Monthly Archives: December 2021

How to install Linux on a USB drive with UEFI support using VirtualBox

That’s the third post on installing Linux on a USB drive!

Remember that the idea is to have a USB drive that will work as a portable Linux operating system on any computer.

In the first post, How to install Linux on a USB drive using Virtualbox, the USB drive with Linux installed could be used when booting from a computer with “Legacy boot” enabled: it could not boot if UEFI were the only choice in that computer.

In the second post, How to install Linux on a USB with UEFI support, I showed how to install Linux on the USB drive directly, without using VirtualBox, while creating a UEFI bootable device. However, you had to be careful during the installation to avoid overwriting the UEFI boot loader of your computer.

In this post, I’ll show how to install Linux on a USB drive, with UEFI support, using VirtualBox. In the end, we’ll get a UEFI bootable device, but without being scared of breaking the UEFI boot loader of your computer, since we’ll do that using a virtual machine.

The scenario

First of all, let’s summarize what I want to do. I want to install Linux on a portable external USB SSD. I don’t want a live distribution: a live distribution only allows you a little testing experience, it’s not easily maintainable and upgradable, it’s harder to keep your data in there. On the contrary, installing Linux on a USB drive will give you the whole experience (and if the USB drive is fast, it’s almost like using Linux on a standard computer; that’s undoubtedly the case for an external SSD, which are pretty cheap nowadays).

In the previous post, I described how to create such an installation from VirtualBox. As I said, you can boot the USB drive only in Legacy mode. This time, we’ll be able to boot the USB drive in any UEFI computer.

I’m going to perform this experiment:

  • I’m going to use VirtualBox installed on a Dell XPS 13 where I already have (in multi-boot, UEFI), Windows, Ubuntu, Kubuntu, and Manjaro GNOME
  • I’m going to install Ubuntu 21.10 into an external USB SanDisk SSD (256 Gb)
  • then I’m going to install on the same external USB drive also EndeavourOS (an excellent distribution I’ve just started to enjoy) along with the installed Ubuntu

I have already downloaded the two distributions’ ISOs.

I’ve installed VirtualBox in Ubuntu following this procedure

and then reboot.

By the way, since the second distribution will take precedence over an existing UEFI configuration on the USB, it’s better to start with Ubuntu and then proceed with EndeavourOS (Arch based). While an Arch GRUB configuration has no problem booting other distributions, Ubuntu cannot boot an Arch-based distribution. Of course, the second distribution’s GRUB menu will let you also boot the first one. We could solve the booting problem later, but I prefer to keep things easy and install them in the above order.

In the screenshots of the running virtual machine, the USB SanDisk is /dev/sda.

I will boot a virtual machine where I set the ISO of the current distribution as a LIVE CD. I’m going to use a different virtual machine for each distribution. Maybe that’s not strictly required, but since the two OSes are different (the first one is an Ubuntu OS, while the second one is an Arch Linux), I prefer to keep the two virtual machines separate, just in case.

Create the first virtual machine and install Ubuntu on the USB drive

I’m assuming you’re already familiar with VirtualBox, so I’ll post the main screenshots of the procedure.

Let’s create a virtual machine.

We don’t need a hard disk in the virtual machine since we’ll use it only for installing Linux on a USB drive, so we’ll ignore the warning.

.

Now it’s time to configure a few settings.

The important setting is “Enable EFI” to make our virtual machine aware of UEFI, and the booted Live OS will also be aware of it. As we will see later, the booted Live OS will correctly install GRUB in a UEFI partition.

We also specify to insert the ISO of the distribution (Ubuntu 21.10) so that when the virtual machine starts, it will boot the Live ISO.

Let’s start the virtual machine, and we will see the boot menu of the Live ISO.

We choose to Try Ubuntu, and then we plug the external SanDisk in the computer, and we make the virtual machine aware of that by using the context menu of the USB connection icon and selecting the item corresponding to the USB hard disk (in your case it will be different)

After that, the Ubuntu Live OS should notify about the connected disk. We can start the installation, and when it comes to the disk selection and partition, I chose to erase the entire disk and install Ubuntu:

Of course, you can choose to partition the hard disk manually, but then you’ll have to remember to create a GPT partition table, and you’ll also have to create the FAT32 partition for UEFI manually. By using “Erase disk and install Ubuntu,” I’ll let the installer do all this work.

You can see the summary before actually performing the partition creation. Note that we are doing such operations on the external USB drive, which, as I said above, corresponds to /dev/sda.

