3 beloved USB drive Linux distros

Open source technologists weigh in.
86 readers like this
86 readers like this
Linux keys on the keyboard for a desktop computer

There are few Linux users who don't remember the first time they discovered you could boot a computer and run Linux on it without ever actually installing it. Sure, many users are aware that you can boot a computer to an operating system installer, but with Linux it's different: there doesn't need to be an install at all! Your computer doesn't even need to have a hard drive in it. You can run Linux for months or even years off of a USB drive.

Naturally, there are a few different "live" Linux distributions to choose from. We asked our writers for their favourites, and their responses represent the full spectrum of what's available.

1. Puppy Linux

"As a prior Puppy Linux developer, my views on this are rather biased. But what originally attracted me to Puppy was:

  • its focus on lower-end and older hardware which is readily available in 3rd world countries; this opens up computing for disadvantaged areas that can't afford the latest modern systems
  • its ability to run in RAM, which when utilized can offer some interesting security benefits
  • the way it handles user files and sessions in a single SFS file making backing up, restoring, or moving your existing desktop/applications/files to another install with a single copy command"

JT Pennington

"It has always been Puppy Linux for me. It boots up quickly and supports old hardware. The GUI is super easy to convince someone to try Linux for the first time." —Sachin Patil

"Puppy is the live distro that truly runs on anything. I had an old discarded microATX tower with a broken optical drive, literally no hard drive (it had been removed for data security), and hardly any RAM. I slotted Puppy into its SD card slot and ran it for years." —Seth Kenlon

"I don't have that much experience in using USB drive Linux distros but my vote goes to Puppy Linux. It's light and perfectly suitable for old machines." —Sergey Zarubin

2. Fedora and Red Hat

"My favourite USB distro is actually just the Fedora Live USB. It has a browser, disk utilities, and a terminal emulator so I can use it to rescue data from a machine or I can browse the web or ssh to other machines to do some work if needed. All this without storing any data on the stick or the machine in use to be exposed if compromised." —Steve Morris

"I used to use Puppy and DSL. These days I have two USB Keys: RHEL7 and RHEL8. These are both configured as full working environments with the ability to boot for UEFI and BIOS. These have been real-life and time savers when I'm faced with a random piece of hardware where we're having issues troubleshooting an issue." —Steven Ellis

3. Porteus

"Not long ago, I installed VMs of every version of Porteus OS. That was fun, so maybe I'll take another look at them. Whenever the topic of tiny distros comes up, I'm always reminded of the first one that I can remember using: tomsrtbt. It was always designed to fit on a floppy. I'm not sure how useful it is these days, but just thought I'd throw it in the mix." —Alan Formy-Duval

"As a longtime Slackware user, I appreciate Porteus for providing a current build of Slack, and a flexible environment. You can boot with Porteus running in RAM so there's no need to keep the USB drive attached to your computer, or you can run it off the drive so you can retain your changes. Packaging applications is easy, and there are lots of existing packages available from the Slacker community. It's the only live distro I need." —Seth Kenlon

Bonus: Knoppix

"I haven't used Knoppix in a while but I used it a lot at one time to save Windows computers that had been damaged by malware. It was originally released in September 2000 and has been under continuous development since then. It was originally developed and named after Linux consultant Klaus Knopper and designed to be used as a Live CD. We used it to rescue user files on Windows systems that had become inaccessible due to malware and viruses." —Don Watkins

"Knoppix was hugely influencial to live Linux, but it's also one of the most accessible distributions for blind users. Its ADRIANE interface is designed to be used without a visual display, and can handle all the most common tasks any user is likely to require from a computer." —Seth Kenlon

Choose your live Linux

There are many that haven't been mentioned, such as Slax (a Debian-based live distro), Tiny Core, Slitaz, Kali (a security-focused utility distro), E-live, and more. If you have a spare USB drive, put Linux on it and use Linux on any computer, any time!

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Seth Kenlon
Seth Kenlon is a UNIX geek, free culture advocate, independent multimedia artist, and D&D nerd. He has worked in the film and computing industry, often at the same time.
Jen leads a team of community managers for the Digital Communities team at Red Hat. She lives in Raleigh with her husband and daughters, June and Jewel.

17 Comments

Great article! Another shining example of the utility of Linux in general.

Thanks for this Seth, I still recommend Puppy linux to people and used Knoppix Adriane back during my time with The Kenya Society for the Blind. The introduction of uefi boot in modern machines is a pain though.

I've been using BionicPup off of usb on an old Dell laptop from 2005. It works really smooth even on just 512mb RAM...

Amazing! Up until 3 or 4 years ago, I had an old laptop (the display eventually died) running on 256 MB RAM with stock Debian. It's astonishing what Linux can do to keep old hardware going.

In reply to by Nikhil M Warrier

My go-to has been MX linux live usb. You can set one up with persistence and it works great. One of the developers, dolphin oracle has made some excellent youtube videos on creating these. They also have one called mx workbench, which is not meant to be installed at all. I keep this in my toolkit and use it all the time.

MX Linux is definitely a very good choice, and recent versions now offer a choice of 3 different environments: the default distribution comes with a nicely configured Xfce desktop; it's a good overall choice. Those who miss the old MEPIS that preceded MX Linux might appreciate their next offering, MX Linux KDE. Finally, MX Linux added a setup with Fluxbox. Note that you can, on your own, add other window managers and create your own variation as well.

I also happen to like a "relative" of MX Linux that came out not long after MEPIS was introduced. It's called antiX and it rivals Puppy Linux and practically anything else for running effectively on older hardware. There are people actually using systems that are 15-20 years old and having success, as long as their hardware continues to work. I am using MX Linux now, but I will be booting one of my two installed instances of antiX momentarily. I have MANY USB versions and even older ones from CD that I still have and occasionally use. I've been successful getting more than one old piece of someone else's "cast off" to work quite well with either MX Linux or antiX!

In reply to by Sabertoothyorkie

Knoppix..another great distro.

Make that 4. SystemRescue (formerly known as SystemRescueCD) is a great resource for testing hardware or fixing software problems on x86 or x86_64 computers. And it's easy to put it on a USB drive.

https://www.system-rescue.org/Installing-SystemRescue-on-a-USB-memory-stick/

Great one! We did mention SystemRescueCD in this article: https://opensource.com/life/15/2/five-specialized-linux-distributions-computer-repair

But it's so good and has changed since then, so it's definitely deserving of another look!

In reply to by Carl T. Miller

I use Clonezilla on my non-Linux machines for various reasons - image backups of disks and partitions (of course), but also to investigate partitions test memory and so on. I often just escape to the shell right away.

I started using CloneZilla the moment my first sysadmin job started, and haven't looked back since. Such a great distro for exactly the one thing that it does.

We did mention it in this article: https://opensource.com/life/15/2/five-specialized-linux-distributions-computer-repair

It's probably worth a whole article on its own, though. Glad you mentioned it.

In reply to by The Cube

I'm wondering why Kali Linux is not there

It didn't come up in the particular conversation that sparked this article, but we have a great Kali article in the pipeline, so check back in a week. Better yet, check back daily, but expect to see a Kali article in a week or two from the time this comment was posted.

In reply to by Scout

A distro that installs from a (live) USB is pretty old hat. What I have NOT seen is instructions on how to make a bootable USB of a mainstream distro such as Fedora or Mint, with multi partitions on the USB; 1 for the OS, 1 for the user's home directory and one for the various OS files that are quasi permanent. Maybe Tails has that feature, I am not sure.

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