Portable Ubuntu and dual monitors

I love dual monitors. Roughly half of the labs I spend my time in have dual monitors. The others don’t and hence I try not to spend much time in those. Unfortunately one of those single monitor labs is the only computer science Linux lab that we have, so by necessity I actually do need to spend a considerable amount of time there. And whenever I’m there I miss not having a second monitor.

If you’re not someone who hasn’t used dual monitors for a while, then it can be somewhat hard to understand how much easier two monitors make your life. Two monitors provide a very natural division of information that you need on your screen. One monitor contains reference information, this is stuff that you’re always looking at, but that you’re not actively interacting with. The other monitor contains whatever things that you are actively interacting with. For me as a programmer, one monitor generally contains API references in a browser (Chrome on Windows, Firefox on everything else). The other monitor contains my editor/IDE. Unfortunately I do most of my programming in the Linux lab which are all single monitor machines or on my laptop, which I rarely hook up to an external monitor.

There are a  lot of Windows dual-monitor machines available in other labs, but the only thing I like about Windows anymore is Google Chrome. Our Windows machines aren’t locked down, so students are allowed to install software as long as it isn’t something dangerous. I was considering installing some sort of X server on some of the machines. But I generally move about machines quite a bit and so I don’t want to be installing X servers on every machine I’m on.

My next thought was carrying around a bootable Linux USB drive and running off that. I was seriously considering doing that when I came across an interesting SourceForge project via Reddit which uses virtual machine technology to let you run Ubuntu like an application right in Windows. And yes, that was the answer to my problems. Last evening I downloaded the Portable Ubuntu image to a  lab machine and gave it a test run before moving it onto my 4GB USB drive.

My experience has been mostly positive so far. The Ubuntu installation is somewhat out of date (it’s the 8.04 version of it). But that really isn’t a problem for me. In fact, as it turns out, I haven’t really been using it as a full fledged Linux distribution. For the most part I use it as an interface to my college’s powerful Linux clusters.  I have pulled my personal Git repository to it, but for the most part I think I will be working directly off my college’s machines. The greatest benefit is that I can run normal Windows apps right alongside it. This means that I can have a bunch of terminals and Emacs open while at the same time having Google Chrome and some other Windows-specific software I need. The system really comes into its own with multiple monitors. It’s useful to think of one monitor as a Linux screen and the other as a Windows screen. I’ve only been using it for a day, but I’ve already found it a natural way to work.

As a final note, I would like to put out a little disclaimer: I’ve only used this on powerful machines. The lab computers are 3GHz Core 2 Duo machines with 3.5GB of RAM. Performance is quite acceptable and whatever is happening on the linux side doesn’t seem to be affect the Windows side at all. However, on a machine that is much slower or has significantly less RAM, things might be a good deal slower. If you’re stuck using a Windows machine but would rather use Linux, this is a great way to go if you have a fast enough machine.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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