adjusted theme to match|
A very barren GNOME 3 desktop is here as well, but this has got to be the least appealing of all of them. Just being honest. On the other hand, if you like it vanilla this can be a good start.
|GNOME Shell in Gentoo Live 2012|
|LXDE with Oxygen styled theme and similar desktop shortcuts|
|Aurora development branch starting|
A traditional XFCE rounds off the comprehensive list of ways to interact with your desktop. The applications menu button does not have a picture, but you can find two Gentoo icon files in the home directory.
|Gentoo with XFCE 4.8|
Like other more advanced distributions Gentoo is giving users a more or less plain experience as it was intended by the upstream vendor. However, some environments had a touch of integration applied, just enough to still feel comfortable.
Suspend and resume worked fine, but the Broadcom wireless driver for my 43225 chip missing meant I was unable to get online. Lacking a decent wired connection I did not try and download the required firmware packages elsewhere and get it to work. For an otherwise decent Live image I'ld wish they could include the relevant software with the next release.
The basic ATI Radeonhd driver worked for me and there were no artefacts or graphical problems during my tests.
Due to the nature of this distribution the Gentoo Live images do not feature an installer. There are several ways of putting the image on a hard drive, one of which is described here. I suppose another would be loop mounting the image, copying it to your partition and pointing a boot loader at it, but haven't tried it due to lack of time.
I've tried out the second method and it does not work. Too much has changed since 2008, and the article seems to talk about an install image and not the full live DVD that they have only developed since then.
Conclusion and Summary
The Live DVD is a good way to explore Gentoo and the way the distribution works. While it isn't really meant to be installed as an operating system it can certainly be done, but the user will get an image of a snapshot in the past. Isn't that the case with all distributions these days?
There are some pretty nice utilities on board, and the huge range of software included means this can be very useful to carry around as a rescue and live system. It is also secure enough by not mounting partitions by default. It can serve as a training ground and from here you can learn the portage commands and emerge your world, then loose the changes again in a non-persistent installation. Overall Gentoo felt cleaner and faster than its offspring Sabayon in comparison.
If you get it installed it certainly has the potential to be that full-featured installation on your main machine, with the Live DVD pretty much in the way distributions of old threw everything but the kitchen sink at you on several CD's.
I would not recommend Gentoo to the Linux newbie but to the intermediate user. Personally I'm quite tempted to give this a go for a while on my main machine and gradually turn it into a source compiled system with every update, but I like things lean and Slackware is already there.
Edited and updated Sunday 04/03/2012.