This week’s release of the Fedora 9 Linux distribution makes putting a full-fledged desktop on a portable USB thumb drive a three-click affair. Even better, you don’t need Linux installed to create it, you can leave the data on your thumb drive untouched, and any files you create or settings you tweak remain in place the next time you boot up. After the jump, let’s create a fully-functional desktop-to-go using a simple Windows program and a 1GB or larger thumb drive.
Turning a live CD ISO into a bootable USB image has been possible for some time now, but it usually involves some heavy lifting with the command line, and almost always in Linux. Fedora’s liveusb-creator program makes USB imaging dead simple, and the Fedora distribution itself has a lot going for it. The latest “community” version of Red Hat’s Linux package benefits from the same updates to the GNOME desktop that Ubuntu’s Hardy Heron includes, and KDE fans get a pretty full-featured version that runs on the customizable KDE 4. You can see a full list of updates and improvements to Fedora 9 here, but it’s best to check it out for yourself. Here’s how.
Make your live USB
First we’ll need to grab Fedora’s liveusb-creator tool by grabbing the zip file listed under “Download,” extracting it and running the liveusb-creator.exe file found inside in Windows.
The top options on the window let you choose to use a live Fedora CD image you’ve already downloaded or have the tool grab a copy of the standard Fedora 9 disc itself. If you’d rather grab the file yourself or download it through a torrent, use one of the links listed under “live media” at the Fedora Project. Plug in your USB drive if you haven’t already, and make sure it’s selected in the “Target” field. Don’t worry about files you’ve got on there—as long as the tool has space to put Fedora on there, it won’t touch your other files.
The slider to the right is the most important part—”Persistent Overlay” is the space on the thumb drive you want to use for storing your files and settings. The Fedora system itself is going to take up roughly the size of a stuffed CD; using an empty 1GB thumb drive, I chose 205MB for the overlay, which left 63MB free, but you can scale that up for larger drives or down if you want more free space. Keep in mind that any files you store on the drive itself can be accessed from inside your USB-booted system, so a bigger persistent overlay isn’t always necessary.
Hit “Create Live USB,” and watch the creator do its thing. Once it’s done, your stick is probably ready to get plugged in and booted up.
Fix booting problems
I say “probably” because there’s a chance, especially if you’ve done some formatting or other live-booting experiments, that you’ll get an error at boot-up stating there’s “No partition active” or something similar. If that’s the case, head to your Start menu’s “Run” command (“Start search” box in Vista), type in diskpart and hit Enter. You’ll get a “DISKPART>” command prompt, where you should follow these commands to mark your USB drive as “active.”
Now you should be set to boot into Fedora 9. You’ll see a splash screen counting down from 10 when you boot (hit Enter twice to speed it up), and you’ll land at a desktop that’s pretty much a fresh Fedora 9 install. You can access to your USB drive’s files from here, connect to a wired or wireless network with the icon in the upper-right system tray, and you’ve got a solid set of built-in applications—Firefox 3 Beta 5, the GIMP, Pidgin, the Transmission BitTorrent client, and a pretty nifty Bluetooth manager, to name a few.
Want to add Thunderbird or OpenOffice.org? Head to the upper-left menus and click to System->Administration->Add/Remove Programs. Anything you install goes into your “persistent overlay,” so as long as you’ve got space for it, you can add whatever you’d like.
Now it’s time to explore and get familiar with a GNOME-based Linux system (or KDE 4, depending on which image you grabbed). Here are a few suggestions on helpful tweaks you might want to make once you’re set up:
* nable your NTFS drives: If you’ve loaded a USB Fedora on a system with Windows installed, you’ll want to open up Add/Remove Programs, search for “ntfs-config,” and install that package. From the System menu again, choose NTFS Config, and you can select the drives you want to have access to.
* Sync data with your Windows apps: Once you can see your NTFS drives on your desktop, you can use your established settings in Firefox 3, Thunderbird, Pidgin, and other apps if you’re booting on the same system as Windows. Check out our guide to dual-booting with shared data; if you’re using Firefox 2 in Windows and only want to replicate bookmarks in Fedora, the GMarks synchronizer has updated to support versions 3 and 2.
* Turn off annoying system sounds: One misstep Fedora makes, at least in my opinion, is enabling by default a slew of little chirps and whistles every time you click or do something. To silence them, head to System-Preferences->Hardware->Sound, click the “System” tab, and un-check the “Enable system sounds” box.
You’ve now got a portable system that’s great for rescuing un-bootable computers, bringing your favorite work apps on the go, or just testing out Linux with realistic performance and custom options. What apps and tweaks have you made to your own live USB system? Share your tips, and questions, in the comments.
Kevin Purdy, associate editor at Lifehacker, wrote this feature from inside his USB drive. His weekly feature, Open Sourcery, appears every Friday on Lifehacker.