My house mate works at a big company, who equip their people with the fanciest of Thinkpads, and allow them to use these for private purposes too. That’s great of course, except that the machines are totally locked down to prevent leakages of company data: as a result, you can’t burn private files to CD-R either, nor write them to USB-attached storage (needless to say, we’re talking about a Windows system). Given that he has geek roots, he was very open to the idea of booting a GNU/Linux system for private purposes. There was no way to put it next to Windows on the fully encrypted hard disk, and so I said it might be a nice idea to get one of these:
As the Canonical Store’s description says, “This new and improved USB Flash drive not only comes with Ubuntu 8.10 pre-loaded, but can also hold a whopping 4GB of data that can be transferred to virtually any USB equipped machine. Who could say no?”. And indeed, he couldn’t say no, and bought one. Let’s have three cheers for that decision! :)
There wasn’t really much more of a description available, other than perhaps the linked “USB_Key_Letter.pdf“, which says: “To try Ubuntu, put this USB drive in your computer and turn on or restart your computer. This will allow you to explore Ubuntu, whilst leaving your existing software untouched. You can write documents or install additional software using the 3GB of free space on the disk. If you like Ubuntu, you’ll have the option of installing it on your computer.”
The USB stick was in the mail only two days later, and it looks much, much classier even than on the photo. I’d say it’s quite good value for such a handsome accessory, even if there wouldn’t have been any software preinstalled (on a side note, we also got me a new hat, which is perfect for British winter – not too warm, not too cold – and very nicely made as well).
So far, so good. After only a few minutes of play, we were both a bit disappointed though. The configuration as it is shipped on the stick is of the “Live USB system” type, basically what you get when you use the USB-Creator tool that ships with Intrepid. Oversimplifying things, I’d say it is a LiveCD with boot scripts to make it run from the USB stick, and a hack that allows persistent storage in the free space on the stick.
There are a few reasons why such a system is not as cool as it may initially seem. One is that installing kernel upgrades would be a very hairy affair if at all possible – by design, the LiveCD is a read-only system, and the fact that it doesn’t use GRUB makes the regular update-scripts useless. You can place the updated linux-images in the persistent storage space, but the LiveCD bootloader won’t look for them.
Another thing is that everytime you boot from the Live USB system, it is as if you’re booting from the LiveCD, that is, it takes rather long – especially compared to a standard, “really-installed” system. That doesn’t matter if you’re using the USB stick as an installation medium, or just to show off Ubuntu every now and then, but it does if it’s your day-to-day system.
All these things are, of course, pretty obvious. And actually, I don’t want to be whining about this – the upshot is that the Canonical Shop is selling a very pretty USB stick – just don’t expect too much from the fact that it “comes with Ubuntu 8.10 pre-loaded”.
What we did in the end? We did a regular install to the USB stick, and now it boots like lightning, and works like a charm. My house mate was really impressed with how you can just plug it into completely different makes of laptop, and have it boot and select the right wireless drivers etc by itself (admittedly, it did need a dpkg-reconfigure for the xserver at some point).
And I couldn’t find this anywhere (we tried to find out before running the installation) so just for the record: the disk footprint of a vanilla Intrepid system right after installation is 2.1GB. You can run upgrades, and if you just remember to remove their deb-packages with “aptitude clean” and also remove any old kernel versions, stay pretty close to that footprint for quite a while (cleaning out log-files is not really worth the effort I think).
On a final note, the standard system will eventually write the flash memory to death, but until that time, the stick is a great-looking, great-performing, worthy Ubuntu-ambassador, everywhere my house mate takes it.