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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

By Gary Sims on May 22, 2008 (9:00:00 AM)

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The recent success of the ASUS Eee PC has shown that running Linux from flash memory is now commercially viable in the consumer market. If you don't have an Eee PC, you can still run Linux from a humble USB flash disk, which will hold not only Linux but also your data. Several Linux distributions run from flash; here's how some of them compare.

Some Linux distributions, such as Mandriva Flash, are specially designed to work from flash devices. Some provide installers to get them onto thumb drives, while others can be coerced onto a USB flash drive with some simple modifications. I tested five Linux distributions -- Damn Small Linux (DSL), Puppy Linux, Pendrivelinux, Ubuntu, and Mandriva Flash -- to see how they fare running from a flash disk.

Of the five, only Ubuntu doesn't offer a native method for getting it to run from flash, while Pendrivelinux and Mandriva Flash are designed to run exclusively from flash. The five Linux distributions can be divided into two classes: the small, compact distributions (DSL and Puppy Linux), which are less than 100MB in size, and the full-blown distributions (Mandriva, Pendrivelinux, and Ubuntu).

Small is beautiful

Both DSL and Puppy Linux are small and don't have huge system requirements. DSL can run on a 468DX with only 16MB of RAM, although this feature is of dubious utility because it would be hard to find a 486DX machine that could boot from a USB device. These two distributions aim to be small yet versatile with flexible boot and install options. They're also fast, because they load the whole OS and applications into RAM.

DSL is a 50MB download and boots from a live CD. Once booted, you can install it to a USB drive using the Pendrive install application (Apps -> Tools -> USB-HDD Pendrive). The text-based installer runs in a command window. DSL detected and installed to my flash drive without any problem.

DSL is handy as a recovery tool that enables you to boot a broken machine and copy valuable data from it. It uses the lightweight JWM window manager, which should be easy to learn for those who are used to a "Start" button (labeled DSL in this case). DSL tries to be feature-rich and contains many standard types of applications, such as a music player, a couple of Web browsers, a word processor, and a spreadsheet. With the exception of Firefox, they're all specialized, small applications, but DSL is extendable using the myDSL Extension Browser. With the packages in its community repository you can add some of the more popular software to DSL, including OpenOffice.org. DSL is a marvel to look at, has potential for expansion, but it isn't as strong as some alternatives as a serious, portable desktop.

Like DSL, Puppy Linux is a small download (less than 100MB) and boots from a live CD. Once you boot the CD, you're up and running with the whole OS and file system loaded into RAM, which means that Puppy isn't always pulling files off the CD. To install to USB flash, use the Puppy universal installer, which can cope with almost any USB flash disk, regardless of whether it's unpartitioned or using the wrong boot flags. However, the downside is that the installation process can be quite complicated. The installer does a good job of trying to explain what's going on, but you will need to know how to work with disks and partitions if the need arises; for example, if the flags are wrong on a partition, the installer will fire up GParted for you to fix it rather than correct the problem automatically.

The recently released version 4.0 is a great improvement over its predecessor and using the JWM window manager it offers AbiWord 2.4.6 as a word processor, the Gnumeric 1.7.13 spreadsheet, Sylpheed 2.4.7 for email, and Mozilla SeaMonkey 1.1.8 for Web browsing and other integrated Internet applications. Puppy Linux also has a package manager called PETget that automatically connects to the official Puppy repository and offers additional software to install. Currently the 4.0 repository doesn't offer OpenOffice.org but I was able to install it from the version 3.0 repository.

One possible problem with Puppy Linux is that your data isn't immediately saved to the flash drive. As you're working, the files you create and edit are saved to memory, but that memory copy is only written to the flash disk periodically or during the shutdown process. There is also a Save button on the desktop to force a write to the flash disk. This intermittent saving can leave a window for losing files.

Pendrivelinux

Pendrivelinux is both a Linux distribution for USB flash disks and a comprehensive Web site with lots of articles and information on getting Linux running from a flash disk.

Amongst the articles on the Web site are a couple on installing Pendrivelinux from Linux and from Windows. Pendrivelinux doesn't come as a live CD; instead, you need to be up and running in Windows or in Linux. The installation process involves downloading a .zip file and then making the USB flash drive bootable (either with a batch file supplied for Windows or by using syslinux on Linux). I originally tried installing it from Linux, but it wouldn't boot, so I switched to using Windows, and things went better, with one minor wrinkle. I was using Vista, and I had to run the batch file to make the USB flash disk bootable under the Administrator account. If you run it under a normal account, even one that has Administrator rights, the batch file will fail.

