Linux on Little Laptops

Got an old laptop? I do: it’s about ten years old and almost ludicrously out of date. A Sony Vaio with 192Mb of RAM and a 5Gb hard drive.

I’ve also got a brand new laptop, the Asus Eee PC. But don’t bother too much with the "official" site, there are better places to get more info on the Eee, starting with You can learn a lot from the customer reviews. But here’s the best resource I’ve found so far: Eee User is the "Unofficial Asus Eee PC" blog/forum/wiki/community, and they’ve got articles and links to resources for turbocharging this little laptop.

If you’re thinking about buying an Eee, here’s fair warning: the default user interface is kind of dreadful. It reminds me of those little PDAs that were all the rage 5-10 years ago, that had teensy-tiny QWERTY keyboards and fit in a (big) pocket. But the Eee is big enough to run an actual desktop environment, even if the screen is a bit pinched, so why not?

Anyway, this post is going to be a catchall, covering not just ways to fiddle around (and potentially brick) your Eee, but also going into some of the options available for running Linux on laptops (old and new) as well as turning a USB drive into a portable workstation. Now, that idea is hardly news (I wrote about my experiment with a LiveCD and a USB drive back in the March 2005 Computer Power User Magazine, "My Knoppix Adventure"), but what is news is that people are actually starting to do it.

For example, here’s a nice writeup: Travel Without the Laptop, Carry Your Computer on a USB Drive that’s not even about Linux, but there’s a very good warning in the comments about keyloggers, which can be either hardware or software that records all the keystrokes you enter on a computer. Google them up yourself, and you’ll find that they can be integrated into the actual keyboards of public computers, so you might want to be wary of using any PC that you don’t own–meaning that the Eee is an even better option than you might think. I’d rather drag a 2-pound Eee PC around and be safer than jettison my own hardware entirely.

Anyway, without any more ado, here’s some links about fiddling around with the Eee:

  • Want that "advanced" mode? Here’s how to Enable Advanced Desktop Mode from Be sure to read the whole thing; I skipped to the end and got myself in trouble (had to boot from a USB drive to fix it), but when I started over from the start ("the easy way") I ended smiling.
  • I’ve been happy, so far at least, with the half-gig of RAM that came with the Eee, but if I decide to upgrade it, I’ll be going back to this video, Bleeding Edge TV 207: Asus Eee PC RAM Upgrade, which makes it look very easy. I found the video from this writeup, Asus Eee PC: How to Upgrade the Memory, also worth reading.
  • There’s a lot more you can do, but check out the wiki for some ideas if you’re not sure what you want to try.

But meanwhile, what about booting from a USB stick? I had to do that when I charged ahead and "edited" a configuration file that caused my Eee to fail to boot. Once I booted Linux from USB, I could "correct" that edit and recover my system. Long story short, the answer for me was Damn Small Linux because the only USB drive I had handy was just 256Mb, and all the other how-to’s I found listed required ingredients that began with "IGb or greater USB drive". DSL is just awesome, and it works so well. All I had to do was burn the distro to CD, boot it on any old system with the USB stick plugged in, and run a quick little app from the DSL Apps/Tools menu to transfer the OS to the USB stick.

OK, so what about all those other cool options for running Linux in super-portability mode? Here are some links, with my comments:

  • Here’s an Ubuntu wiki page about Booting from USB with Ubuntu. It’s long, and presumably it applies to any flavor of Ubuntu, including Xubuntu (for older/lightweight systems, it uses Xfce4 as its desktop environment, rather than the weightier GNOME or KDE) and Fluxbuntu (uses Fluxbox, which is another lightweight desktop manager).
  • If you’re curious about Fluxbuntu, you can read one person’s adventures with Fluxbuntu on my Low-end Laptop. And, if you’re interested, you can check out the back story here, Low-end Laptop Distro thinking again…
  • Damn Small Linux is the bomb. I just love it: it boots so fast and looks so smooth you’d never suspect it’s only 50Mb. Just had to give it another link here.
  • Puppy Linux is another distro designed to give new life to old systems with minimal RAM and CPU. That’s what’s driving my Vaio these days; it’s also pretty elegant and small (if not as small as DSL).
  • gOS. It’s not Google Linux, but it’s what Google Linux might look like, if it existed. Even though it’s just another flavor of Ubuntu, it’s a Google-leaning flavor, which is a good idea for keeping the size down. Google Applications, after all, live on the web, not on your hard drive. gOS also happens to be the Linux flavor that Walmart uses for it’s cheap-o Linux PCs, for whatever that’s worth.
  • Not sure what to make of, with its "Boot and run Linux from a USB flash memory stick" heading on the homepage. Lots of tutorials on booting and running Linux from a USB flash memory stick, but not so much context.

Finally, if you’ve got an old laptop, you might like to read Give an Old Laptop New Life with Cheap (or Free) Projects  from Lifehacker, with some pointers to distros already cited above as well as hints about deploying laptops for various uses (I’m thinking my old Vaio, with a wireless LAN card, could work a treat in the kitchen).

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