Updated: April 5, 2008
The word cool takes an ever more significant meaning when you consider a Linux distribution running from a USB drive. Pendrivelinux.com is all about carrying your favorite Linux tools in your pocket and running them on just about any machine. This powerful combination offers flexibility, security and privacy, the three probably most important components of the modern computing. Best of all, setting up Linux to boot and run off a USB is a very simple affair.
Detailed and easily understandable guides are provided on the site, covering a range of scenarios - installation from either Linux or Windows, with or without rebooting, native or emulation. The guides aim at a wide range of users, from veteran Linux geeks to hesitant Windows newbies. My goal is to help the latter group, mostly.
Windows users will probably be hard pressed to abandon their favorite operating systems and move to Linux. Indeed, dual-booting or installing Linux for the first time can be daunting - and even inadequate for people who cannot afford to experiment with brand new ideas on their one single system.
One of the solutions comes in the form of virtualization: VMware or VirtualBox, take your pick. These powerful applications offer the user an almost harmless way of running guest operating systems on top of their hosts, regardless of the environment installed. But again, this could prove a difficult task for many. The installation of the application itself followed by the installation of the guest operating system, followed by firewall and network configurations ... can be troublesome.
This is where Pendrivelinux comes in
Pendrivelinux is much simpler than either real or virtualized setups mentioned above. This is because the actual installations are aided by scripts, written by wise people, which help the new and inexperienced users master the control of the portable Linux distributions almost transparently.
This tutorial is intended to show you some of the simplest and quickest ways of running Linux off a USB drive. If you know your business, you can try some of the more advanced 'do-it-yourself' guides. Windows users can start enjoying Linux in 3-4 mouse clicks, without rebooting or anyhow altering their existing setups.
First, why you should use Linux
Linux distributions are (almost exclusively) free and open-source, which means you will not be legally impeded by where, how often or how much you use your Linux / USB drive. The goal of the Linux has always been to make good things small - fully featured, excellent Linux distributions with all the applications you can ever need fit neatly into packages only 50-100MB big (small), allowing you to run them from drives as tiny as 128MB. Never throw away old hardware - it's great for Linux! Finally, Linux operating systems are modular, allowing great flexibility - and security. Now, let's get the Linux up and running!
I will purposefully avoid complex command line instructions (for most part); they belong in the advanced section, are covered in great detail at pendrivelinux.com and will only confuse new users - plus there are several million such guides everywhere. You should be running some sort of Windows operating system (Windows 98 and up).
Your USB drive should be sufficiently large to contain necessary files - for example, a 600MB file will not fit onto a 256MB USB drive, so make sure you do the math before you begin.
Running Linux inside Windows in 5 minutes
This sounds like an advertisement joke - but it's a reality.
- Plug in your USB device and create a folder called QStart on it.
- Download the StartLinux.exe file (direct download!) and execute it. When asked where to extract the archive, choose the folder you created above.
- Download either Puppy (50-100MB) or Damn Small Linux (DSL) (50MB) images and save them to your hard disk. Puppy and DSL are tiny, super-fast distros with tons of great applications, ideally suited for small devices or low-spec hardware.
- Copy the image (.iso) to the QStart folder on your USB device.
If you find these instructions too complex, try the actual Pendrivelinux tutorial. If you have done everything correctly, you should see something like this:
Of course, the actual Linux .iso might be different (you can change them as you like). Now, all you need to do is double-click StartLinux.bat to get the distro running. Puppy and DSL should boot in about a minute or so. Both are extremely light and fast. You can read short descriptions about them in my A (cool) list of Linux tools article, under Live CD/DVDs.
Here's Damn Small Linux:
And here's Puppy:
Furthermore, if you are interested, you can read my detailed overview of an older version of Puppy in this article.
Running Ubuntu inside Windows
Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distros today. It's only logical to run it off a USB drive. There are two ways to achieve the desired:
Live CD with the ability to save changes - see Portable QEMU Persistent Ubuntu tutorial
Full Ubuntu install - see Run Ubuntu from Windows via a portable USB hard drive
The first way is simple, requires a smaller device (only 1GB) and takes only a little time to get going. In order to save changes to your sessions, you will have to define extra boot options every time you start Ubuntu.