Pendrivelinux is comprehensive. The .zip file is just under 500MB in size. It includes many of the popular Linux programs, and such as a full KDE desktop. Based on Mandriva 2007.1 (via the folks at MCNLive), it comes with persistent file changes (using a 256MB loop file), KDE 3.5.6, and Firefox 2.0.0.3. It doesn't come with OpenOffice.org, but relies instead on KOffice. It includes support for 3-D desktop effects; with a few clicks, you can get a 3-D cube representation of your virtual desktops, wobbly windows, and transparency.

The lack of OpenOffice.org could be limiting, as KOffice's ability to import and export to popular Microsoft and OpenOffice.org file formats is limited, but otherwise, Pendrivelinux is an excellent USB flash-drive Linux distro that you could use daily.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu doesn't come with an easy way to install it to a USB flash disk, but the Pendrivelinux Web site has an article about how you can shoehorn it onto a flash device. The fairly complicated procedure requires 21 steps. You will need to use command-line tools like syslinux, mkfs.ext2, and apt-get, so the process isn't for the novice. However, if these commands don't frighten you, then it's worth trying.

Once it's installed, you have a normal full Ubuntu system. The OS takes 750MB of your flash disk; whatever is remaining is for your files and documents. Because it's Ubuntu, you get a whole host of software, including the latest versions of GNOME, OpenOffice.Org, Firefox, and so on.

There is one problem with Ubuntu on flash, and it isn't really a technical one. Whenever I used it, I felt uneasy because I knew Ubuntu wasn't designed to run from a flash drive. After a time, my fears were realized. One time, for no apparent reason, the disk would no longer boot, and I was forced to reinstall the operating system. After the reinstall, all seemed fine, but later GNOME had problems starting, and I kept getting an error message about some files being unwritable. At that point, I gave up.

This is not a bad reflection on Ubuntu, but rather a warning about the dangers of trying to force complicated software to reside where it wasn't designed to be.

Mandriva Flash

Mandriva sells a specialized version of its Mandriva Linux One distribution called Mandriva Flash. It is an excellent Linux distribution for running from flash. However, there is one downside: you need to pay for it. It costs $69 (or €59), but what you get for your money is a 4GB USB flash disk, one month of Mandriva support, free shipping, and access to a rescue CD should you accidentally crash your USB key.

Mandriva Flash is a complete Linux desktop on a USB key. It comes with KDE 3.5.7, OpenOffice.org 2.2.1, Firefox 2.0.0.8, Skype, and Java 6. Like Pendrivelinux, it comes with the impressive 3-D desktop and a tool to help you import your Windows documents and settings. It uses the standard Mandriva RPM format for package management, which means that there are lots of additional package available on the Internet.

Using Mandriva Flash is easy, especially if you're already used to Linux. I was able to download Google's Picasa for Linux and install it without any problems. I connected my digital camera and was able to import all my photos.

Another neat trick unique to Mandriva Flash is that if you plug the USB flash disk into a Windows machine, all of your documents will be available there too. Anything you copy over to the USB key will also be available in Linux the next time you boot it, thanks to the way Mandriva use the flash disk. The first time you boot Mandriva Flash you choose how much space to use for system files and how much is reserved for user files.

The inclusion of essential software like OpenOffice.org makes Mandriva Flash a prime candidate for running Linux from a USB flash disk. You can take your OS and data with you everywhere you go.

Conclusion

Of the two mini distros, I found DSL more useful because of the neater user interface and simpler install process. If you're looking for a complete Linux desktop on a USB flash disk, then Mandriva Flash is the clear winner. But if you don't want to spend money for your operating system, then you should consider Pendrivelinux.

Gary Sims has a degree in Business Information Systems from a British university. He worked for 10 years as a software engineer and is now a freelance Linux consultant and writer.

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on Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

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Fedora 9 Live USB version

Posted by: Gary Sims on May 22, 2008 11:47 AM
Since I wrote this article Fedora 9 has been released which includes the Fedora 9 Live USB version. The Fedora web site has instructions for making a Live USB version of Fedora 9 from both Linux and Windows. For Windows there is the LiveUSB-Creator: http://fedorahosted.org/liveusb-creator

Like Mandriva Flash and PendriveLinux, Fedora comes with a 3D desktop which can be enabled System -> Preferences -> Look and Feel -> Desktop Effects. It also comes with Abiword 2.6.3, Gnumeric 1.8.2 and Firefox 3.0b5. I found the inclusion of Firefox 3 beta in Fedora 9 surprising but it seems stable enough for every day use.

