How to explore Linux with a flash drive

Test drive Linux with nothing but a flash drive

Posted 27 Oct 2014 by 

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Maybe you’ve heard about Linux and are intrigued by it. So intrigued that you want to give it a try. But you might not know where to begin.

You’ve probably done a bit of research online and have run across terms like dual booting and virtualization. Those terms might mean nothing to you, and you’re definitely not ready to sacrifice the operating system that you’re currently using to give Linux a try. So what can you do?

If you have a USB flash drive lying around, you can test drive Linux by creating a live USB. It’s a USB flash drive that contains an operating system that can start from the flash drive. It doesn’t take much technical ability to create one. Let’s take a look at how to do that and how to run Linux using a live USB.

What you’ll need

Aside from a desktop or laptop computer, you’ll need:

  • A blank USB flash drive—preferably one that has a capacity of 4 GB or more.

  • An ISO image (an archive of the contents of a hard disk) of the Linux distribution that you want to try. More about this in a moment.

  • An application called Unetbootin, an open source tool, cross platform tool that creates a live USB. You don’t need to be running Linux to use it. In the instructions that below, I’m running Unetbootin on a MacBook.

Getting to work

Plug your flash drive into a USB port on your computer and then fire up Unetbootin. You’ll be asked for the password that you use to log into your computer.

Unetbootin main window

Remember the ISO image that was mentioned a few moments ago? There are two ways you can get one: either by downloading it from the website of the Linux distribution that you want to try, or by having Unetbootin download it for you. To do that latter, click Select Distribution at the top of the window, choose the distribution that you want to download, and then click Select Version to select the version of the distribution that you want to try.

Downloading a Linux distribution

Or, you can download the distribution yourself. Usually, the Linux distributions that I want to try aren’t in the list. If you go the second route, click Disk image and then click the button to search for the .iso file that you downloaded.

Notice the Space used to preserve files across reboots (Ubuntu only) option? If you’re testing Ubuntu or one of its derivatives (like Lubuntu or Xubuntu), you can set aside a few megabytes of space on your flash drive to save files like web browser bookmarks or documents that you create. When you load Ubuntu from the flash drive again, you can reuse those files.

Ready to create a live USB

Once the ISO image is loaded, click OK. It takes anywhere from a couple of minutes to 10 minutes for Unetbootin to create the live USB.

Creating the live USB

Testing out the live USB

This is the point where you have to embrace your inner geek a bit. Not too much, but you will be taking a peek into the innards of your computer by going into the BIOS. Your computer’s BIOS starts various bits of hardware and controls where the computer’s operating system starts, or boots, from.

The BIOS usually looks for the operating system in this order (or something like it): hard drive, then CD-ROM or DVD drive, and then an external drive. You’ll want to change that order so that the external drive (in this case, your live USB) is the one that the BIOS checks first.

To do that, restart your computer with the flash drive plugged into a USB port. When you see the message Press F2 to enter setup, do just that. On some computers, the key might be F10.

In the BIOS, use the right arrow key on your keyboard to navigate to the Boot menu. You’ll see a list of drives on your computer. Use the down arrow key on your keyboard to navigate to the item labeled USB HDD and then press F6 to move that item to the top of the list.

Once you’ve done that, press F10 to save the changes. You’ll be kicked out of the BIOS and your computer will start up. After a short amount of time, you’ll be presented with a menu listing the options for starting the Linux distribution you’re trying out. Select Run without installing (or the menu item closest to it).

Once the desktop loads, you can connect to a wireless or wired network, browse the web, and give the pre-installed software a whirl. You can also check to see if, for example, your printer or scanner works with the Linux distribution you’re testing. If you really, really want to you can also fiddle at the command line.

What to expect

Depending on the Linux distribution you’re testing and the speed of the flash drive you’re using, the operating system might take longer to load and it might run a bit slower than it would if it was installed on your hard drive.

As well, you’ll only have the basic software that the Linux distribution packs out of the box. You generally get a web browser, a word processor, a text editor, a media player, an image viewer, and a set of utilities. That should be enough to give you a feel for what it’s like to use Linux.

If you decide that you like using Linux, you can install it from the flash drive by double clicking on the installer.

9 Comments

arjaybe

UNetbootin is a useful utility. Although there are other ways to get an ISO onto a USB stick, I use UNetbootin because of its simplicity. I already run a Linux OS - MX-14 (http://www.mepiscommunity.org/mx) - so I only need to create a live USB when I want to do another installation.

Going in and changing the BIOS is a good way to set your system up for booting the way you want it to. On my system at least, though, I have another keypress during startup that will allow me to select my boot device without having to go into the BIOS. In my case it's F2 for BIOS configuration and F8 for boot selection. Your manual will tell you what works on your machine.

Thanks for another great article.

rjb

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Carling

I have been having big problems with unetbootin lately getting error message can't find 32 something when booting up from the usb drive.

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ScottNesbitt

Not that I want to turn the comments for this article into a support forum, but what's the exact error message? Is it a problem with the filesystem on the flash drive being FAT32? Or is it that you're running unetbootin on 64-bit Linux distribution and the software is complaining about something called ia32-lib?

In the former case, you can try formatting the flash drive as FAT32. In the latter case, you'll have to install the ia32-lib package using your distribution's package manager.

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Philip J. Reilly

Make sure you have the most recent version of unetbootin. I had problems on my macbook until I googled it & got the latest version. There is no update checking built in.

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Somewhat Reticent

Changing BIOS settings isn't always necessary: there's normally a way to override defaults and choose a particular boot device. Of course, whether a particular mix of hardware or software will "play nice" is much like a throw of dice ... where vintage/version counts.

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ScottNesbitt

In my experience, this has been a case of "it depends". With one of two computers I've worked with, I didn't need to change the BIOS settings. With others, I had to. Those were a mix of slightly older and slightly newer hardware.

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Dave

What is the procedure to get multiple iso's on a flash drive so I can select one at boot?

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ScottNesbitt

I don't know how to do that with unetbootin, or if it's possible with it. But I found this set of links at the Pen Drive Linux site that might be useful.

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Teto

... Or better yet, use a small SSD (30gb or 60gb) instead of a Flash thumbdrive. That's faster than a thumbdrive, and that's enough space for the OS install plus some multimedia to keep you entertained.

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Writer. Technology coach. Soldier of fortune. Ocelot wrangler. Husband and father. Blogger. Collector of pottery. Scott is a few of these things. He's also a long-time user of free/open source software who extensively writes and blogs on the subject.You can find Scott on Twitter, Google+, and