Now, we have to wait for the installation to finish. In the end, instead of restarting the virtual machine, we shut it down.

Let’s restart the computer with the USB drive connected. Depending on the computer setup, you’ll have to press some function key (e.g., F2 or, in my Dell XPS 13, F12, to choose to boot from a different device). Here’s the menu in my Dell XPS 13, where we can see that the external USB (SanDisk) is detected as a UEFI bootable device. It’s also detected as a Legacy boot device, but we’re interested in the UEFI one:

We can then verify that we can boot the Ubuntu distribution installed in the USB drive.

By the way, I also verified that, without the USB drive connected, I can always boot my computer: indeed, the existing UEFI Grub configuration is intact (remember, I have Windows, Ubuntu, Kubuntu, and Manjaro GNOME; the grub menu with higher priority is the one of Manjaro):

Create the second virtual machine and install EndeavourOS on the USB drive

Let’s create the second virtual machine to install on the same USB drive EndeavourOS, along with the Ubuntu we have just installed.

To speed up things, instead of creating a brand new machine, we clone the previous one, and we change a few settings (basically the name, the version of Linux, which now is Arch, and finally we change the Live ISO):

Let’s start the virtual machine and land into the EndeavourOS Live system

As before, we have to connect the USB drive to the computer and let the virtual machine detect that (see the procedure already shown in the first installation section).

We start the installer and choose the “Online” version so that we can choose what to install next (including several Desktop Environments). The installer is Calamares (if you used Manjaro before, you already know this installer).

When it comes to the partitioning part, we make sure we select the SanDisk external drive (as usual, /dev/sda). Note that the installer detects the existing Ubuntu installation. This time, we choose to install EndeavourOS alongside:

And we use the slider to specify how much space the new installation should take:

Let’s select a few packages to install (a cool feature of EndeavourOS)

And this is the summary before starting the installation:

Once the installation has finished, we shut down the virtual machine and reboot the computer with the USB drive inserted. This time we see the EndeavourOS grub configuration, including the previously installed Ubuntu. Remember, these are the installations in the USB drive (as usual, note the /dev/sda representing the USB drive):

And now we have a USB drive with two Linux distributions installed that we can use to boot our computers! However, some drivers for some specific computer configurations might not be installed in the Linux installation of the external USB. Also, other configurations like screen resolutions and scaling might depend on the computer you’re booting and might have to be adjusted each time you test the external USB drive in a different computer.

I hope you enjoyed the tutorial!

Happy installations and Happy New Year! πŸ™‚

Using the Unison File Synchronizer on macOS

For ages, I’ve been using the excellent Unison file synchronizer to synchronize my directories across several Linux machines, using the SSH protocol. I love it! πŸ™‚

Unison gives you complete control over the synchronization, and, most of all, it’s a two-way synchronizer.

Quoting from its home page:

Unison is a file-synchronization tool for OSX, Unix, and Windows. It allows two replicas of a collection of files and directories to be stored on different hosts (or different disks on the same host), modified separately, and then brought up to date by propagating the changes in each replica to the other.

On Linux, I never experienced problems with Unison, especially from the installation point of view: it’s available on most distributions’ package managers. If that’s not the case, you can download a binary package from https://github.com/bcpierce00/unison/releases.

However, I had never used Unison on a macOS computer, so today, I decided to try it.

Please, keep in mind that you must use the same version of Unison on all the computers you want to synchronize (at least, I seem to understand, the major.minor version numbers must be the same on all computers, and this also includes the version of OCaml, on which Unison relies).

For macOS, you go to https://github.com/bcpierce00/unison/releases, and you download theΒ .app.tar.gz file according to the Unison (and OCaml) version you need. The other macOS .tar.gz archives, without the .app, contain the command-line binary and a GTK UI binary, which, however, requires the GTK libraries to be already installed on your system and, to be honest, I have no idea how to do that in a compatible way. On the contrary, the .app.tar.gz contains the macOS application, which, I seem to understand, it’s self-contained.

By the way, there’s also a brew package for Unison, but that’s only the command line application, so you won’t get any UI, which is quite helpful, especially when you want to have complete control over the elements to be synchronized and you want to have the last chance to select or unselect the files before the synchronization starts. Moreover, the UI is quite helpful when you have conflicts to solve.

Then, you extract the archive, and you need to run this command (assuming you have extracted it in the Downloads folder):

otherwise, macOS will complain (with an unhelpful error message about a damaged app) since it does not recognize the archive provider.

