I regularly find myself writing about USB sticks. Why am I currently obsessing over these cheap dongles, which many have come to regard as fundamentally obsolete? Because they’re still useful.
Sure, you’re probably not going to use them to store your files on. In that regard, they’ve been utterly supplanted by cloud storage services like Dropbox. But they can be used to boost your personal digital security. Better yet, when you install Linux on them, they can be used to keep your digital worlds in-sync wherever you go, or to protect your computer when things go awry. Here are the 5 most useful Linux distributions for installing on a USB drive.
As a Portable Desktop: Puppy Linux and Elementary OS
Confession: I hate using other people’s computers. I hate using public computers. The only computers I am comfortable using are my own.
But sometimes, it’s unavoidable. When you travel on budget airlines like EasyJet and Spirit, you’re limited to how much baggage you can bring. Sometimes you have to leave your machine at home. If your computer breaks, you might have to use someone else’s while you wait for Amazon to deliver your replacement.
One of the best ways to solve this is to shove a desktop distribution onto a USB drive and boot into it as required. But which one should you install?
For the longest while, Puppy Linux has been seen as little more than a curiosity. Designed to be used on the most austere of hardware, it could comfortably chug away on early Pentium machines without breaking a sweat. But it wasn’t that practical. Many installed it on their antique hardware to see how little ‘oomph’ it needed, and then forgot about it.
But it never went away. Updates and new versions are still regularly released. Sure, it’s still stripped down; it can run on low-end and underpowered hardware. But you can now use it to get stuff done.
There are three different versions of Puppy. One, called Slacko Puppy is based upon SlackWare, which is one of the longest established Linux distributions. People continue to use it as their day-to-day operating system. People understand it. Another is built around Ubuntu 14:04 LTS, called TahrPup.
The third version of Puppy is the mainline project, originally founded by Barry Kauler. The recent versions, codenamed Quirky, have been built with the express goal of running on a USB drive. Although I’d still err on the side of caution and use TahrPup, in order to mitigate any potential hardware compatibility issues.
I know that people have their own preference when it comes to what Linux distribution they want to use. It’s for this reason why I’m reticent to just talk about desktop operating systems. But please, indulge me just one more. After that, we’ll talk about how you can use Linux and USB sticks to accomplish specific tasks, like resizing hard drives.
In recent months, I’ve come to really take a shine to Elementary OS.
It’s often overlooked, especially by its larger brothers like Ubuntu and Linux Mint. I’ve never understood that, because in addition to being fast, and built upon the sturdy foundations of Ubuntu LTS, it’s also a pretty (and massively customizable) face.
Since it shares a lot in common with Ubuntu, you can be confident you won’t have to deal with any hardware compatibility gremlins. Plus, it proves to be buttery-smooth, even on low-end hardware, like laptops and cheap Atom and Celeron-powered machines. This is important when you’re also dealing with the inherent performance bottleneck that comes with booting your operating system from an USB drive.
For Managing Your Hard Disk: Gparted Live
Hard drives are divided into chunks called ‘partitions’. Your computer’s hard drive might have just one partition for all your files and folders. Or it might have a partition for your programs, and another for your documents and files. From time, you might need to modify these partitions to either resize them, or wipe them entirely.
There’s a common Linux tool used to manage these partition called Gparted. Many distributions come with this pre-installed. But there’s also a distribution which is centered around this tool.
It’s called Gparted Live. Burn it to a CD (or, better yet, a USB flash drive) and you’ll be able to reshape your hard drive as you require. Be careful though, as one mistake could potentially render your hard drive unbootable.
For Removing Viruses: AVG Rescue CD and BitDefender Rescue CD
When malware strikes, it can often be game over. Your machine will run slowly, or perhaps not at all. Your files and folders will be held to ransom. Everything you do on your computer could be monitored. Worse, many viruses and Trojans are designed to actively fight removal. They’ll prevent antimalware programs from updating their definitions, or even running. But you have alternatives.
By booting into a special Linux distribution, you can scan your system for problems, and resolve them. There are two worthy of note, each produced by a major security company you’ve probably heard of. Here’s what you need to know.
AVG Rescue CD
Over the past twenty years, one of the biggest names in computer security has been AVG. The Czech-based firm has produced one of the first free antivirus programs to hit the mainstream. Now it’s available as a Linux distribution.
You probably haven’t heard of it though. AVG have chosen to market it at their enterprise customers. But although they’re not marketing it at home users, you can still download it from the AVG website.
It’s also worth noting that although it’s called the “AVG Rescue CD”, you can still burn it onto a USB flash drive. Instructions can be found in the video above.
BitDefender Rescue CD
Another big name in computer security is Romania-based BitDefender, who boast an array of premium and free antivirus and antimalware solutions. Like AVG, they too offer a Linux live CD.
In terms of sheer effectiveness, BitDefender’s products tend to rank quite highly. Which is why I’d personally lean towards BitDefender’s offering. Antivirus is the type of thing where you want to pick a product and commit to it, so as to avoid causing problems.
Like AVG’s Rescue CD, you can install this on an USB stick. BitDefender have some helpful instructions, where they explain how you can use the Windows tool Stickifier to create one.
Possible, Sure – But is it Practical?
But how does this actually work in practice? You might have concerns that running a desktop operating system on a USB flash drive would be an exercise in frustration. But actually, it isn’t too bad.
This is partly due to the proliferation of newer USB standards, including USB 3.0, which is an increasingly common feature on laptops. This standard offers vastly improved read-write times, which are essential if you’re running an operating system.
Then, there’s the fact that prices have crashed, while storage quantities have soared. You can easily get a 64GB drive for less than $50. USB drives that stretch into the hundreds of gigabytes still remain an expensive proposition though.
Do you run a Linux distro on a USB stick? Tell me about what it is and why in the comments below.