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I regularly find myself writing about USB sticks. Why am I currently obsessing over these cheap dongles, which many have come to regard as fundamentally obsolete? Because they’re still useful.

Sure, you’re probably not going to use them to store your files on. In that regard, they’ve been utterly supplanted by cloud storage services like Dropbox 15 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do with Dropbox 15 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do with Dropbox Cloud storage services have come and gone, but Dropbox is probably the one that's been here the longest. And now it has upped its game with a host of new features. Let's explore. Read More . But they can be used to boost your personal digital security How To Use A USB Key To Deal With Security Threats How To Use A USB Key To Deal With Security Threats Aren't USB flash drives redundant? We don't think so. There are many ways in which a USB drive can still come in handy, including keeping your computer secure. Here's how. Read More . Better yet, when you install Linux on them, they can be used to keep your digital worlds in-sync wherever you go, or to protect your computer when things go awry. Here are the 5 most useful Linux distributions for installing on a USB drive.

As a Portable Desktop: Puppy Linux and Elementary OS

Confession: I hate using other people’s computers. I hate using public computers. The only computers I am comfortable using are my own.

But sometimes, it’s unavoidable. When you travel on budget airlines like EasyJet and Spirit, you’re limited to how much baggage you can bring. Sometimes you have to leave your machine at home. If your computer breaks, you might have to use someone else’s while you wait for Amazon to deliver your replacement.

One of the best ways to solve this is to shove a desktop distribution onto a USB drive and boot into it as required. But which one should you install?

Puppy Linux

For the longest while, Puppy Linux has been seen as little more than a curiosity. Designed to be used on the most austere of hardware, it could comfortably chug away on early Pentium machines without breaking a sweat. But it wasn’t that practical. Many installed it on their antique hardware to see how little ‘oomph’ it needed, and then forgot about it.

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But it never went away Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Puppy Linux Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Puppy Linux Here, we'll be taking a look at a distribution of Linux that is famous for being able to run with very little hardware requirements, Puppy Linux. Puppy Linux isn't based on another distribution; it is... Read More . Updates and new versions are still regularly released. Sure, it’s still stripped down; it can run on low-end and underpowered hardware. But you can now use it to get stuff done.

There are three different versions of Puppy. One, called Slacko Puppy is based upon SlackWare, which is one of the longest established Linux distributions. People continue to use it as their day-to-day operating system. People understand it. Another is built around Ubuntu 14:04 LTS, called TahrPup.

The third version of Puppy is the mainline project, originally founded by Barry Kauler. The recent versions, codenamed Quirky, have been built with the express goal of running on a USB drive. Although I’d still err on the side of caution and use TahrPup, in order to mitigate any potential hardware compatibility issues.

Elementary OS

I know that people have their own preference when it comes to what Linux distribution they want to use. It’s for this reason why I’m reticent to just talk about desktop operating systems. But please, indulge me just one more. After that, we’ll talk about how you can use Linux and USB sticks to accomplish specific tasks, like resizing hard drives.

In recent months, I’ve come to really take a shine to Elementary OS.

It’s often overlooked, especially by its larger brothers like Ubuntu and Linux Mint. I’ve never understood that, because in addition to being fast, and built upon the sturdy foundations of Ubuntu LTS, it’s also a pretty (and massively customizable How To Make Elementary OS Look Like Old-School Ubuntu How To Make Elementary OS Look Like Old-School Ubuntu Dislike the new Ubuntu theme? Want to turn back the clock to the "Human" theme? You can, with the help of Elementary OS and the "Humanitary" theme and icon pack. Here's how. Read More ) face.

Since it shares a lot in common with Ubuntu, you can be confident you won’t have to deal with any hardware compatibility gremlins. Plus, it proves to be buttery-smooth, even on low-end hardware, like laptops and cheap Atom and Celeron-powered machines. This is important when you’re also dealing with the inherent performance bottleneck that comes with booting your operating system from an USB drive.

For Managing Your Hard Disk: Gparted Live

Hard drives are divided into chunks called ‘partitions’. Your computer’s hard drive might have just one partition for all your files and folders. Or it might have a partition for your programs, and another for your documents and files. From time, you might need to modify these partitions to either resize them, or wipe them entirely.