Move the Unison.app into your Applications, and you’re good to go, assuming you already know how to use Unison.

The first time you run the app, it will ask you to install also the command-line version of Unison, which is also helpful:

And here’s a screenshot showing the files that are going to be synchronized in an example of mine (from the direction of the arrows, you can see that this is a two-way synchronization):

I find the Linux UI of Unison much simpler to understand and deal with, but maybe that’s because I’ve been using it for ages, and I still do.

Happy synchronization! πŸ™‚

Playing with KDE Plasma Themes

I want to share some of my experiences with KDE Plasma Themes in this post.

These themes are pretty powerful, but, as it often happens with KDE and its configuration capabilities, it might not be immediately clear how to benefit from all its power and all its themes’ power.

I’m assuming that you already enabled the KWin Blur effect (In “Desktop Effects”), which is usually the case by default. Please remember that desktop effects, like “blur,” applied to menus, windows, etc., will use more CPU. This CPU usage might increase battery usage (but, at least from my findings, it’s not that much).

First, installing a theme using “Get New Global Themes…” is not ideal. In my experiments, the installation often makes the System Settings crash; the artifacts of the theme might be out of date concerning the current Plasma version. Moreover, the installation usually does not install other required artifacts, like icons and, most of all, the Kvantum theme corresponding to the Plasma theme. In particular, the themes that I use in this post all come with the corresponding Kvantum theme. Using such an additional theme configuration is crucial to enjoying that Plasma theme thoroughly.

Thus, I’ll always install themes and icons from sources in this post.

I mentioned Kvantum, which you have to install first. In recent Ubuntu distributions

In other distributions, the package(s) names might be different.

Quoting from Kvantum site:

Kvantum […] is an SVG-based theme engine for Qt, tuned to KDE and LXQt, with an emphasis on elegance, usability and practicality. Kvantum has a default dark theme, which is inspired by the default theme of Enlightenment. Creation of realistic themes like that for KDE was my first reason to make Kvantum but it goes far beyond its default theme: you could make themes with very different looks and feels for it, whether they be photorealistic or cartoonish, 3D or flat, embellished or minimalistic, or something in between, and Kvantum will let you control almost every aspect of Qt widgets. Kvantum also comes with many other themes that are installed as root and can be selected and activated by using Kvantum Manager.

As described in https://github.com/tsujan/Kvantum/blob/master/Kvantum/INSTALL.md,

The contents of theme folders (if valid) can also be installed manually in the user’s home. The possible installation paths are ~/.config/Kvantum/$THEME_NAME/, ~/.themes/$THEME_NAME/Kvantum/ and ~/.local/share/themes/$THEME_NAME/Kvantum/, each one of which takes priority over the next one, i.e. if a theme is installed in more than one path, only the instance with the highest priority will be used by Kvantum.

On the contrary, the KDE themes artifacts are searched for in ~/.local/share. Since some of the themes we will install from the source do not provide an installation script, we will have to copy artifacts manually. In the meantime, you might want to create the Kvantum config directory (though the installation commands we will see in this post will take care of that anyway):

After Kvantum is installed, going to “Appearance” -> “Application Style,” you’ll see the kvantum style that you can select as an application style (we won’t do that right now). Once that’s set, the application style will be configured through the Kvantum Manager, which we’ll see in a minute.

So let’s start installing and playing with a few themes. As I anticipated initially, we’ll install the themes from sources. You’ll need git to do that. If not already installed, you should do that right now.

Nordic KDE

https://github.com/EliverLara/Nordic

This theme does not come with an installation script, so I’ll show all the commands to clone its source repository and manually copy its contents to the correct directories (see the note above concerning directories for Plasma and Kvantum themes):

Now, we got to “Appearance” -> “Global Theme,” and we find two new entries for the Nordic theme we’ve just installed:

Select one of the Nordic global themes (I chose “Nordic”) and press “Apply.”

Here’s the result (this is not yet the final intended look of the theme):

We can see that the menus are nicely blurred (of course, if you like blur effect πŸ™‚

Go to “Application Style,” you see that “kvantum” is selected (that has happened automatically when selecting the “Nordic” global theme):

However, we still need to apply the Nordic Kvantum theme.

