So tell me about this Gentoo thing.
Ah... this might seem like a rather long setup before I get to the actual questions... I apologize in advance, I'm just trying to explain where I'm coming from before I ask the questions themselves...
I've been toying with various distributions on Linux for, oh, about 9 or 10 years, but I still consider myself a newbie. In fact, I consider myself something of a perpetual newbie because I've never had the time to really plumb the depths of Linux, familiarize myself with bash, and generally figure out how it works.
That said, I have learned a *few* things... to the point where after discovering the joys of apt-get I just can't bring myself to go back to rpm-based binary installers. But I've been hearing about this Gentoo thing, and it intrigues me... it doesn't intrigue me to the point where I think I'm ready to give it a try, but it *does* intrigue me to the point where I'd like to learn more about what makes it unique.
If I were going to try to describe what makes Debian unique from other distros -- to a newbie -- I could talk about either their hardcore free software philosophy or apt-get. From a technical perspective, I'd talk about apt-get, explain how apt makes it possible to install software without worrying about dependency problems because it automatically looks for and installs everything it needs for the software to run (well, in theory.) Of course, the problem with that is that the software must be sitting out there on a server you've added to your files, and if you've pinned it a certain way it might find the software but refuse to install it because the dependencies it needs would conflict with something you already have installed, etc... nothing's perfect. But that, in my opinion, is the most distinctive thing about Debian.
Which leads me to Gentoo...
I've frequently heard Gentoo described as a "roll your own" distro -- in other words, you compile everything directly from source. What I *haven't* heard is how this is done, and I'm curious about that... because you compile everything directly from source regardless of what distro you're using. I've done it myself, and when it comes to programming I'm a flipping idiot.
So I went to the Gentoo site and started reading about Portage, and I have to admit it seems very, very interesting. From what I've read so far, it seems like it's taken the idea behind apt-get and gone one step further -- instead of dealing with binaries, it works directly with source code, and it at least partially automates the compilation of that code. I can see at least two big advantages to this: first, you don't have to wait for a distribution-specific binary to be created before you can use an application... you just get it, compile it, and run it. Of course, people comfortable with compiling on their own have been doing this already, but for those of us who don't like mucking about with such things that would be a boon. The second is that you don't have to wait for a *platform*-specific binary to be created to run it on your powerpc or AMD64 or [insert non-intel platform here], which interests me greatly because I happen to have just bought an AMD64 laptop, and I'm currently running a 32-bit version of Debian (Xandros, actually) on it simply because it's what I had on hand.
Aside from that, it also appears to have adopted the apt-get "grab and install over the net" system of getting software, which is what won me over to Debian in the first place.
So all of these things make me very interested in this distribution. But none of this information really tells me how *easy* it is to learn to use, and that's I'm curious about.
So for those of you who are familiar with it: I am essentially someone who knows just enough about Linux to royally screw things up when I tinker too much. How difficult is learning Portage? How much hand-holding does it require to figure out how to use it with a reasonable level of proficiency? Is it really aimed more toward people who program? Is it harder to use than other more well-known distros (Mandrake, SuSE, Mepis, etc.) or is it just different?