Here's a good overview on compiler optimizations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compiler_optimization
Here's some info about GCC optimization techniques: http://www.redhat.com/software/gnupro/technical/gnupro_gcc.html
Effects of optimization options are explained in this LJ article.
A note of warning from Gentoo wiki on optimization flags:
-O3: This is the highest level of optimization possible, and also the riskiest. It will take a longer time to compile your code with this option, and in fact it should not be used system-wide with gcc 4.x. The behavior of gcc has changed significantly since version 3.x. In 3.x, -O3 has been shown to lead to marginally faster execution times over -O2, but this is no longer the case with gcc 4.x. Compiling all your packages with -O3 will result in larger binaries that require more memory, and will significantly increase the odds of compilation failure or unexpected program behavior (including errors). The downsides outweigh the benefits; remember the principle of diminishing returns. Using -O3 is not recommended for gcc 4.x.
In the following e-mail, Jim Wilson, who apparently supports gcc, writes:
From: Jim Wilson <wilson at specifixinc dot com> Date: Thu, 29 Apr 2004 15:58:28 -0700 Subject: Re: optimization issue about -O2 and -Os ------------------------------------------------------------ ... The -Os option is buggy. You might want to report a bug into our bugzilla bug datase. See http://gcc.gnu.org/bugs.html for more info on reporting bugs. Though the -Os option is based on the -O2 option, it is a different option, that generates different code, and has different bugs.
Tim Riker: this is a bit overly dramtic. -Os is widely used and widely supported. The link is to a thread about general information and does not refer to any specific bug from what I can see. Try -Os out. If you have issues, try -O2 instead. In general -Os will work. Be very careful in tweaking kernel optimizations. There is kernel code that only works with the existing optimizations.