Test 1: Installation
How easy is the first step?
These distros may be aimed at power users, but that doesn't mean you want to tear your hair out during the installation process, however much credibility it gains later on. It's not a question of how long it takes to install, but rather how complicated the process is.
Slackware is one of our favourite distros, and its installation isn't complicated at all, unless you consider an ncurses-based installer complicated. The installer is certainly different, but by no means difficult to navigate. You may want to keep a copy of the Slackware book with you, maybe on a notebook or tablet.
When you run the setup, which is a process that takes you through several installation steps, including package selection, pay special attention to the prompting mode and the software series. You can either install everything by selecting Full on the prompting mode, or select individual packages by choosing the Menu option.
You then have to select which software series to install. If you choose individual packages, the installer will not tell you how much space it will need. Slackware gets a bad rep because it doesn't offer a graphical install, but it still provides a very straightforward installation.
Fedora and Debian both provide graphical installation which they've perfected over the years. The process is very simple, and several tasks – such as the partitioning of disks – are automated, but it's best if you at least review the partitioning scheme or do it yourself, especially if there are existing partitions on the disk that you would like to preserve. Neither distro lets you select the packages to install when installing from the live CD.
Arch is one of the easiest distros to install, even though it doesn't provide a usable system post-installation. The most difficult step is the network card configuration. If you're unable to configure your wireless card, you can run an Ethernet cable to your machine until the installation is done, and then try to configure the card later.
Once the base system is installed, you move on to meatier things, such as installing the X window system, video drivers, if needed, and the desktop environment. Even after that is done, you still have to install all the apps you may want to use, such as Firefox, VLC, LibreOffice and others.
Installing Gentoo is far more tedious than the other distros, even compared to Arch. It makes you define USE flags and compile the kernel, so be prepared for the installation to maybe run to several days, depending on your configuration and needs. Be sure to keep the installation documentation to hand when you begin.
Test 2: Default packages
Not that a power user cares either way…
An operating system is only an organised collection of a user's preferred applications. If this is true, then despite completing the installation process, it'd be unwise to label Gentoo or Arch as operating systems, because what you have is a barebones system that you have to then populate with all the applications that you require. Not only that, you don't even get a default desktop environment, and have to choose one to install.
There are no defaults when working with Gentoo or Arch. Their intention is to give the user complete control over what they wish to install on the machine. While the other three distros in this roundup also allow you to select which packages to install during installation, they still aim to provide you with a nearly complete system. That means that out of the box, these distros offer a text editor, web browser, PDF reader and more.
For these three distros, despite the wide array of default packages, you still need to install codecs and other plugins before you can play media files, or enjoy videos on YouTube, or even get the most out of your proprietary graphics card.
Slackware offers Calligra as its office suite in KDE, while Fedora and Debian both ship with LibreOffice. You can also choose which desktop environment to install with Fedora depending on the installation media you choose – check out the Fedora Spins project.
With Slackware, you only get the choice of KDE and XFCE during installation. Gnome fans will have to install their favourite environment post-installation.