There’s a common Linux tool used to manage these partition called Gparted GParted - The Ultimate In Partitioning Software GParted - The Ultimate In Partitioning Software Read More . Many distributions come with this pre-installed. But there’s also a distribution which is centered around this tool.

It’s called Gparted Live The GParted Live CD: A Quick Way To Edit Your Primary Partitions [Linux] The GParted Live CD: A Quick Way To Edit Your Primary Partitions [Linux] Edit your partitions from outside your operating system. The GParted Live CD is a simple Linux distro you can use to change the size of your partitions – or wipe a drive entirely. Built around... Read More . Burn it to a CD (or, better yet, a USB flash drive) and you’ll be able to reshape your hard drive as you require. Be careful though, as one mistake could potentially render your hard drive unbootable.

For Removing Viruses: AVG Rescue CD and BitDefender Rescue CD

When malware strikes, it can often be game over. Your machine will run slowly, or perhaps not at all. Your files and folders will be held to ransom. Everything you do on your computer could be monitored. Worse, many viruses and Trojans are designed to actively fight removal. They’ll prevent antimalware programs from updating their definitions, or even running. But you have alternatives.

By booting into a special Linux distribution, you can scan your system for problems, and resolve them. There are two worthy of note, each produced by a major security company you’ve probably heard of. Here’s what you need to know.

AVG Rescue CD

Over the past twenty years, one of the biggest names in computer security has been AVG. The Czech-based firm has produced one of the first free antivirus programs to hit the mainstream. Now it’s available as a Linux distribution.

You probably haven’t heard of it though. AVG have chosen to market it at their enterprise customers. But although they’re not marketing it at home users, you can still download it from the AVG website.

It’s also worth noting that although it’s called the “AVG Rescue CD”, you can still burn it onto a USB flash drive. Instructions can be found in the video above.

BitDefender Rescue CD

Another big name in computer security is Romania-based BitDefender, who boast an array of premium and free antivirus and antimalware solutions. Like AVG, they too offer a Linux live CD.

In terms of sheer effectiveness, BitDefender’s products tend to rank quite highly. Which is why I’d personally lean towards BitDefender’s offering. Antivirus is the type of thing where you want to pick a product and commit to it, so as to avoid causing problems.

Like AVG’s Rescue CD, you can install this on an USB stick. BitDefender have some helpful instructions, where they explain how you can use the Windows tool Stickifier to create one.

Possible, Sure – But is it Practical?

But how does this actually work in practice? You might have concerns that running a desktop operating system on a USB flash drive would be an exercise in frustration. But actually, it isn’t too bad.

This is partly due to the proliferation of newer USB standards, including USB 3.0 USB 3.0: Everything You Need to Know USB 3.0: Everything You Need to Know USB 3.0 beats USB 2.0 in so many ways. Here's everything you need to know about why you should always pick USB 3.x when possible. Read More , which is an increasingly common feature on laptops. This standard offers vastly improved read-write times, which are essential if you’re running an operating system.

Then, there’s the fact that prices have crashed, while storage quantities have soared. You can easily get a 64GB drive for less than $50. USB drives that stretch into the hundreds of gigabytes still remain an expensive proposition though.

Do you run a Linux distro on a USB stick? Tell me about what it is and why in the comments below.

  1. Mats
    October 7, 2016 at 10:11 am

    I run Porteus on a machine that has lost all contact with harddisk and CD.

  2. John
    September 11, 2016 at 4:01 am

    I installed Elementary OS to a 16GB USB, to use on my laptop. This is because the laptop uses a proprietary form factor, and I cannot buy the SSD that will fit in my laptop, and still waiting for it to be shipped.

    Anyways, I could not find the "appstore" equivalent on the OS, and also had problems installing Google Chrome directly to the USB. My third problem was installing an additional language (in my case Korean).

    Are there any workarounds to the problems above, or at least find a Linux distro with Business and Productivity programs pre-installed?

