At Home with Linux: Ubuntu 11.10 on a USB Stick

Executive Summary
It's come a long way and it's quite good, even when booted from a USB drive.

Long Version
I wrote yesterday about the pleasures of using Ubuntu on one of the Dell workstations. Late last night I decided to boot the old Dell Latititude D630 with Ubuntu installed on a thumb drive.

The Latitude already runs 64-bit Fedora 14 with excellent effect. Every feature works, including Broadcom 802.11 wireless hardware in the notebook. I've written already how happy I am that everything Just Works with Fedora on the Latitude.

But Fedora 14 (Laughlin) was released over a year ago on November of 2010. Fedora 16 (Verne) was released a month ago on 6 November. While it's easy to upgrade and install the latest and greatest on virtual machines in the lab, I have learned to slow down and upgrade with considerable caution when it's a machine I depend on quite a lot, or that already does everything I want. I jumped off the upgrade treadmill a while back, having been burned by both Microsoft (Vista) and a few major Linux distributions (Fedora, Ubuntu, OpenSUSE) during the late 2007s to 2008.

As the sages pontificate time marches on and wounds all heels, etc, etc, etc. I've also noticed a pair of trends in the Linux distributions over the last twelve months; their overall quality has improved considerably since 2008 and the subsystem upstream communities that feed the distros have been truly innovative of late. That, and I hate the over-the-top bombast of the many paperback intellectual critics that skitter like roaches across the Internets, both of Microsoft and of Linux (I'm particularly looking over at you TM Repository).

So I moseyed on over to the Fedora wiki to learn about the current methods for installing a live Linux ISO onto a USB stick. USB sticks have fallen drastically in price; 4GiB sticks from SanDisk now go for $9 or less at WalMart, and twin blister packs with 2GiB sticks sell for about the same. I'd picked up a few to have around (you never know when you need to sneakernet something on a USB stick).

I installed the helper application LiveUSB Creator recommended on the Fedora wiki and used it to create a live boot USB stick with Fedora 16 desktop using Gnome 3. I tried that out and found Gnome 3 to be a bit too far on the wild side for my tastes. I also discovered that everything worked except wireless. And that annoyed me a bit more.

Folks, this is 2011. This notebook is at least three years old. Fedora still seems to be hamstrung by the philosophy of open source, that it must all be open to be included on first boot. Yes, I ran into the same issue with Fedora 14 and accepted that limitation. I made sure the notebook was wired into the LAN so I could download and install the wireless drivers. I hated the process then and I hate it even more now, especially with a gimpy knee. Hobbling around is no fun when you have to. It's even worse over something as inane as not willing to include important wireless drivers on the live boot image.

One comment about LiveUSB creator. I run Windows 7 Enterprise on my other notebook, and it's run with lowered permissions; I don't run root all the time on Unix/Linux, so why should I run the equivalent administrator all the time on Windows? But that's no excuse for having to run LiveUSB Creator as administrator every time I run it. If I don't then something breaks and the image installed on the USB stick will not boot. I'm going to try Ubuntu's recommended Windows utility, the Universal USB Installer on Pendrive Linux and see if that solves that problem.

After testing Fedora 16 I downloaded and installed the Ubuntu 11.10 desktop, then booted that onto the Latitude and gave it a whirl. Ubuntu 11.10 didn't take long to boot. Before you could say "what possessed them to name it Oneiric Ocelot" I was on the desktop.

Out of some desperate hope I right-clicked on the network icon to try and configure the wireless connection with my home router's SSID. Ubuntu at lease knew about the wireless hardware, but it didn't boot with it enabled. But lo and behold a dialog popped up offering to install the drivers from the ISO on the USB stick. I quickly clicked the activate button, and in little time the drivers were installed.

One problem with this was the dialog that followed after activation instructing me to reboot the system. Well, that works if the OS is installed, but not so much if you're a live system. I got it working by making an educated guess and configuring wireless again. This is not something that a novice would know to try, and shouldn't have to be done even on an installed system.

