Gentoo has long been a distribution aimed towards the power Linux user. It allows users to foray into the inner workings of their computers, emphasizing total customizability for optimal performance and minimum size. It is not for users who are looking for an operating system as soon as possible. Installations can take many hours, especially since the entire system is compiled from source. Because of Portage, the package system, installations and updates are generally easy, but nevertheless time-consuming.
With this year's first Gentoo release, 2007.0, comes an updated LiveCD featuring a completely rewritten GTK+ based installer. Being a Gentoo user for nearly 2 years, long before the release of any automated installer, I was curious as to what a graphical Gentoo installer entails.
After booting the LiveCD and being presented with a heavily customized Gnome desktop, I double-clicked the GTK+ installer. It consisted of a set of installation windows similar to any other LiveCD installer, and gave me options to auto-partition my hard drive and auto-configure my kernel. There are a few little annoyances with the installer—progress bars don't really show progress, so the user has no idea if (and when) the task will be completed, there is no way to see a console output of the tasks being performed, and the instructions to select a release snapshot were not very clear. However, after some hours of waiting for a cryptic “Please be patient!” progress indicator to finish, it did succeed.
The bigger question is, why provide a GTK+ based installer in the first place? One of the most appealing aspects to Gentoo is the fact that by installing the distribution, a user not so well-versed in the inner workings of a Linux environment will learn very quickly. The installation docs are, and have been, informative and thorough, walking users through the steps to perform an installation by hand, in a command prompt. If a user wants a system based on default configurations and soon, there are far better choices than Gentoo.
Granted, there are uses for Gentoo beyond those who want to compile their entire system from source. There are binary ebuilds which skip the compilation step and provide functionality similar to any other binary distribution. However, this aspect of Gentoo is an afterthought, and many ebuilds have no such binary option.
Gentoo remains an excellent choice for users who want a completely customized distribution with an excellent package system, but it will never be practical for many Linux users. The inclusion of a graphical installer seems helpful, but it ends up taking away the instruction and customization that a by-hand Gentoo installation can provide. Anyone wishing to get into the meat of their machine should stick with the installation instructions provided with Gentoo and go through the process himself.