These days, it only takes an increasingly-cheap USB thumb drive and a program like UNetbootin to create a portable Linux desktop you can run on any computer that can boot from a USB port. But check out the list of distributions UNetbootin can download and install—it's huge, and the names don't tell you much about which distro is best for on-the-go computing. Today we're detailing four no-install distributions—Damn Small Linux, Puppy Linux, Xubuntu, and Fedora—and helping you decide which might work for that spare thumb drive you've got lying around, or as just a part of your multi-gig monster stick. Read on for a four-way faceoff of bootable Linux systems.
Note: All but one of the systems tested here were created with UNetbootin, available for Windows and Linux downloads, and using the latest version available that could boot from USB. All were run on the same laptop, a 2.0 gHz Centrino Duo ThinkPad with 2GB of memory/RAM. Fedora 9 was run using its own live USB creator, as explained previously.
Damn Small Linux 4.4.6
Ultra-small (and efficient) Linux distribution using an older version of the Linux kernel (great for real old hardware, not so hot for the newer stuff).
- Min. requirements: 486 Intel processor with 24MB RAM.
- Image size: 50MB (forever, according to project leaders).
- Boot time: 23.1 seconds.
- Features: Firefox and super-slim Dillo browser both available. Access to tons of built-in, geeky tools like SSH/FTP servers; Built-in Conky display. Right-click access to nearly anything.
- Needs improvement: Cluttered menus (necessarily so, perhaps). Hardware detection is tricky - missed, or just didn't set up, my ThinkPad's USB mouse, Intel Wi-Fi card, and integrated sound. Graphics are definitely old-school VESA, which might grate on some.
- Who would like it: Anyone with really, really old hardware, or those who feel comfortable at a command line or in networking jargon.
Puppy Linux 4.1
This light bootable system can run from a USB stick, but if a system has more than 256MB of RAM, Puppy can move itself entirely onto a "ram disk," letting the user pull out their portable drive and keep working. Read Gina's walk-through of Puppy for details.
- Min. requirements: Pentium 166MMX with 128MB RAM.
- Image size: 94MB
- Boot time: First boot: 43.5 seconds, with pauses for interface prompts; More if choosing better XORG video driver. Boot after session saved and configuration set: 32 seconds.
- Features: Network connection wizard can get most decently savvy users online. Support for MP3s and other proprietary media (even Blu-Ray burning!) on first boot-up. Many unique tools (Puppy podcast grabber, PDF converter, custom Puppy distro maker) and good picks (GParted partition editor, password manager). Wizards offered for most hardware types not auto-detected and other tasks.
- Needs improvement: The gauntlet of first-boot questions and video options can be trying (suggested video modes not working, choices not entirely clear). Wireless config worked when manually set up, then disappeared. Like Damn Small Linux, menus can be cluttered and hard to navigate.
- Who would like it: Those looking to dedicate a thumb drive, or at least most of it, to a working, fast-moving, persistent desktop.
Basically the Ubuntu platform, optimised to run the lighter Xfce desktop manager.
- Min. Requirements: 128MB RAM for live session (192 to install); Pentium-class processor assumed.
- Image size: 544MB
- Boot time: 48.4 seconds.
- Features: Ubuntu-specific apps and tools (Add/Remove programs, Firefox modifications, settings manager, etc.). Switch-able support for GNOME and/or KDE apps. Can install in Windows without partition changes (via Wubi). Network manager offers most painless wireless connections. Native support for NTFS drive access.
- Needs improvement: No built-in persistence option. Systems near the low end of RAM requirements will feel the pinch with multiple apps open.
- Who would like it: Basically, anybody who favours an Ubuntu system, but would like a slimmed-down version run from a USB stick, with a few of its programs remixed.
Fedora 9 Live
The Fedora Project has its own handy, Windows-friendly Live USB maker that makes adding Fedora to your USB drive—without damaging your other data—pretty simple. Read our Fedora-on-a-stick guide for more info.
- Min. requirements: 400 MHz Pentium II, 256MB RAM.
- Image size: Approx. 725MB.
- Boot time: 45.5 seconds.
- Features: Support for PowerPC hardware on even the newest Fedora releases. Customised "persistent overlay" for storing documents and data. Generally strong, updated GNOME and KDE desktops, with some new features added quickly.
- Needs improvement: Enabling NTFS drive access and proprietary media playing would've been nice defaults. Occasional hang-ups when accessing certain system features. Bleeping and chirping system sounds get old very fast.
- Who would like it: Anyone who has enough computer power, and USB space, to want a complete, up-to-date GNOME or KDE desktop running.
Our take (and yours)
After using each of the systems above to browse a few web pages, edit a Word document and check out a few music files on my Windows partition, I found myself liking Puppy Linux, on the whole, more than the others. It can work as either a fully-live system that start you clean each time, or give you a persistent disk space to store you stuff in. It's not a bad looking desktop either, and aside from a wireless quirk, I found it decently easy to use and really fast-moving.
That's just my take, of course. We want to hear which system our USB-booting readers prefer.