Launch Kvantum Manager, select one of the Nordic themes (Kvantum finds the Nordic Kvantum theme because we installed them in the correct position in the home folder), and press “Use this theme”:

and now everything looks consistent with the Nordic theme (the menu is still blurred). Keep in mind that applications have to be restarted to see the new theme applied to them:

Let’s make sure that applications like Dolphin are blurred themselves: go to the tab “Configure Active Theme” -> “Hacks” and make sure “Transparent Dolphin View” is selected. IMPORTANT: if you use fractional scaling in Plasma (e.g., I use 150% or 175%), you must ensure that “Disable translucency with non-integer scaling” is NOT selected.

Scroll down and press “Save”; remember to restart the applications. Now enjoy the nice translucent blurred effect in many applications (including the Kvantum manager itself); I changed the wallpaper to something lighter to appreciate the transparency better:

Of course, you can change a few Kvantum Nordic theme configurations parameters, including the opacity and other things.

You might also have to log out and log in to the Plasma session to see the theming applied to everything.

This theme also installs a Konsole color scheme, so you can create a new Konsole profile using such a color scheme: here’s the excellent result (this color scheme comes with blurred background by default):

In this example, I’m still using the standard Breeze icon theme, but of course, you might want to select a different icon theme.

Lyan

https://github.com/vinceliuice/Layan-kde

Lyan is one of my favorite themes (and one of the most appreciated in general). It’s based on the Tela icon theme (also very beautiful), https://github.com/vinceliuice/Tela-icon-theme, so we’ll have to install the icon theme first. Both come with an installation (and, in case, an uninstallation) script so that everything will be much easier! We’ll have to clone their repositories and then run the installation script.

These are the command lines to run to set them both up (note the -a in the Tela installation command: this will install all the color variants; if you only want to install the default variant or just a subset, please have a look at the project site):

Then, the procedure to apply the Global Theme and the corresponding Kvantum theme is the same as before. Once you have selected the Global Theme and the Kvantum theme for Lyan, you should get something like that:

Look at all the beautiful transparency and blur effects on Dolphin, on the title bars, and in some parts of Kate and the System Settings, not to mention the blur on menus.

WhiteSur

https://github.com/vinceliuice/WhiteSur-kde

This theme is for macOS look and feel fans. I’m not one of those but let’s try that as well πŸ™‚

For this theme as well, we’ll install the recommended icons (we can rely on their installation scripts also in this case):

Once the corresponding Global Theme is selected, if you are using a fractional scaling like me (as I also said before), you’ll get a nasty surprise: huge borders as shown in the screenshot (independently from the selected Kvantum theme):

However, this theme comes with a few versions suitable for fractional scaling concerning “Window Decorations” (ignore the previews shown in the selection, which do not look good: that does not matter for the final result). There’s no version for my current 175% scaling, however, selecting the Window Decoration for 1.5, the borders are better, though still a bit too thick:

If you have a Window scaling factor for which there’s a specific Window Decoration of this theme, then everything looks fine. For example, with 150% scaling and by selecting the corresponding Window Decoration, the window borders look fine:

The rest of the screenshots are based on 175% scaling and the x1.5 variant. As I said, it does not look perfect, but that’s acceptable πŸ˜‰

Note that if we apply this Global Theme, the installed WhiteSur icons are used as well.

After applying the Kvantum theme as before, changing the wallpaper with the one provided by this theme, and setting the Task Switcher to Large Icons here’s the result:

Please keep in mind that if you end up with thick borders, the resizing point is not exactly on the edge, but slightly inside, as shown in this screenshot:

Edna

https://gitlab.com/jomada/edna.git

This does not come with an installation script either. We’ll have to copy all the artifacts manually in the correct folders (in the following commands, directories are created as well if not already there):

This is another theme with the huge border problem when using fractional scaling:

Unfortunately, this one comes with a single version and no variant for fractional scaling. Thus, when using fractional scaling, we have to manually patch the theme: open the file ~/.local/share/aurorae/themes/Edna/Ednarc and change the lines

as follows (these values fit 150% scaling)

For 175% scaling, use the same values but this one

The windows already opened will still show the huge border, but the new windows will show smaller borders. Feel free to play with such values til you get a border size you like most. In the following screenshot, I’m using this theme together with the Tela icon (the green variant) that we installed before and I also created a new Konsole profile using the Konsole Edna color scheme (which comes with transparent background):

This theme also provides a complex Latte dock layout, with several docks. We won’t see this feature in this post, you might want to experiment with that.

Conclusions

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and that you’ll start playing with KDE themes as well πŸ™‚