Gentoo is a Linux distribution with an extreme focus on flexibility and customization, right down to the kernel. For other most popular Linux distributions, please visit our dedicated Linux download page.
When I hear about Linux distros that really leave a lot of control up to the user, usually Arch Linux makes its way into the conversation, and maybe Slackware as a more extreme example. But Gentoo definitely takes it a step further, as the user must compile the kernel itself as part of the installation process.
It's an advanced process, but Gentoo developers also make it a bit easier with the "genkernel" utility, which can help you compile the kernel in a few short commands. Advanced Linux users can still take as much time as they like to strip the kernel of components they deem unnecessary, or adding in those that they want on their system. This attribute makes Gentoo a modular operating system by design. Each user can customize their out of box experience, making Gentoo highly adaptable.
Choosing what goes into your kernel will lead to a very speedy system with a small RAM footprint. Back when Gentoo premiered in 2000, this was a very enticing feature. These days, with current hardware advancements, most Linux users will probably prefer the GUI installers and precompiled kernels that have become standard in the most common distros. However, Linux veterans that have a passion for tinkering will get their fill of it with Gentoo, and that's really the target audience.
So, Gentoo is a good way to get your nerd fix, but it also works well for specialized servers. For example, if you are running a database server, you could exclude unrelated components from the kernel. This will give you the speediest system possible, and it will have a smaller chance of encountering problems. This is particularly useful on servers with limited hardware specs.
Granular control remains present after you get Gentoo up and running. It uses the Portage package manager (invoked with the
emerge command) and
USE flags to optionally exclude components from the system. For example, you can install the SeaMonkey web browser, without the PulseAudio component, with the follow command.
# USE="-pulseaudio" emerge www-client/seamonkey
Such flags are also possible to set globally, which helps to ensure that certain components never find their way onto your system. PulseAudio and systemd, among others, are popular components that users like to exclude. It's also worth mentioning that Google bases their Chrome OS off of Gentoo.
Gentoo Linux Release Schedule
Gentoo is a rolling release, so updates and upgrades can be handled with the Portage package manager. Rarely, new releases may introduce features that are incompatible with older systems. When an update deeply changes the core system, Gentoo says it offers a new "profile." To upgrade to this new profile, an entire recompile and new installation would have to be performed. This is only if you want to migrate to the new profile.
Download Gentoo Linux
Want to give Gentoo a try? You can grab a free copy from Gentoo's download page. Many different CPU architectures are supported, including 64 bit and 32 bit. You'll also get to decide whether or not to include systemd.
You'll most likely want the "minimal installation CD" download. At some point during the installation, you'll need to use one of the Stage 3 tarballs to continue. I know, it seems a little confusing at first. But Gentoo has good documentation of the installation process, as well as everything else. You'll definitely want to have it open while you're installing.
Gentoo's most divisive feature is the fact you have to compile everything yourself. This is what attracts Linux gurus and pushes away novices - or even professionals that just don't want to deal with it. If you're ready to compile the Linux kernel, manually partition your disk, install and configure grub, and do even more digging into the terminal, Gentoo will be fun to use. And you will reap its benefits by having a lean and clean system as a result.
If you're not ready to go to that end of the spectrum, but have graduated from hand holding distributions like Ubuntu, you may find your niche with a distro like Arch or Slackware. Keep in mind that once you get past Gentoo's install process, everything else feels relatively easy and familiar.