Extra software can be added using: System -> Administration -> Add/Remove Software. Here you can download and install OpenOffice.org if you have enough space on your flash disk.

I had a few crashes and unexpected freezes while using Fedora 9 but these maybe due to my USB flash disk. Time will tell.

Overall it looks like a good memory stick version of Linux however, unlike Mandriva Flash, it doesn't let you see your documents, created under Linux, when the flash disk is plugged into a machine running Windows.

Gary Sims

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Ubuntu Live CD installer

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 89.244.191.159] on May 22, 2008 03:29 PM
"Ubuntu doesn't come with an easy way to install it to a USB flash disk" --> look at this: https://launchpad.net/liveusb <-- it might well be what you are looking for :-)

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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 202.89.70.2] on May 22, 2008 12:06 PM
why isn't slax here?
it has a specific version for flash drives

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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 189.24.189.71] on May 22, 2008 12:52 PM
You need to test Slax and GoblinX, the best live flashes... both can be used on FAT32 formatted pendrive, which means full access from windows, and also automatically save all settings and files modificated during sessions...

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Eee PC relevance

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 160.94.15.144] on May 22, 2008 02:13 PM
Why do you have to open by mentioning the Eee PC? It isn't relevant to your topic in the least; its primary disk happens to be a solid state one, but that hasn't got anything to do with booting a compact Linux distribution from removable flash media. Mandrake (long before Mandriva) was selling a 1Gb USB flash drive around five years ago.

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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 87.102.73.64] on May 22, 2008 02:37 PM
Madriva is Mandrake. It's what they changed their name to after merging with Connectiva (I think that was their name).

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Where is Slax

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 78.136.170.208] on May 22, 2008 05:46 PM
You should definitely test Slax as well, it's the best

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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 142.22.48.2] on May 22, 2008 06:05 PM
I agree with other posts. Slax is the live USB distro which many other live USB distro's are based on.

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Wolvix!

Posted by: Morten Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejér on May 22, 2008 09:57 PM
Wolvix (wolvix.org) is based on Slax - it is a really excellent system! Lightweight, but very powerful.
It has an install-to-USB function in the Control Panel.

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Large is even more beautiful

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 87.126.11.146] on May 22, 2008 06:49 PM
What's wrong with walking around with the mother of all live distros? Yes, of course I'm talking about Knoppix. It's quite easy to put it on a USB flash

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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.63.254.140] on May 22, 2008 07:33 PM
Where is PCLinuxOS or Sam Linux Desktop?
The new PCLinuxOS and Sam both have an install to USB gui.
Maybe you should look into more distros?

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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.135.56.152] on May 22, 2008 07:59 PM
Gary and others,

All of you have focused on the following criteria for comparison purposes :
- Ease of installation, ease of usage and ease of upgrading
- Cost to acquire the pendrive-distro or the lack thereof
- Native way to run the distro directly from flashdrive
- Presence or absence of certain key applications
- Size of the distro's installation download

I'd heartily agree that the fine-tailoring of these criteria as applied to one's particular needs and circumstances is the way to go. I'd add and refine some criteria of my own here :
- the capability of using those USB pendrives still around of LESS THAN 1 GB in size for the combination of booting, data storage and add-on apps (e.g., thumbdrives of 512MB, 256MB and even all the way down to 128MB sizes!)
- the availability of decent to excellent forums/wikis for effectively finding help using the pendrive distros, given the wide variety of existing HW devices
- the availability of good, fast, and running mirror download sites

There are likely to be other criteria or refinements of the above.
Fedora 9 Live USB version, Slax, GoblinX, Knoppix, ... etc would certainly all be worth looking into further as good USB flash drive distros.
An excellent benefit from the article and its comments, Gary, is that one indeed _CAN_ choose and use the "best" USB flashdisk distro(s) for whatever specific purpose(s) one requires. A++

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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 64.140.248.180] on May 22, 2008 09:07 PM
Yah, another PCLOS MiniMe 2008 user here, great distro, maybe you should add an update?

