A Live USB will let you run an operating system off of a USB drive, so you can try a operating system without a partition, or carry a favorite one with you, or have an emergency backup in case your computer crashes.
In this Instructable, I will be showing you how to create such a USB drive. It's a beginner friendly tutorial, and assumes you know the basics of computer navigation, but if you are familiar with computers, you should be able to follow the abridged version I have at the second to last step.
There are a lot of different softwares out there to do this, so I've tried out a bunch and I'm bringing two good ones to you. I will also be showing you some notable Linux operating systems you can get for free. Finally, I will be showing you how to actually use the USB Drive to start the computer and run your new operating system.
Let's get started!
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Step 1: What We'll Need
In order to begin, we will need a couple of things:
- A USB Drive of at least 4 gigs (more if you want to carry more than one operating system)
- A software to put the operating system onto the USB (see next step).
- A computer to load the files onto the USB
- A computer to control (this can be the computer you are loading the USB with)
- An operating system (More later- I have some suggestions)
If you need a free and reliable operating system, a version of Linux is the way to go. There are a lot of different versions of Linux (dubbed 'Flavors' or 'Distributions', often shortened to 'Distros').
Step 2: Getting the Software
Above you can see the logo for UNetBootIn.
We will need some software to actually extract the operating system onto the flash drive. You've got a bunch of options out there- here are my favorites based on the ones I've tried. These are both Open Source tools that will allow for the extraction of the data onto the USB drive.
Works on: Linux, Windows, Mac
This one is my favorite. It is simple and easy to use, and allows you to download from a drop-down list rather than browsing and downloading the software online (although you can do this as well, if you want). I have only tested it on Linux. However, it is a much larger and better developed tool, and is actually a default program on some Linux flavors.
The Sourceforge page for this project can be found here.
YUMI (Your Universal Multiboot Installer)
Works on: Windows, claims to work on Linux but I can't get it to work.
This one has a lot of the same features UNetBootin has, but it allows you to have more than one OS on a flash drive, which I really like. However, the Linux version doesn't seem to work on my Ubuntu (a type of Linux) laptop, so it doesn't seem to work for Linux. I have tested it on Windows and found it to work well.
The website for this can be found here.
Linux Live USB (AKA LiLi)
This is another great tool worth considering. It was recommended by rowilsonh, and seems to be a very efficient and easy to use alternative to the software I've listed. Quick and easy, it has a lot of great resources, like a list of their supported linux distros (although I have a list later for those searching), and a lot of other great features.
Their official webpage can be found here.
Step 3: Let's Pick an Operating System!
The photo above is the logos of the three most popular Linux distributions available: Linux Mint, Ubuntu, and Debian.
So, in order to run an operating system, we need to know which one to use. If you have one, skip this step (or don't, whatever). I grabbed the list of 3 of the some of the most popular Linux flavors, as determined by DistroWatch. Here'sa link to that list.
1) Linux Mint
This is one I've wanted to try for a while, so it's one of the systems you'll see me add. It features a clean desktop, and is designed to be a more compatible version of Ubuntu. It works right out of the box with many features pre-installed, so there is little setup necessary.
The official webpage for this project can be found here.
This is the Linux flavor that I mostly use and am familiar with. It has a large amount of compatible software and a sleek, modern looking interface. It has a large number of tools pre-installed, but you'll find the rest very easy to install through the Ubuntu Software Center, a sort of App Store featuring thousands of compatible softwares.
The official webpage for this project can be found here.
Debian includes a massive amount of packages that come with it (20,000 pre-compiled pieces of software). A massive amount of operating systems have sprung forth from Debian, so it's another one that's worth looking into. I'm curious about it as well, so it's another I'll be downloading. It's not quite as beginner-friendly, and you'll need to understand how a computer works.
The official webpage for this project can be found here.
(At one point I had said that Linus had started this directly- I was incorrect, thanks Kevinf1 for the catch)
So that's the top three most popular, but here's a few that are worth a mention because even though they aren't as popular, they still have a large follower base and have something that sets them apart. If your favorite isn't here, convince me of its uniqueness and I'll add it.
Puppy Linux- This one is a basic desktop, but what makes it special is that despite having a lot of great features, it is very small, and crams itself into the RAM of your computer (allowing for very fast responses from the programs). The official webpage for this project can be found here.
