My work laptop is a little bit on the heavy side. It works well as a desktop replacement which is how I use it these days. I hardly ever use it without an external monitor mouse and keyboard. I’m actually considering buying either one of those mini notebooks or perhaps a macbook at some point in the future – a machine that I could actually drag around with me everywhere. But that will have to wait since I just got my gaming monster PC recently.

Besides, most of the time when I need to use a computer one is readily available for me. For example, when I’m at school I have a PC on the desk in the adjunct office. And since I tend to keep most of my school related files synced with Dropbox they are available to me via the web interface. That said, it is nice to work in a familiar environment using the software you like without worrying about key loggers that other adjuncts doubtlessly installed on the shared office computer. Yeah, I do usually carry a Knoppix CD in my book bag but that doesn’t really cut it. What I’d really like is my own comfy, lived-in environment – not a pristine Live CD boot. You know what I mean?

So lately I decided to do something new. Believe it or not, but in all my years with Linux I have never created a bootable USB type thing. I used countless live CD’s in the past, but it actually never occurred to me to try something more persistent. So I dug out my old 2GB stick and installed Slax.

Why Slax you ask? Oh, I don’t know. It’s small, clean, easy to use and actually designed to work off a USB drive. It’s a minimalistic OS and yet it runs a lightweight version of KDE making me feel like home. I have tried many different desktop environments but KDE was always the one that just felt right. So I’m naturally inclined towards systems that use it.

Not to mention that the installation itself is almost laughably easy. You download a tarball, extract it to your USB stick and then just run an included shell script to overwrite the devices MBR. It literally takes 5 minutes, including the download time (well, depends on your bandwidth, but you know what I mean).

The USB version of Slax is persistent – it will actually write changes to the disk, and allow you to set up your environment the way you like it and keep it that way. If you mess up, you can even reset it to a default state at boot time. It boots around 10 times faster than a Live CD and is quite responsive.

I particularly like how Slax resolved the whole package management conundrum. For example, you can “temporarily” install software with one click of a button. You just go here find your module and click “Activate”. This will download an install the package, but only for the duration of the current session. Once you reboot the package will be gone. Of course you can download the package and permanently install it as well – it’s just that the temporary option is kinda neat.

Of course, it is mostly a toy operating system. I wouldn’t recommend using it for mission critical stuff. I wouldn’t make it your primary OS. But if you want to carry your own customized environment and software in your pocket, it is perfect. Just plug it in, boot the machine and enjoy. I highly recommend setting one up for yourself if you know you will need to use some public/shared machine somewhere. Naturally competent admins of shared machines will probably disable all the bootable devices other than the HD and password protect the BIOS. Thankfully, competent admins are quite rare.

So yeah. Give it a whirl if you are in the market for USB based distribution.

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4 Responses to Slax

  1. Andrey RUSSIAN FEDERATION Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    You have not yet discovered my favorite Slax feature! “Slax can run totally from RAM” plus “modules can be loaded and unloaded anytime” equals “you have as much software as you need and still work totally from RAM”.

    Never seen that combo elsewhere, but I am not a distro hopper.

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  2. Andreas UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Linux says:

    I was quite surprised that slax mounted all available partitions on the host machine. Crikey – that’s the last thing I want when running on someone elses hardware!

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Andrey:

    Yeah, that dynamic module thing is quite unique. I haven’t seen it implemented this way anywhere else. Thant said, I’ve seen live distros that run entirely from RAM.

    @ Andreas:

    I guess it’s a matter of convenience. It’s probably easier to mount them early on, than have to user worry about doing it himself.

    Also, I thought that it only indexes them and shows them as available without actually mounting. It mounts when you double click on the drive and try to access it. I might be wrong about this – I will double check. If it does mount them automatically that’s a little iffy, but not a deal breaker for me.

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  4. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I considered this for a while, but I just can’t seem to find computers that can boot directly off USB (when the BIOS isn’t locked up, I guess we do have competent admins). CD-ROM, HDD and Network are almost always there but that’s usually it. Even my most recent motherboard in my gaming PC can’t do it, although it’s about 4 years old now, and wasn’t exactly high-end at the time.

    I actually thought about installing an “apt-getable” linux distribution (Debian, or Ubuntu to save me some hassles) instead of the small OSs available. 8 GB USB disks cost around 20€ and it’s plenty to host the OS, my usual packages and quite a bit of files. Are there any benefit in using these special distributions other standard Live-CDs converted to USB disks ?

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