Tech Tip of the Week: Test-Drive Ubuntu 10.04 Using a Bootable USB Flash Drive

By on May 7, 2010, 4:36 AM
So, you've been hearing all this buzz about Ubuntu for a while now and you finally want to take it for a spin? While dual booting Ubuntu with Windows is fairly straightforward, it can seem like a daunting and risky endeavor for the average individual. For those folks, test-driving Ubuntu via the LiveCD is certainly an option, but it comes with a couple major disadvantages: it's a much slower experience, and all your changes are lost once the operating system is restarted.

Besides a traditional installation, you can get around these limitations a few ways, one being with a virtual machine. Naturally, going that route means you'll have to download and install VM software, but this isn't viable for everyone not least because of hardware constraints. Another even simpler way involves creating a bootable USB flash drive with a fully functional copy of Ubuntu installed.

In addition to being speedier and letting you save data, creating a USB boot drive also allows you to take your installation of Ubuntu wherever you go. It should run on any machine that supports booting from USB -- which is just about every semi-modern PC you're bound to come across. It may sound complicated, but fret not, if you already have an Ubuntu CD, you're literally a few clicks away from creating a USB boot drive.

Continue reading our Tech Tip of the Week.

User Comments: 15

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Kibaruk Kibaruk, TechSpot Paladin, said:

How much space is required in a USB device?

Guest said:

it depends on the installation really, I've seen Ubuntu on 1GB keys, and I've seen them on 16GB keys. Your flavor of OS is the deciding factor, like DSL (Damn Small Linux) will fit almost any USB key.

brucethetech said:

considering you can load the installation onto a blank cd, it should take about 700MB or less to get just the os on the drive. However you will need additional space if you plan on download extra tools or making changes to your os.

Guest said:

So... this doesn't appear to be an actual "install to USB drive", more like a "boot the live CD from a USB flash drive".

Am I missing something?

My startup disk boots to the "Try Ubuntu 10.04 LTS" or "Install Ubuntu 10.04.LTS" screen.

It's not particularly speedy either.

Guest said:

Kibaruk@work: It may be even simplier if that is the case because you can just get UNetBootin and make a live key.

Although what I was able to read in the tip was that the actual work you did would be saved, discarding the live-CD sort of install.

tengeta tengeta said:

DSL and PuppyLinux are made for things like this, I just don't see the point in a full Linux distro on a USB drive.

Not to say it has no use, just to me it doesn't.

Julio Franco Julio Franco, TechSpot Editor, said:

If you want to run the same linux distro across the board or you just like Ubuntu (arguably the most friendly/popular Linux distribution for the average user) here's the solution.

But thanks for the pointer tengeta. PuppyLinux site in case anybody is wondering:

arkantos said:

it means that the customization i will make will not be save too?

SFITGuy said:

I have found either Ubuntu or Kubuntu 10.4 work adequately in this form (although to be honest it should work with any release of Linux and a Debian net-install USB Key could be very useful.)

Booting from a USB stick is inherently slow however once the system is running this slowness doesn't seem to hinder the use of the OS.

Using UNetBootIn is necessary unless you create the stick from within an installed version of 10.4 LTS, as is highlighted above.

I have been using this method to create 1Gb USB Drives in order that people can test-drive Kubuntu for a week or so before I install the full software (it also allows me to check the compatibility of hardware so I can solve any issues before the install).

PuppyLinux is a better option than the full version of (K)Ubuntu especially if its to be installed on a notebook which has an SSD and no optical drive.

RJ12 said:

How do you uninstall after you have done this?

Guest said:

To "uninstall" from USB stick just format it...not sure if Windows will recognize the format so you will probably have to use Live CD and format using SYSTEM>ADMINISTRATION>DISK UTILITY.

Just make sure that you select the USB drive and not your hard drive and format it to NTFS or whatever format it had.

Leeky Leeky said:

Nice write up, but I have a few things to add - I hope thats ok Julio.

For the ultimate USB flash drive, Live Linux environment with the ability to save your data and changes, I recommend using the following:

I've been using it for a while now, and always have the latest copy of Ubuntu installed on it, along with nearly 1GB of free space on my 2GB stick, which I can use to store things as well.

I no longer use disks, as the flash drive is much quicker than CDs, and being able to use a customised live mode, with everything I need to hand is very handy. It also runs very fast in live most due to being able to use USB2.0.

Guest said:

I just downloaded Ubuntu 10.04 as a first try with Linux yesterday, and am still googling around to learn about it. I found the basic installation instructions here:

were excellent . Particularly Step 2 - How Do I - link to the installation utility, includes an option to install 1GB - 4GB of container space on the USB drive for "Persistence" which saves all those settings, browser bookmarks and add-ons, etc. I am running on 2GB for the moment, but will be getting a bigger USB drive in order to keep my DropBox files on it instead of relocating them to my netbook's HDD.

Maybe this link will help some looking for easy "persistence" of settings while running from USB. I find it very usable. I use some about :config tweaks for FireFox and run it entirely in RAM, so no slow caching to the USB.

I'll also note I tried the 10.10 version reading it has a faster kernel, etc. but found it runs slower on my first-gen netbook, and also has a fat screen-hogging launcher on the left that may be configurable but I didn't stay with to find out. It's wi-fi interface was a little less dodge and I didn't get the weird "Key Ring" interruptions as I did on 10.04, but all in all it seems friskier on my little system.

penn919 said:

I use this technique time from time on systems with broken or missing disk drives. Very useful.

Guest said:

You can make the usb persistent (install additional applications and save all your settings). Using ubuntu's startup disk creator. Boot even without a hard drive.

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