Installing OpenBSD on a USB flash drive. Do not recommend.


My test laptop – a 2012 HP Pavilion g6 – is dying. The past couple of OpenBSD installs resulted in kernel panics, and now the keyboard and touchpad keep failing. I’ve replaced the keyboard twice, and now it’s mostly the ribbon connector between the keyboard and the motherboard.

I have to pop the bottom off the laptop, take out a screw, then pry the keyboard off and re-seat the cable. It’s probably the same kind of thing with the touchpad. And then there are the kernel panics.

Curiously the same laptop is running Fedora 30 fine – except for the keyboard and touchpad issues.

What I like about this 2012 HP laptop is that I can unscrew the bottom panel, pull the SATA hard drive out and swap in another one. My 2017 HP laptop isn’t as easy to modify. To access the battery, SATA hard drive, M.2 SSD (yes, I did install one) and RAM, first you have to remove all the screws on the bottom, including those under the now-long-gone rubber strip (I am using those rubber dots that keep cabinet doors from clacking as a cheap replacement. Why pay $50 for a piece of sticky rubber that I’d have to pull off again?).

After the screws are removed, then you have to pry the case bottom off with a plastic spudger in order to do any kind of servicing or swapping of parts. Too much work. The lack of easy serviceability in modern laptops is annoying. I won’t get started on my mid-2011 iMac which is older than my easily-serviceable 2012 HP laptop. OK, I will. It’s easy to get the iMac’s RAM out but the the SATA hard drive is BEHIND THE SCREEN, which must be removed by somehow spudging and unclipping it, after which you need SPECIAL SUCTION CUPS to lift the screen out. No thanks.

We also had a 2003 Apple iBook where the hard drive failed. I used iFixit instructions to take the old drive out and put the new one in, and I basically had to take the entire laptop apart. Little bits were EVERYWHERE.

On to the real content:

Installing OpenBSD on a USB flash drive

I wanted to try out OpenBSD 6.6, so I decided to install it to a 32 GB USB flash drive on my 2017 HP laptop – the one where I can’t easily get the hard drive out.

If your question is why I don’t add OpenBSD as a dual-boot to one of my current drives, my answer is that I don’t dual-boot for the most part. I don’t like it. The process is brittle, both in Windows and Linux. Adding BSD is another layer of potential failure. I prefer separate physical drives.

I put the OpenBSD installer on an old 1 GB flash drive, plugged both drives in, and also plugged in my old urtw WiFi dongle (after I learned that my 2017 laptop’s WiFi chip was supported but required firmware).

I did the installation to the USB flash drive. I went into the laptop’s BIOS to allow “legacy” booting. Then I booted into OpenBSD 6.6.

I still love OpenBSD. I didn’t love all the trouble I had running Firefox and Chromium the last time I installed it on the 2012 laptop.

The main problem with the install to the USB flash drive was extreme slowness due to the disk I/O taking forever. It probably took 3 hours to install the Firefox browser. And saving a file in vi took a full 5 seconds instead of being instant.

It was a nice experiment, but OpenBSD needs a hard drive that isn’t a USB flash drive.

My use of Debian and Fedora notwithstanding, I continue to have a soft spot for OpenBSD, and I’d love to have a dedicated laptop that runs it well.