What I'm looking to do is set up a thumb drive that I can carry with me, and be able to plug in any system and boot into a separate OS from what is installed on the machine. I'm figuring Linux is the way to go for speed and ease of setup/use, but as I've never actually used it before I'm not sure exactly where to start.
I have a 4GB Thumb drive that I'd like to be able to use for this project, and my goal is basically to make a setup that can run basic hardware diagnostics and so forth. If possible I'd like to be able to access information similar to what Everest provides in Windows, and hopefully be able to access un-password protected files off of the systems internal drives. I'd like something that boots as quickly as possible, and will have high compatibility with the various hardware that may be present whether plugging into a laptop/desktop, or whatever, while not having un-necessary bloat taking up space or slowing the drive down.
Can anyone suggest the best Linux distribution to use to accomplish this as well as the basic steps I need to take to set it up, and what additional software I should place on the drive to enable me to accomplish this?
This is very easy to do, the hardest part is choosing the distribution.
In a nutshell:
1. Download the .ISO file for the distribution you want to run
2. Download UnetBootin
3. Run Unetbootin to create a bootable pen drive, it automagically copies the files you need from the .iso file onto the pen.
4. Boot from the pendrive.
I've done this whole process in less than 5 minutes for some of the smaller distros.
Personally I prefer PenDrive Linux. I think it works a bit better, but I do agree that both are very good ways to get it done.
As for distro-wise, running something from a flash drive will be pretty quick to load anyway, plus these programs let you set apart some room to install programs and the such. You could always install more programs that way, since Linux is Linux, you can get bits and bobs from almost anywhere.
It's probably a smarter idea to get a mainstream distro rather than an obscure distro that specialises in anything, firstly you get more support and secondly, the driver support tends to be more updated and complete in mainstream distros.
The down side of doing this is the size. USB pen drives are not that fast on the whole, using a small distro like Puppy or Slax allows you to use the 'toram' option when booting allowing the whole system to run from a ram drive. With Puppy you only need 256Mb of ram to do this and still have enough free ram to run Libra Office and Firefox with a few open tabs.
You're totally right about driver support though. Some of the *buntu variants are well worth a try. Xubuntu and the like are a good middle ground.
Backtrack is the best-known forensic distro. Helix is another. However, to use one from a USB stick, quick boot time and therefore, smallish size is essential. AMDfangirl makes a valid point regarding compatibility with known distros, like Slackware or Debian or Ubuntu or Knoppix or Fedora. Please see here http://www.securitydistro.com/security-distros/ . Perhaps grml or NST may be what you are looking for.
So what are the advatanges and disadvantages in terms if speed and functionality between a mainstream and one of the pocket versions?
Like are we talking a few seconds vs a few minutes to boot, or is the difference much less? Also in terms of how much space they'll take up, and feature/usability differences?
I would say your concerns are secondary to your flash drive capabilities -- http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/data-transfer-run,1037-10.html -- but lack of bloat and
streamlined apps specific to the distro desired are advantages (on the oher hand, one
could make their own distro with Linux From Scratch or the like)* to specialized distros.
Debian- and ubuntu-based disros have the advantage of large range of choice within their
repositories and ease of dependency resolution.
* Others are working on this very thing, to give you some idea of what you would be getting into