Come on folks, there's no real reason not to include the Broadcom wireless drivers. That issue should have been settled a decade ago. The obstinate insistence to stick to this open-source sanctimonious righteousness about closed drivers that are never-the-less free to use serves no useful purpose except to make a very small group within the community feel good about themselves and annoys the hell out of everybody else. At least I had a shot at making this all work out of the box with Ubuntu, and I'm sure there are other distributions that make it even easier to get it working seamlessly out of the box.

With wireless operational I started to play a bit with the desktop. I said it before and I'll say it again, I really like Unity. A lot. I like it a lot better than unadulterated Gnome 3 (although I found Linux Mint 12's Gnome 3 implementation quite acceptable). It's operation on the Latitude is quite fluid and speedy. All the effects are quite pleasant to look at. As good as Unity was on the workstation, it's seems  to be even better on the notebook.

My only complaint about the desktop so far is Dash. I like the concept behind Dash but I'm not too keen about its transparency; for my taste it's too transparent. I like the transparency effect of the terminal, and wish I could make the Dash panel equally less transparent and dark. But that's a personal taste. I'm sure there's some configuration for it I haven't found yet.

If you go back and read my posts from 2007 and 2008, you'll read where I had troubles getting live distributions to work consistently across notebooks and my home systems. I could never depend on them to make all the hardware work, even between releases of the same distribution. This appears to have changed in 2011 for the better. I've now booted two consecutive distributions, and the only major failure that didn't need to fail has been with wireless.

Everything else, from graphics to sound to USB and beyond all Just Work. I am very very pleased with the graphics performance of both Fedora 16 and Ubuntu 11.10. Both distributions recognized and provided the maximum resolution this notebook is capable of providing, and at least with Ubuntu, graphic acceleration works with the desktop decorations. I'm looking forward to trying this with several other distributions to get a better feel for the state of Linux, in particular Linux Mint 12 and OpenSUSE 12.1.

And going back to Gnome 3, it is at least functional. I remember when KDE 4 was first released. The only way to describe that experience was horrible. The KDE developer community released it in what many described as a pre-alpha state; a number of distributions picked it up and rolled it out to universally bad press. The Gnome developer community looks to have learned from that debacle; Gnome 3 is usable. My choice not to use it is personal, not technical, which should be considered a positive for Gnome 3. In other words it worked well enough for me to make an informed decision, and for that I am quite grateful.

Just because I like Unity doesn't mean you will. But at least give it a shot if you haven't already, especially with Ubuntu 11.10. Give Ubuntu and Unity a chance and you might just like it in spite of the nay-sayers.


  1. I have a dual boot machine here at home with my preferred Debian Stable for work, and the latest Ubuntu because almost the whole rest of the family is using that. Both installations are 64 bit, Debian with Gnome2, and Ubuntu with both Unity and Gnome3 (wanted to see a fully functional version, Fedora 16 inside a VirtualBox on my Debian fell back to "legacy" mode or so).

    As you can guess, Gnome2 is still my preferred environment, but just because I'm so used to it, and tweaked it quite a bit as well. But there's a lot of interesting stuff in both Gnome3 and Unity, for "us photographers" for instance that will be color management. So I'll embrace it when it comes in the next Debian stabe - and 3.2 of Gnome doesn't feel that bad at all. Just two or three key combinations to remember, and you can almost work like before.

    Time are changing, yes, and btw - your "wounds all heels" made me ROTFL...

  2. I myself am not sure which desktop to go with i.e. Gnome 3 or Unity. My current thoughts are that on my home machine Unity would be fine, but as a corporate desktop its just a bit to colorful and flashy. I would hate to plugin my laptop to a projector at work and display big colorful icons on the left hand side before I start a presentation. Gnomes toned down look works better in those circumstances and the super / windows key works better IMHO. Linux Mint 12 is looking good in this regard. Glad to see you are back to blogging on linux btw.


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