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portable-ubuntuI just let myself be lured into buying a Netbook for my daughter. It was a good deal actually and I love the machine. The only problem is that it came with no OS and no optical disc drive (it has two USB ports, though). The only option to get it up and running – without the need to buy (or borrow) an external optical drive – is to install the OS via a USB thumb drive.

Armed with my faithful MacBook, an internet connection, and a 2GB USB flash disk; I set out on an adventure to bring my daughter’s future netbook alive.

Deciding on the OS

It didn’t take long for me to decide to install Ubuntu on the netbook. Free would be the first reason and familiarity is the second. I’ve tried Ubuntu before and I have the installation CD with me.

As naive as it sounds, some people still think that you can just copy and paste the content of the CD to the USB drive and boot the machine with it. That’s why my first quest is to find out how to transfer the installation ability of the CD to USB as a portable Ubuntu installer – the Mac way of course.

The search ended up with an unexpectedly different result. I found something more interesting: there is a netbook version of Ubuntu called Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR for short) which is designed for the small screen and Intel Atom processor (as most netbooks are). The minimum requirement is 384MB of RAM.


So I choose the nearest download location for me and hit the "Begin Download" button.

ubuntu install from usb

Note: If you are wondering whether your netbook is compatible, you can check their list of tested and compatible models, but in general, it should work with most netbook models. Mine is not listed but I’ve discovered no problem so far.

Creating the Portable Ubuntu USB installer

The Ubuntu site has a page describing how to create the USB installer. Basically, you have to get an .IMG version of the Ubuntu installer (UNR is already in IMG format), and then convert it to the USB drive.

Windows users have the luxury of an easy GUI way of converting the IMG with the help of Disk Imager . Ubuntu users has their own Ubuntu ImageWriter. But Mac users and other Linux users have to bear with the geeky command lines method.

The first thing to do to create the portable Ubuntu USB installer using Mac’s Terminal command line is to make the process easier by moving the UNR installer file to the highest position of the folder structure and then changing the name to something shorter like "unr.img" (sans quote). Don’t forget to make sure that there’s no USB drive plugged.

02 Move the installer

Then follow these steps:

  • Type : diskutil list in the Terminal and hit Enter
  • Plug in your USB flash disk and repeat step 1
  • Compare the result and you’ll have the device node assigned to your flash media. Usually something like "/dev/disk2" (sans quote)
  • 03 Diskutil

  • Type : diskutil unmountDisk /dev/diskN in the Terminal and hit Enter. You’ll have to replace the /dev/diskN with the device node that you got from step 3. From the picture above you can see that the device node assigned for my USB flash drive is "/dev/disk1" (sans quote)
  • Type : sudo dd if=/path/to/downloaded.img of=/dev/diskN bs=1m in the Terminal and hit Enter. But there are several things that you have to change here before you hit Enter:
    – first the /path/to/downloaded.img is the location of the downloaded UNR installer file. As we’ve already taken care of this before, all you’ve got to do is to change the string into /unr.img
    – second, the /dev/diskN is the device node which is the same as step 4
    – and the last, if you see the error line:
    dd: Invalid number ‘1m’
    then you need to change the bs=1m into bs=1M (notice the capital ‘M’)
  • Write your password, hit enter, and wait until the process is finished. Please be warned that all the data in the USB drive will be lost.
  • Type : diskutil eject /dev/diskN in the Terminal and hit Enter.
  • Unplug your USB drive.

Installing UNR in the Netbook

We now come to the climax of the story. I plug the USB drive into the Netbook’s USB port and start the machine. During the booting process, I press the F10 button to go into the booting option, choose to boot from the USB drive, and….the prince and princess live happily ever after.

ubuntu usb install

Every manufacturer might have different settings for this booting menu, so please refer to your machine’s documentation. Another option is to look carefully at the bottom left part of the screen during the beginning of the booting process because usually the booting instructions are written there.

Now the netbook is alive and well, running UNR while my daughter has to continuously ‘compete’ with his father – yours truly – to use the tiny machine. :) As for me, I am now addicted to the concept of a USB Drive as the OS installation method and will surely try to find out more about it.

Have you tried UNR? Do you know any other method to create an installation USB drive for other OS’s? Share using the comments below.

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