The second way is longer and more complicated, requires a device that is at least 3GB in size and demands a full installation of Ubuntu, just like any other. However, once installed, it will run just like any other operating systems. Your changes will be automatically saved. Needless to say, you'll be able to install new applications and fully customize your distro.
In both cases, Ubuntu will run more slowly than natively booted, because it will run on top of an emulation layer created by QEMU. But this should not bother you. I will show you how to setup and install Ubuntu to your USB drive; it can be a thumb drive or an external HDD.
- Create a folder named PQUbuntu on your USB drive.
- Download UQemu.exe file (direct download!) and execute it. When asked where to extract the archive, choose the folder you created above.
- Download the Ubuntu image (.iso) and save it to the PQUbuntu folder on the USB drive.
- Double-click create-n-run.bat to start Ubuntu.
- Once you reach the live desktop, install Ubuntu; this can take several hours on slow thumb drives; be patient!
- After the installation is complete, click to restart; Ubuntu will not restart. Manually close QEMU once Ubuntu shuts down.
- Double-click on Ubuntu.bat to run and enjoy Ubuntu.
Here are some screenshots ...
Ubuntu live session desktop:
Ubuntu installed and running:
If your monitor does not support certain resolutions, running Ubuntu as described under 1 may not work - in other words, the X Server might not start. You might need to specify the screen resolution parameters under boot options.
- First, try starting Ubuntu in the safe graphics mode.
- If this does not help, when the boot menu loads, press F6 to edit boot options.
- Add vga=XXX to the kernel line, where XXX specifies the screen resolution and color depth; for example vga=792 signifies 1024x768-pixel resolution with 24-bit color depth.
- Of course, you can still use the persistent boot option, in ADDITION to other parameters, in order to be able to save your session changes.
Booting nativelyThis is a little more complicated, but not significantly. You can read the full instructions on pendrivelinux.com. Installing Pendrivelinux to the USB device is a very simple affair.
- Plug in your USB device.
- Download Etch-PDL-Compiz_Windows.exe file (direct download!) and execute it. When asked where to extract the archive, choose the USB device above.
- On the USB drive, execute makeboot.bat to make the USB drive bootable. Be careful, please! If this file is run anywhere on local hard disks - or any other non-intended device - it could cause damage and render the operating system unbootable. Make sure it is located and executed on the USB device only.
- Restart the computer and choose to boot from the USB device.
If everything worked, you should see the following boot menu - don't mind the slight screw of the image, I took it with a real camera in front of a real monitor.
You will reach a handsome desktop - the resolution might depend on your monitor. I found the resolution to be slightly offmark when booting off a laptop - connected to a docking station - connected to a desktop monitor.
It's a nice desktop - except the lady's controversial grimace. One of my friends did not approve. Anyhow ... Now, you have the option of installing the graphic drivers, which will enable you to enjoy Compiz. And you could also use GParted to resize the existing partition and create a second one, which will allow to save and restore your sessions.
These steps require some advanced Linux knowledge - therefore, I'll skip them in this tutorial. They are covered extensively in the original article. If you have never seen Compiz and would like a taste, you can try my article Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon - Overview; it features a pair of downloadable movies showing the bells and whistles of Compiz Fusion.
Apart from the installation of graphical drivers and the partitioning, Pendrivelinux is a fully featured distro, with Gnome manager and lots of great applications. It's fast and responsive, to say nothing about security and privacy that this setup provides.
This could save you some trial and error: If you resize the partition too much, the process could fail. I suggest you leave some slack for the first partition, approx. extra 100MB in addition to the occupied space. In order to install the graphical drivers, you will need a working Internet connection. Or you will need to manually download the graphical drivers and kernel headers and install them from the command line.
Pendrivelinux is highly useful solution for both Windows and Linux users. The multitude of small, super-fast distros available makes them ideally suited for running from relatively slow, low-capacity USB devices. To say nothing about the stability and security of Linux operating systems. Pendrivelinux will please both newbies and veterans.
Setting up any one of the options offered is quite simple, especially since good people have already created self-extracting packages and written scripts that greatly facilitate the installations and configurations. It only takes a few minutes to be a happy Linux user - best of all, your system, whatever it is, stays untouched.
Well, that's it. I do promise to be back with Pendrivelinux, including a movie showing some Compiz action booted off the USB, in the best geeky fashion possible.
Meanwhile, happy Linuxing.