    I mostly use:
    Microsoft office
    Google Chrome
    GOM media player
    AIMP music player

    Thanks,
    JC

    • Chris
      October 17, 2016 at 8:39 am

      Why yes, you can use Libre Office along with VLC Media player, the Libre Office is similar to Microsoft office but is for free and VLC Media player will at the very least try to play any media created under the sun

  3. Bert
    July 30, 2016 at 9:35 am

    Hello!

    First, sorry for my poor English: it's not my native language (I'm from Italy).

    Well, I repair PCs and I use to keep in my pocket a multiboot USB with tons of tools which can help me to solve most of the problems I face almost every day.

    These are my favorite live tools:

    > Antivirus: Bitdefender, Kaspersky and Dr. Web. Both Kaspersky and Bitdefender can have some wifi issue with some (few) cards, but everything works fine if you use them from the new UEFI-BIOS YUMI (it's still a beta but it works fine). Don't ask me why! :-)

    > System Tools: Boot Repair Disk, Rescatux, Super Grub 2 (included in Rescatux) Gparted, Mini Tool Partition Wizard and my favorite ones: Clonezilla and System Rescue CD (which among hundreds of tools includes Gparted and Super Grub2). Clonezilla never failed me and System Rescue CD, though it's not for newby, is absolutely one of the best multitool, if not THE best. I repeat: not very easy for beginners, but very powerful: you can clone, image, save data from failing disks, manage partitions etc... Many of its features are good for Windows too.
    For Cloning you can also use Ghost 4 Linux but it doesn't still have UEFI boot support.

    > Distros: Porteus, on my opinion, is the best live OS you can use: it's customizable BEFORE you download it and it's very light (about 300 Mb). You can have more than one, depending on your needs: for example you can have one for BIOS 64 bit, on for UEFI 64 bit and one for BIOS 32 bit. Debian live it's a good choice too. Puppy and Elementary are good but I don't like them very much (it's my opinion).

    > More: if you want to be "bad boys" :-) you can use Pentesting and "Hacking" distros like Kali, Backbox or BlackArch. They are not so easy to use if you want to be a pro, but they are worth a try even if you are not interested in this kind of operations.

    If you want to be anonymous you can use Tails, a Debian base distro that uses Tor for anonymous browsing.
    Parrot OS is another distro which combines anonymous browsing and pentesting.

    For forensics purposes i suggest CAINE and (but it's not very updated) Deft. CAINE can be used like a regular distro, having LibreOffice, Browsers etc... The good is that it has a gui for Photorec and DDrescue, for those who are scared by command line: for example System Rescue CD has only the command line version of both.

    Finally, I want to mention some discontinued tools that cannot be used on modern PCs (especially the UEFI based ones) but if you have an old machine they can be still useful: Trinity Rescue Kit, Falcons Four and, above all, Ultimate Boot CD. In fact, Ultimate Boot CD should be developed into a new graphical version that now is in a beta... I don't know if it's dead or not. Let's wait and see!
    Remember that none of these three tools are UEFI boot compatible.

    Well, there are many, many other live tools, but on my opinion these are (among free ones) the best, and if I should mention all the rest I would take the risk of writing a boring, endless post! :-)

    Just a tip: most of the times you (me too!) don't really need all these tools, but I can be a good idea keep them in a multiboot USB. Easy2Boot and Yumi are the best multiboot USB creators. We're waiting for Yumi to became stable in its UEFI compatible verisions. Yumi is also being rewritten for Linux but there's not a ETA.

    Cheers, :-)

    Bert

  4. shawnse
    June 20, 2016 at 6:53 pm

    MX Linux (Xfce version of AntiX Debian distro) is working extremely well for me as a persistent USB-stick linux.

    http://www.mepiscommunity.org/mx

    It boots fast and runs fast. I've added a half dozen apps (Chrome, Remina, Inkscape, and some monitoring applets). Chrome was very easily installed via the MX-installer, and by also clicking to download the codecs it was easily made Netflix ready. I'm getting significantly faster Chrome browser benchmark Octane 2 Scores running off of this persistent USB than I've gotten from any other HDD-installed Linux distro (even slightly faster than the Chromium OS CloudReady) while running off the same six year old Dell Latitude E6400 (4GB RAM, USB2). Another plus has been that packaged Chrome apps (like Google Keep) are in the menus and easily added to the launcher dock. I'm finding the Xfce desktop to be very slick, quick, and intuitive. I can switch the same USB stick from a Dell laptop to an Asus and back without configuration upsets. And each time I shutdown, MX Linux then conveniently asks me if I want to save persistent changes that I've made during that session.

