Install Ubuntu On Your Computer Using a USB Flash Drive

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Obtaining Ubuntu is super easy — all you have to do is download it from their website. But once you have the ISO file, what do you do with it? You could burn it to a DVD, or you can use a highly-reusable USB flash drive to get the job done.

Want to know more? Let me show you the entire process for every machine so you know exactly what you need to do to install Ubuntu properly on your computer with a USB flash drive.

Grabbing Ubuntu

Alright, to get started, we’ll first need to download Ubuntu from their website, but you already have a few choices you need to make. There is (except for six months every two years) the LTS release and the latest cutting edge release. While both are usually considered stable enough for everyday use, the LTS release is more stable and is supported for five years from its release date. The releases in between LTS releases are only supported for nine months so you must upgrade to a newer release every six months if you go that route. However, if you’re having hardware issues on an LTS release, you’ll probably find better support for your hardware on the cutting edge releases.

Then there’s the question of choosing 64-bit and 32-bit. Nowadays, you should always pick 64-bit unless you know that your computer is too old and cannot support it. There used to be a general “rule” floating around saying that you shouldn’t use 64-bit unless you have 3GB of RAM or more, but you can ignore that. All systems should take advantage of 64-bit even if they have smaller amounts of RAM.

When downloading, I recommend that you consider using the torrent links instead of your browser, as it will significantly speed up your download (and yes, it’s legal).

Prepping Your USB Drive

Once the download is finished and you have the ISO file, it’s time to write it to your USB flash drive. Here is where the instructions start to differ depending on what operating system you’re currently using.

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Windows

Various tools are available such as LiveLinux USB Creator for Windows only and Unetbootin which is cross-platform. My personal favorite is the Universal USB Installer from Pendrivelinux. Download it and plug in your USB drive before launching it. For this tool, there’s no installation required.

linux_universal_usb_installer
Then simply pick the distribution you’re installing (pick the right one!), give it the path to the downloaded ISO file, and then pick your USB drive’s letter from the list. Be sure to check Format Drive to avoid any potential formatting issues. Be warned that this will erase all data from your USB drive.

Finally, choose an amount of persistent storage — if all you’re wanting to do is install Ubuntu, then you should leave it at 0. Then click on Create and it will start writing the installation image onto your USB flash drive, essentially turning it into the equivalent of an installation disc.

Mac

It’s a bit trickier to make Ubuntu USB installation media on a Mac (regardless of whether you plan to use the drive to install Ubuntu on a PC or Mac) because it cannot be done without using the Terminal. So open the Terminal, then use the following commands:

linux_mac_usb_write
Begin by switching to the Downloads folder with

cd ~/Downloads

and then follow this with

hdiutil convert -format UDRW -o ubuntu.iso ubuntu-1xxxxxx.iso

Make sure you replace xxxx with the rest of the filename of the downloaded ISO. This converts the ISO image into a format that Macs can understand better. Follow this with

mv ubuntu.iso.dmg ubuntu.iso

… to rename the image file by dropping the .dmg extension that Macs will add automatically.

Next, list your current drives with

diskutil list

And insert your USB drive into your Mac. Repeat the command:

diskutil list

and note the drive number of the drive that wasn’t there before.

Now, enter

diskutil unmountDisk /dev/diskN

where N is the disk number as given by the previous command (we want to unmount your flash drive so that it’s not used by anything else).

You should then run

sudo dd if=./ubuntu.iso of=/dev/rdiskN bs=1m

again, N is the disk number. This writes the installation ISO onto your flash drive. Click Ignore on the warning box, and then run

diskutil eject /dev/diskN

where N is the disk number. This safely ejects the flash drive so that everything is finalized before the system considers it no longer connected.

If you need it, there’s also a graphical way to prep your USB drive for Linux installation.

Linux

First of all, congrats if you already have Linux on a computer and just need to make an installation flash drive. The most reliable method is to open up Gparted or a Disks utility that can tell you what path the device has (whether /dev/sdb, /dev/sdc, etc). Then, just do:

linux_usb_write

cd ~/Downloads

to switch the terminal to your Downloads folder and then

sudo dd if=./ubuntu-iso-name.iso of=/dev/sdX

where X is the letter for the flash drive, and ubuntu-iso-name is the name of the ISO file. This will write the installation ISO onto your flash drive. Finish off with

sudo eject /dev/sdX

to make sure that all data has been written and the USB device ejects correctly (otherwise, it will write the remaining bits and then complete the ejection).

Using the USB Drive for Installation

Congratulations, you now have a USB flash drive you can use to install Ubuntu! The next step is to plug in the USB drive, turn on your computer, and enter the BIOS. This is usually done by pressing one of the following keys repeatedly as soon as the computer turns on: F2, F5, F6, F8, or F10. Often (but sadly not always), the computer will display which button needs to be pressed before it continues to boot the operating system. Once inside the BIOS, you’ll need to change the boot order so that the flash drive will boot before your hard drive. That way, it will start the installation media rather than your usual operating system.

Windows 8 users will need to use the advanced shutdown method to boot from the USB device.

On Macs, you’ll have an easier time. As soon as you turn it on, hold the Option button for a few seconds until you see a selection screen. Press the right arrow key to move the selection to your flash drive, and then hit Enter to boot the installation media.

Things to Watch out For

mac_linux_installer_partitions
Installation should be the same as with a DVD from here. There’s really only one thing you’ll need to look out for. If you choose to do manual partitioning, the USB installation media will appear on the list of drives. Just be sure to know which one is your USB drive (as it should have a much smaller capacity than your hard drive) and make sure not to touch the partitions on it nor have it selected as the installation target for the bootloader. Instead, if say the hard drive you’re installing to is /dev/sda, you’ll want to choose /dev/sda as the target if you’re running a regular BIOS system, or the EFI partition (probably /dev/sda1) if you have a UEFI system.

Enjoy Your Installation!

Ubuntu should now be installed on your system, thanks to your USB flash drive! Don’t worry about changing the boot order again in your BIOS after the installation — as soon as you unplug the USB drive (when Ubuntu says you can) and restart your computer, your hard drive should automatically slip back to the top spot in the boot order. And best of all, you can now do whatever you’d like with the flash drive. You can keep it as it is and reuse it to install Ubuntu on other computers, overwrite it with the installation image of another distribution, or even just reformat it to use as a regular flash drives for files you need to carry with you. You could even perform a Linux installation onto your USB drive, and not just on your computer.

Is there anything else that fellow readers should be aware of? When was the last time you installed Linux via disc? Let us know in the comments!

Image Credits: notebook and usb drive Via Shutterstock

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