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I have a real installation on a USB stick. No static "live" data, no lengthy guides & external toolkits, no special steps required and no extra work or even a learning curve. Just a regular install that can be upgraded like any other at any given time, as usual. No difference between installed on a USB stick or on a local harddisk, except that i've installed a selection of xorg video drivers instead of just one. And of course, the system is 32-bit, allowing it to run on older machines also.
Only thing is, it's not a small, compressed squashfs which would fit on a CD. It's a few GB big but as long as my stick has 16GB anyhow, no problem. Anything 8GB or bigger will do.
And that's big enough for a DVD-sized operating system? [...] What brand do you recommend? I expect to get either a Sandisk or a Kingston.
Finally, am I right that I should keep my home partition on another medium so that a failure would destroy only the operating system?
Okay, if you install any Linux on your local harddisk, see how big the installation size gets, the entire thing (root partition, home partition or anything else you might have split off). The overall disk usage. The very same amount of space will be used when you install the very same thing on the USB device. Remember that if you do a full dist-upgrade somewhen in the future, you will need some extra space for all the downloaded packages during the upgrade.
I cannot really make a suggestion which model to choose because a) the market is moving so quickly, with tons of devices to choose from, and b) it's been a while since i bought my last USB stick. Dunno if that particular model is even available anymore. My stick is really nothing special, but it happens to just work fine for some years now without any problems.
What i do know that if i was to buy an SSD, it would be a Crucial M4 and nothing else. That's because it has a reliable controller which is the main problem for the short(ish) lifetimes of most other SSD's. Only that particular model it would be for me. That's based on countless user reviews i've read, everybody giving the full thumbs up for this one, while reviews for other models often show high levels of disappointment.
As i live in Germany, one useful source for user reviews is www.alternate.de. You may not be able to read the german user reviews, but you can still see how many ppl gave 5 stars for the product. But maybe you got a similar site wherever you live (or at least in your language).
And about your second point: I did not split off a /home partition for the USB stick, i have everything in one partition, plus one data storage partition using NTFS which i can use to exchange files between me & others without even booting my system. Because of Windows behaving kinda strange when the first partition is non-NTFS, i made the first partition my NTFS storage partition, and the next one is an ext4 containing the system. Not using a home partition just saves some space, because if i would use one, both partitions would have to be big enough to always have a reasonable amount of extra free space. And eventually, i do regular backups of the entire stick on my local machine. If the stick gets damaged somehow (or lost), no problem other than that i have to buy a new one and restore the backup.
One other thing: i also have no swap partition on the stick. If you happen to run out of memory on someone's machine, you always got the option to mount any local harddisk partition (even NTFS), create a big file there, then run mkswap on that file and eventually mount that thing as swap.
That would avoid abusing the USB stick for swapping because a) your stick would be grateful for not being used for excessive writing and b) a swapfile on a harddisk would usually be alot faster.
Addendum #2: if you create a swapfile on someone else's system and then use your system with sensible information ala website logins/passwords etc., note that some of this data might find it's way onto the swapfile, and before you leave you should overwrite the entire swapfile with content from /dev/zero or /dev/urandom..
I was just going to ask about that. So, running the distro off a stick does not mean I should go without a hard disk. (Unless, perhaps, I could get another stick and dedicate it to swapping.)
If you're going to boot from your stick on a machine with no harddisk at all, or if you're not authorized to mount one, then yes, you might need something else for use as swap if the machine in question does not sport much RAM.
There are pros and cons to putting the home partition somewhere else. If I did, it would reduce the amount of writes, but...I'd have to back up the home partition separately.
Not entirely nailing the problem. If you have a separate /home partition, this would just mean that you would do the writing only on that particular part of the stick, i.e., the flash memory cells which are occupied by the /home partition, so you would subject these cells to more writing than the rest of the stick, so the likelyhood for cells giving up would only increase, i.e., the expected lifetime of the stick would shrink.
The newest Linux kernel features a new file system extra for flash mem which will write data from start to end and then go back to start, i.e., in a rotating fashion which uses all free cells equally often, plus a few more optimizations regarding the lack of need for fragmentation avoidance, as this is not a real issue with that type of storage medium. Quite fast as from what i saw in a benchmark.
My distro preferences aren't entirely stable, and it occurs to me that perhaps I should wait until they are. Besides that I'm waiting for the next MEPIS, I'm also seriously considering leaving the Debian distro family entirely and changing to Slackware. (Slack is too difficult for me, but I like VectorLinux.) I haven't done it yet because I haven't had the will to learn a new distro and because I like the apt package-management style. But I suppose I'd better not use USB drives when I might change distros--it would involve extra rewrites and sounds like generally a lot of work and confusion.
I wouldn't be too concerned about just a handful of writes, such as a total reinstall of a system. Thats merely a handful in terms of write-delete-write-delete-write... even a full system install is eventually only one write op per cell..
Modern sticks can take some these days. It's really getting better, compared to earlier flash-type devices.
I've been running Mint 13 kde off cheap 16Gb Patriot usb 2.0 for a year. Kinda slow. My 5 year old corsair 16Gb 2.0 is pretty snappy so I picked up a coarsair 3.0 and it's great!!!! The patriot 3.0 are ok but my coarsair 2.0 is better.
I decided read speed was the most important since I don't write to them. I use oe of the patriots for storage so I actually carry 2 usbs around.
I outgrow usb's way before I burn them up I'd think. I have thrown a few away even that were actually OK and later I figured out the distro was goofy. In any case, usb's 8G and up are pretty cheap. Might squeeze one on a 4G and I do have a good distro on 256M drive and one on a 128M drive.
You'd have to install a few thousand/million distros to even come close to burning a flash drive out. What might burn them out is constant actions to overheat the controller or millions of swap read/writes.
For example. I bought a usb 3.0 that worked great in windows. It worked great with a live install to a fat file format. When I tried to use it as a native install on ext format it would just never work fast. Seems to have some sort or race or cache issue that would stop full speed for a few seconds. I did know two things then, both hardware and software might have been to blame. Since it worked in windows it would not exactly prove linux would work. It wasn't worth my time to try to diag it. 3.0 was new then and I just went back to usb 2.0.
A year or two passed and I now have a few usb 3.0 installs that work perfectly even on booted to usb 3.0. They could fail on some other chipsets but they work for me on my systems.
Another was trying to get plop to work. For some reason it looked like a virus or malware issue or a hardware issue. Again not worth the time to figure out. Just quit using plop.
There have been a number of people who tried to load an OS on usb 3.0 and it would fail or have to load on 2.x and then reboot to 3.0. Just now is it being somewhat stable I'd think.