    MX makes it very easy to setup the stick. You install MX Linux onto a HDD, install the apps, configure everything as you'd like, and then use a MX tool to compress your customized system into an ISO (with options like including your user accounts), and then use another MX tool to setup that ISO onto a USB stick (with options for setting up persistence and such). It's surprisingly easy to setup. It also has a 3rd tool for remastering your USB stick later if you want changes or you used up your root persistence space.

    I've only been using this configuration for a few days, but so far everything has just worked and worked well. Just for fun, I've even ran the stick on a computer with no hard drive. Plus, even with these cool USB stick features aside ... MX Linux is now in the running as my first choice Linux distro (competing against Ubuntu MATE). That said, I'm finding the faster boot speed and running speed and system portability of the USB-stick to be a compelling feature that may just convince me to stop distro hopping and settle down with MX Linux.

  5. Daniel Escasa
    June 14, 2016 at 6:10 am

    UBCD - Ultimate Boot CD, which you can also write to a USB thumbdrive

  6. Luis Olarte
    May 12, 2016 at 10:27 am

    I have been using boot-able USB for some time, even before there was unebootin.
    Back then had to modify sis-Linux.
    But what is new lately is my multiboot USB for the past year.
    Now I not only boot in to any of 10 images and have persistence on my files on any image.
    I started with and 8 GB moved to a 32 GB and now I am on 64 GB USB.
    I even carry some of my music, wild I install or correct any of the millions of problem MS has.
    Can I boot from Windows yes, but would I do something as stupid as that.
    Since Xp is dead I have moved so many people to emmabuntus 3, elementary, LXLE, MakuluLinux.
    This by far are the most like, when I boot into them.
    So this are the ones with most eye candy but do not lack in productivity.
    Yes I do have Slack, SUSE, Fedora, and Linux mint, puppy.
    But for older PC or low end, this are ones to install use puppy is just so ugly.
    Yes I could use mac-pup, but it so limited only one application per function.
    People like the ability to pick from different applications, wild the PC still functions correctly.
    Ho so what is the software multibootusb 7.5.0 from sourceforge.org
    And yes it boot from Gparted, Ultimate boot disk, and other recovery disk.
    Now days I just recover the data, and just format and start from zeros if it is a windows PC.

  7. Bruce Epper
    May 10, 2016 at 2:05 am

    Trinity Rescue Kit is a must have. It works like a charm on a USB stick, it has 5 virus scanners, the ability to self-update (including virus definitions), and many common tools for recovery of a system (change passwords, backup, auto-discovery & mounting of local filesystems, recovery of lost partitions & deleted files, rootkit detection tools, etc.).

  8. PRADIP SHAH
    May 10, 2016 at 1:55 am

    I have been playing with Puppy Linux for many years and Slacko 5.7 in the video you have here of is more than 2 years old. I always carry it on my keychain.

    I use Gparted exclusively for partitioning and manipulating them regardless of the OS I plan to install. In fact almost all full versions of Linux include it for the purpose, even the live ones. In fact it is the only one that fully supports absolutely any video hardware at best resolution even where Mint and Ubuntu fall short.

  9. Michael Weldon
    May 5, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    I still keep a 'Puppy on a stick', though, and take it everywhere with me. Puppy runs entirely in RAM, and saves to the stick only periodically, every 30 minutes or so, so the stick will last far longer.

  10. Michael Weldon
    May 5, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    I am an unashamed 'Puppy' fanboi!! (lol) I started using this miniature marvel over two years ago, running from USB stick on an ancient Dell Inspiron 1100 laptop. I started out with 'Slacko' 5.7.0, and 'Precise' 5.7.1, but ran into graphics problems with the awful onboard Intel graphics adapter.....the 82845 G/GE/PE 'Extreme' graphics chip.