Zorin OS- This is a great choice for Linux beginners and those interested in getting started with a new operating system- that's what its designed for. It also allows you to run Windows programs, which is found in many Linux flavors, but Zorin does it without having to download anything. Don't assume that jsut because it's designed with beginners in mind that it's a dumbed down version of anything, however. This is still a powerful and sleek operating system. The official webpage for this project can be found here.
Kali Linux- Remember how I said a lot of OS's have sprung from Debian? This is one of them. It's used for penetration testing, and leads the field in this area. If you don't know what that is, this is useless to you. The official webpage for this project can be found here.
UbuntuGnome- Ubuntu used to have a very windows-ish feel to it, but then it changed. This operating system is basically the same as Ubuntu, with all the same great features, but keeps the old look and feel. The official webpage for this project can be found here.
Tails Linux- An acronym for The Amnesiac Incognito Live System, this is the program used by informants and reporters around the world to keep themselves from being snooped on. Tails uses a system in which it makes sure not to keep a record of what you are doing, and uses TOR for web browsing. As soon as you shut it down, it forgets everything you've done. Thanks to these and other anonymity techniques, this OS has been gaining a lot of popularity. The official webpage for this project can be found here.
(Please be warned- I have received reports that visiting this site will put you on an NSA watchlist. This is most likely connected to the fact that it was used by Edward Snowden, as well as other informants and reporters, to conceal their location, identity, and communications. Thanks for the notice, Mark Rehorst!)
Gentoo Linux- This is one geared towards hardcore Linux users who know what they are doing. If you want a nice, fast desktop, and you are familiar with Linux, give this one a go. The official webpage for this project can be found here.
Here are a few recommended by the comments of other readers:
Lubuntu Linux- Lubuntu is flavor of Ubuntu, and is meant to be lightweight, usable by the normal PC owner, and able to run on just about any specs. The official webpage for this project can be found here. Thanks to Instructables user Cheapo for this suggestion.
Fedora Linux- According to a Guru I know, Fedora stands out because of all the tools it offers for programming and compiling code, which has made it popular among the Linux community. It sounds easy to set up, yet very powerful and tinkerable. Fedora tends to do its best to be at the cutting edge of software and technology. The official webpage for this project can be found here.
OpenSUSE- Another one recommended by the Guru, this is an operating system that stands out because of its ruggedness. This platform seems to be very difficult to crack, and is good for servers. As he put it, "If I want to make a solid Linux box, I'm going to use OpenSUSE." The official page for this project can be found here.
Porteus- This is a lightning-fast Linux distro designed to be fast, easy, and bootable from a USB drive. It boasts a 15 second startup time, and remains a modern and desktop. It is also compatable with most any system thanks to its simplicity, and can even be loaded into the RAM for an even faster loading time. The official page for this project can be found here. Thanks to Instructables user Arochester for this suggestion.
There are hundreds of more versions of Linux, many worth checking out- these are just a tiny amount.
Step 4: Setting Up the Software for .ISO Download
Before we begin, lets plug in our USB Drive. We need to see that the computer recognizes that there is a USB drive plugged in. On windows, I know this is true because a dialog opens up asking what to do. On Ubuntu, the USB drive will open. That's good- it means the computer is recognized the USB as a USB and that it's plugged in.
Once you are ready with this, open the software you picked. If you are using UNetBootin, you will see something like the first image. YUMI should show something like the second.
Check where your USB is located- it'll make it simpler if you only have 1 USB device plugged in. One way to make sure in Windows is by going to the Computer folder and seeing what device is your USB drive. If it's not immediately obvious, click around until you find it. Be sure to double check that this is the correct device- if you write to the wrong one, you aren't getting that data back.
You'll notice it is given a letter on windows (for me, its usually G: or H:). In the program, select this as the device you want to write to. You may have to select 'Show all devices' if you can't see it in the list there.
Step 5: Download and Select the .ISO
This is a pretty simple step. Once you've found the operating system you are happy with, you just need to download the .ISO file. Pick the type you want- the internet is your friend for researching the differences here.
In this image, you can see that I am downloading Linux Mint from their webpage, and that I now have a .ISO file in my Downloads folder. I select that in the tool, and I am all set to go.
If you are using UNetBootIn, this won't be something you need to do. Simply select the operating system you want in the drop down menu and it will do the rest.
If you choose to format the drive, then the USB will be wiped before the operating system is installed.
Step 6: Check and Go!
When we have selected the operating system and the device to write to, we should be all ready to go.