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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 193.11.239.42] on May 22, 2008 09:38 PM
Slax is my favorite. It's fast, small, good looking and it work really well

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Ubuntu Linux USB flash disk distro

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.70.115.228] on May 22, 2008 09:57 PM
FWIW, you can get a 4 gig Ubuntu (Hardy) live flash drive from here: http://www.dragontechnology.com/ubuntu_usb.php
Works well in persistent mode.

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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 189.24.189.71] on May 22, 2008 11:52 PM
All new Linux live based livecds like Slax and GoblinX have much more to offer than any other distribution for pendrives... just take a look about what linux live scripts can do... it's a great achievement...
Inside Linuxlive you have a script to install in pendrives, you can use any Linux filesystem and also FAT32 or NTFS without lose anything... Yes... everything is saved in FAT32 just like inside any Linux filesystem, with mode, owner... and automatically saved...

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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.195.149.17] on May 23, 2008 04:34 AM
I have my knoppix remaster running from USB drives, it is Rapidweather Remaster of Knoppix Linux.
Check my blog for details.
http://rapidweatherlinux.blogspot.com
Specific url's for the USB setup are:
http://rapidweatherlinux.blogspot.com/2007/10/running-from-usb-drive.html

http://rapidweatherlinux.blogspot.com/2007_06_01_archive.html

I have tested it extensively, and it's very reliable.
Does require some files on the hard drive to kick it off, but it will run on older PC's without the ability to "boot directly from a USB drive" bios.

The screenshots page is here, same as when running from the CDROM or Hard Drive, or the USB drive.

http://www.rapidweather.com/linuxcdsales.html

The online "Getting Started Guide" is here:

http://www.geocities.com/rapidweather/getting_started.html

I have several mouse cursor themes installed, pick one and use it in seconds. All are larger then the default cursor in something like Ubuntu 7.10, for instance, so use with a laptop screen is not a problem. Many other unique features are detailed in the Getting Started Guide.

Rapidweather

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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 216.184.123.28] on May 23, 2008 04:36 AM
I've installed Slax 6.0.7 and Pmagic 2.2 on my USB and they are a great couple. I think those distros are missing in the article.

Slds.

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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 149.254.192.195] on May 23, 2008 09:38 AM
i wished their was one tool that lets you install any distro of your choose. Each distrubution has its own tool,their should all Collaborate to create one.

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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.79.199.189] on May 23, 2008 12:52 PM
DSL seems pretty outdated -- 2.4 kernel, Xfree86... it could be useful, but for fun stuff like watching videos you want Puppy. That's good a niche for a small Linux distribution

Nice idea, that last comment... sort of a Grand Universal Installer. Take an ISO image and install it on any media.

I like this forthcoming "Build Slax" idea too... Choose your installation method and packages... download just what you need.

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Slax Missing!

Posted by: Mike Donaghy on May 24, 2008 05:02 AM
Slax is just about THE DEFINITIVE flash distro ... it works perfectly from flash , j
ust as if it were installed on a hard drive ...
AND
you can run it from a fat32 partition (as mentioned above)
AND
it can use it's own slax packages ... but it can also seamlessly run any software packaged for slackware12
That's literally thousands of packages at your disposal
AND
it clocks in at around 180 megs ... on a 1gb flash drive that leaves you over 8 HUNDRED megs free ...
you could even get away with running it on a 256 meg drive (but please don't!)
AND
Finally ... no ... they aren't paying me ... just a big fan :)
http://slax.org

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Feather Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 86.1.236.83] on May 26, 2008 10:10 AM
You have also missed Feather Linux which is another tiny distro for limited resources similar to DSL and Puppy. Of the three Feather is the nicest to use, but DSL (syslinux version) will work on just about anything. If you have a little more resources the Slax gives a lot more bang for your Ram.
There is also DSL-N which is aimed at more resources. All depends on what you have to play with.

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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.95.146.33] on May 31, 2008 09:52 PM
For the life of me, I really, really do not understand why someone chooses Vista to perform any Windows/Linux fiddling....
It's just screaming for trouble to come up.


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Comparing Linux USB flash disk distros

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 130.130.189.82] on June 18, 2008 08:11 AM
I don't want to add to the list of posters whining about their favorite distro not being included in the review but...

...If you're going to include Ubuntu, wouldn't Xubuntu or one of the other stripped down *buntus be appropriate? Or did you want to include a full, well-known distro for comparison?

And, for the post about Feather Linux - hasn't that stopped development?

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