    I put Puppy side for a while, then came back to it again in November 2014, days after 'Tahrpup' was released. Wonder of wonders, absolutely everything worked OOTB; even my TP-Link wifi adapter.

    The Inspiron has been seriously upgraded; RAM maxed to 1 GB; 2.2 Celeron to 2.6 P4; and a 64GB SSD bunged in. It currently triple-boots Win XP (I know, don't say it!), Puppy 'X-Slacko'; (Slacko with XFCE).....and 'Precise' 5.7.1.

    I learnt how to make the awful Intel adapter work with the system; BIOS upgrade, and enabling maximum VRAM (borrowed from the system).....plus an added kernel line parameter in Grub4DOS, Puppy's bootloader.

    My big old 2004 Compaq desktop (pre-HP, so good quality) currently runs EIGHT 'Pups'. :D

    It's my everyday system, and does everything I ask of it; NetFlix, running Photoshop under WINE, plus a few other Windows apps.....and a whole host of Multimedia stuff.

    Best distro ever..!

  11. Stefan
    April 30, 2016 at 8:09 am

    I Have been using USB's with Linux for quite some years. Installed a lot of distro's on it, but sticked to Ubuntu for a couple of years. I use IT as my personal computer, storing most of my files on it. The latest one is a 64 Gb.
    What I use most these days however is an external harddisk with Ubuntu. It simply has more storage than the usb-drive.

    • Matthew Hughes
      April 30, 2016 at 9:48 pm

      Oh yeah. You'd get more storage, but you'll lose a lot of read/write speed.

  12. James
    April 29, 2016 at 1:56 am

    Currently, I have a 16GB flash drive with YUMI and about 15 different distros and a few rescue tools on it. Nearly all of them work perfectly.

    • Matthew Hughes
      April 30, 2016 at 9:46 pm

      Nearly all? Which ones have you had problems with?

      • thatwhichendureth
        May 1, 2016 at 12:25 pm

        Both CrOS Linux and Chromixium failed to load the kernel. However they aren't officially supported so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

  13. Jacob Dotson
    April 28, 2016 at 5:12 pm

    I use a USB with Ubuntu 16.04, and it runs very well. Mostly use it on my school computers so I can use my VPN. The Unity desktop doesn't run too well, but LXDE runs nearly perfectly.

    • Matthew Hughes
      April 30, 2016 at 9:47 pm

      Could that be an issue with the computer itself? I don't think the storage medium would affect how fast the desktop environment works.

      • Jacob Dotson
        May 1, 2016 at 3:04 pm

        Not entirely sure, but it could be. It could also be because I can't use proprietary drivers, but once again idk.

  14. Wes
    April 28, 2016 at 11:37 am

    I use Parted Magic https://partedmagic.com/ and have been using it for years. This little tool has saved me a ton of time, and my user base a ton of lost files. I have used this for testing hardware, and wifi. It is a donate software, so I donate twice a year and get the latest version. It is under $10. and worth every cent.

    • Matthew Hughes
      April 30, 2016 at 9:47 pm

      Parted Magic is AMAZING. Good shout man.

  15. jskennedy19
    April 27, 2016 at 11:58 pm

    Currently I have 2 Linux USBs, both only 4GB because I don't use them for saving files, I'm not advanced enough to know how to partition it to save files after my USB is unplugged. One of them is Linux Mint with Xfce desktop. I use that one if I have to use someone else's machine and when I need GParted. The other is Knoppix, which I used just once, I should replace it. I used to just have one Linux USB and it ran Crunchbang #!. I was pretty upset when that distribution ended as it was perfect for all of my needs, small, included GParted, and functional if needing to use it for personal reasons on someone else's machine. I'm definitely considering replacing my Knoppix USB with GParted Live after reading this article.

    • Matthew Hughes
      April 30, 2016 at 9:48 pm

      CrunchBang is amazing. One of my favorite low-weight distros.

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