the performance benifits of gentoo are going to vary wildly depending on your hardware.
back in the days of the 1GHz Athlon, the distros were all compiling their code for 386's (with a few just starting to offer 586 optimized versions) the optimizations for AMD chips were significantly different then for Intel chips
in that environment there is room for a HUGE performance difference from a simple recompile, and that's when gentoo started (and so I'm sure that's part of where the proponents are looking when they talk about the speed benifits)
however, even on modern 64 bit systems that haven't been out long enough to develop this much variability there are compile options for packages that can make a huge performance difference to your apps
a perfect example is unicode support. if you need it, you need it, no question. but if all the data you are dealing with is ascii the performance difference between comiling with and without unicode support can be drastic (I see 2x and more on the postgres performance list) these are the comile flags that make the most difference nowdays.
In addition, just being able to not include features that you don't need for your installation is a huge benifit. Last week I built a new debian system, when I installed the ftp software it pulled in mySQL libraries, when I installed telnet it pulled in gcc. now in the case of telnet I found that I could go back and remove most of gcc (most of it was reccomended dependancies, not required), but on a gentoo system you just define -mysql and you won't have software installing mysql for you (I still haven't figured out why telnet requires the gcc libs yet)
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