Faster, Linuxcat, Kill! Kill!
August 16, 2011 1:34 PM   Subscribe

Persistent Linux Live USBs- I want to be be able to plug in at will, to do basic stuff. I want to hear from folks who have used them.

Here's what I want. I want to have a Live USB, that I can plug into laptops or desktops of various friends, let me browse, check my email, and has a GUI. Bonus points if I can play music.

High priorities:
- Fast. I don't want to spend 10 minutes waiting for it to set up.
- Persistency. I'm probably not going to add a lot of applications, but I do want them to stay.
- Can work with multiple systems- from netbooks to desktops.

I've got a few possibilities lined up: Puppy, Damn Small Linux, Tiny Core, Bodhi, but I'd like to know some pros and cons from folks who have actually used these as Live USB OS's and what your experiences are.

I can't afford a laptop, but I figured this would be a good way to have something portable I could use. And being able to help friends' rescue files if their machines get jacked up is also a plus.
posted by yeloson to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I can't comment on the quality of the distributions, but I do have experience with Fedora and Ubuntu LiveUSB installations, and there was a noticeable speed difference based on the the flash drive itself. I haven't tried it, but I suspect a faster flash drive like this one will help boot it faster (the "200X" on that page is measured in CD read speeds, so it's 200x150 KB/sec = 30MB/sec). Here's more comparisons, including external USB hard drives.
posted by spiderskull at 1:59 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've had good experiences with Puppy. DSL seems like a toy to me. Don't know on the other two. If it happens with you like it did with me, it will surprise you how difficult it is getting sound.
posted by notned at 3:52 PM on August 16, 2011

I regularly use Knoppix (on a DVD, not USB) as my go-to distro for getting a machine up-and-web-surfable (or more accurately, up "enough" that I can back it up over the network before reinstalling Windows). It comes from the Debian side of the family tree, if that means anything to you.

As for the specific distros you mention - I've used a few of the ultra-tiny Linux variants (and made a few more of my own), and they certainly do work well enough, if you only care about using it as portable bootable recovery media. But when even low-end thumbdrives have a capacity of 8GB nowadays - Save your sanity, and go for something relatively fully-featured (like Knoppix) if you actually plan to use this as a real desktop user environment.

Also, keep in mind that you can use just about any Linux distro on bootable and writeable media like a thumbdrive. You want something geared toward read-only media, though, to minimize wear on the drive itself; or, you can manually tweak your install for that purpose - Run without swap, mount with noatime, put your /var and /tmp on a tmpfs, etc.
posted by pla at 3:55 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm not stuck to just the distros I listed, I've got a much bigger list than that which I'm hoping to narrow down with some input from folks who've tried them, rather than just get assailed with a giant list of distros folks have heard of (which I can, and am, googling up myself), but never tried on a USB.

So, any lightweight distro experience I'm open to hearing about.
posted by yeloson at 4:06 PM on August 16, 2011

Not sure what your budget is, but for around $50 you could get an 8GB 2.5" SSD and pop it in a dual USB/eSATA enclosure. The eSATA is bootable by a lot of newer machines, is way faster than USB, and it will fit in your pocket.

I did this with a minimal Debian install with Ardour to use as a portable recording device. It's kind of ridiculous (I really just did it as an experiment) but it works.
posted by quarterframer at 4:07 PM on August 16, 2011

Best answer: I have used both and for making a persistent stick. It took an outrageous amount of time to install the initial USB stick. After that I never was happy with bootup speeds. I think it is the nature of USB. I can also boot from a USB hard disk drive and I notice it is also slow. has some good how-tos on USB stick boots.
posted by nogero at 5:12 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Before you spend more time on this, I'd pick a random distribution and just test to see whether the computers you would use it on will even boot from USB in the first place.

I wanted to do exactly what you are doing last year, but neither my laptop, nor my work computer, turned out to be capable of booting from USB. (And yes, I spent a LONG time playing with the BIOS settings, and called in friends who are even more knowledgeable about computers than I am.) It seems to be a not too uncommon problem. And if most of the computers you use turn out not to be able to do it, there's not much point in making the USB in the first place.
posted by lollusc at 7:35 PM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I've been trying various distros on the computers at work, and though the boot screen gives me the option to boot from USB, none of them are recognizing them. (They're all live booting CDs with no problems, though.)

I'll probably play with this a bit more, but I'm guessing this might require more linux skills than I can muster.
posted by yeloson at 7:51 PM on August 16, 2011

Yeah, that's pretty much what was happening for me too. Just because you get the option to boot from USB does not mean your computer is actually capable of it :( It's not a linux skills thing, if it's the same problem I had. I seem to remember it depends on your motherboard.
posted by lollusc at 8:56 PM on August 16, 2011

yeloson -- make sure the bootable bits are correctly set in the USB drive's partition. What exactly did you try to boot off of? How did you copy the USB Image to the drive?

I recommend following these instructions to test drive a Fedora LiveUSB setup. They are thorough, and I've never had issues booting off of this particular LiveUSB distro, even on the 6-year-old machines we use.
posted by spiderskull at 3:25 PM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I was using LinuxLive USB Creator (, for a few different distros- they seemed to work ok on my home computer but at all on my work computers. The work computers would give me the option to boot from USB, then say, "Device not available" and basically keep shunting me back to the "boot from usb?" type menus.

I'll go ahead and give the Fedora instructions a shot. Thanks!
posted by yeloson at 9:28 AM on August 18, 2011

Good luck. It may take a few tries -- no matter how many times I've done it, I always manage to screw something up the first time around. But keep at it and you'll find the combination that works for whatever motherboard you're trying it on.
posted by spiderskull at 1:02 PM on August 18, 2011

(and I realize I just contradicted myself -- "I've never had issues booting off of this particular LiveUSB distro, even on the 6-year-old machines we use" -- I mean I've always eventually gotten the Fedora live USB image to boot)
posted by spiderskull at 1:04 PM on August 18, 2011

Response by poster: But keep at it and you'll find the combination that works for whatever motherboard you're trying it on.

I'll give it a shot, thing is, I'd like to be able to use it on -several- computers- friends, work, home, etc. If it's not going to work on most of the computers I want, then it's not really going to do what I want.

But thanks for the heads up.
posted by yeloson at 2:32 PM on August 18, 2011

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