However, let's double check that everything is as ready as it claims to be. If we write to the wrong drive, then it's gone forever, and that's not good.
You'll also want to make sure this is the right kind of Linux. Although not disastrous if you mess it up, it won't be fun because it takes a while to load and it would just be a major hassle.
If you think you are ready, just hit the button to begin and wait for the loading bar to pass. This may take a while, depending on which one you downloaded.
When you are done, the software will let you know. YUMI will allow you to add more distros (or Linux tools), but you can skip and just add more later if you want.
Step 7: Using the USB Drive As a Live USB 1: What's the Boot Menu?
Now that the USB has completed its download, you are ready to use it whenever you wish. In order to use it you will need to know how to you bring up the boot menu.
It's easy to find out. You can just restart the computer and look for the text that says something along the line of "To bring up the boot menu press [key]". That's what you see in the first image. You'll have to be quick- it'll only be there for 1-4 seconds.
Typically, it is the Enter key, Escape key, or one of the F keys, such as F2 or F12. For me, F12 is the one on the machine I'll be using.
You can also do a Google search on the model of your computer. Try "BIOS Settings for [computer model]" or "Boot Menu shortcut on [computer model]".
Step 8: Using the Live USB 2: Getting to the Boot Menu
Once we know what key we need to open the boot menu, plug in your USB stick. This can be done when the computer is on or off- it doesn't matter. Then, either restart your computer or turn it on (if it was off before). As the computer begins to start up, start pressing that key to bring up the boot menu. Ideally, you will press the correct key as soon as the text "To bring up Boot Menu, press [key]" (or whatever your computer's equivalent is) appears. If this happens, then you will be brought into the Boot menu.
The second image here is an example of what that boot menu will most likely look like.
Step 9: Navigating the Boot Menu and Selecting Your Operating System
Once in the Boot menu, you should see something like what I have in the photo above. Use the arrow keys on your keyboard to navigate up or down to the USB device you plugged in. Select it using Enter.
By doing this, you are telling your computer that rather than getting started by using the already installed operating system, you want the computer to look at the USB Drive you selected and use the operating system there.
In YUMI, the actual location is most likely in "Linux Distros", but some may be hidden in "System tools". From there,, you will want to select the "Live" option. With UNetBootIn, it's quite a bit simpler- just select the "Live" option and it will start right up. With some systems, such as Debian, you may find only the default option. That's fine, unless you've accidentally installed a downloader.
Step 10: Navigating the Final Menu and Usage
If the distro has its own menu for you, select the Live option to start as a Live USB. If you can find a Persistence option, use that instead. It's the same thing, except it makes file saving easier. After hitting enter, wait for it to complete.
This shouldn't take too long for Linux machines, and afterwords, you will be running the operating system off of your USB drive. When done, shut down the computer and unplug the USB drive.
You could just yank the USB drive out if anything goes wrong, but you don't really want to crash your computer, so let it shut down. If you like the distro, then you can download it or keep it on the flash drive to use wherever you want. If you don't, no harm done- just delete the files and you can get a new distro or use it for storing other files.
Step 11: So, the Abridged Version
Here's an abridged version for review or those confident with computers:
- Download the UNetBootIn or YUMI open-source tools
- Download the .ISO File of the operating system you want or choose it from the list in UNetBootIn or YUMI
- Plug in USB drive, select it in the software, select the proper operating system.
That's the USB prepared, now for usage:
- Plug into the computer you wish to use
- Restart/Turn on computer
- Enter boot menu at start up
- Select USB Device
- Select operating system (Live version, or install if you wish to install it)
- Use operating system.
- Shut down computer
- It may have specific instructions on how to shut down from a USB, for me, it tells me when to remove the USB and when I have, to hit enter. You can pull it out but that crashes the computer.
And after the USB is out, everything returns to normal! Turning on the laptop will select the default operating system.
Step 12: TaDa!
So, there you have it! That is how you create a USB device that allows you to carry an operating system in your pocket. Hopefully this encourages you to try out a different operating system, or gives you the opportunity to try out an operating system without having to risk damaging, a partition, or a change for your computer. That's the real advantage this has, I think- not affecting the computer you are on opens a lot of doors for people. You can walk up to any computer, do your thing, unplug and be done with it.
I hope this Instructable was helpful to you in some way, and let me know what thought, comments, or ideas you have. As always, Have a nice day!