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You’ve probably heard about live Linux environments on USB drives, but did you know that you can also keep data persistent or even do a full install on the USB drive? Here are your three options for carrying Linux in your pocket. Find out which method is best for you.

Write a Live ISO to USB

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It’s been talked about many times before, but it’s become really easy to take an ISO image of your favorite Linux distribution and write it to any appropriately sized USB drive Linux Live USB Creator: Easily Boot Linux From Your Flash Drive Linux Live USB Creator: Easily Boot Linux From Your Flash Drive Read More . From there, you can boot up a Linux system on any computer that supports booting from USB media. There are plenty of tools that can do this for you, and it’s compatible with virtually every Linux distribution out there.

However, the downside to this approach is that you’ll lose all of your data as soon as you shut down or restart the computer you’re working on. As a Live environment, all data is kept in RAM and none of it is written to the USB drive; therefore, none of it is saved when the system turns off.

If you’d like to keep a customized Linux environment in your pocket, this isn’t what you want. However, if you’re wanting to use the drive as a way to perform secure communications (think banking or any activities that require the use of TOR) and ensure that no sensitive information is stored anywhere, this is definitely the way to go.

Enable Persistent Data

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If you’re an Ubuntu user, you have the option to enable persistent data on your USB drive How To Create & Use A USB Ubuntu Linux Boot Jump Drive How To Create & Use A USB Ubuntu Linux Boot Jump Drive Read More . This is great: it lets you write a relatively compact ISO file to boot from, and you can actually keep your extra installed applications and saved documents.

This is also ideal if you use a large variety of systems with the USB drive, as the Live environment will detect what hardware is available every time it boots. So the advantage in this scenario is that you can save your stuff, use up less drive space, and have maximum support for whatever hardware you plug into.

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The downsides: you automatically boot into the Live user account, which isn’t password protected. Also, you have to be careful with software updates, as newer kernels could break the bootloader – it’s not as flexible as a normal disk installation because it expects the kernel that came with the ISO.

Do A Full Install to USB

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Lastly, you can choose to do a full install onto the USB drive. You’ll have to use a disc or another USB drive for the installation media, but this method literally lets you have a full Linux system in your pocket – one that is as flexible as any other traditional installation.

The advantages are pretty obvious:  you get your own system setup just the way you like it, right in your pocket. But there are still a few downsides. First, you’ll need a pretty large USB drive for this type of installation — preferably 8GB or larger. Second, as the system thinks it’s installed normally, it’ll also tend to make changes that are ideal for the hardware you’re currently working with, but not necessarily hardware you’ll encounter in the future.

This primarily concerns the use of proprietary drivers How To Install Proprietary Graphics Drivers In Ubuntu & Fedora [Linux] How To Install Proprietary Graphics Drivers In Ubuntu & Fedora [Linux] Being a Linux user lets you have a pretty cool choice - open source or proprietary software. While a lot of die-hard Linux users will scream at you if you use anything proprietary, you can... Read More (for maximum compatibility, don’t use them!).I don’t use proprietary drivers, and I personally haven’t had any issues in this regard.

Conclusion

Surprised? You shouldn’t be – Linux has always been very flexible, so that it can meet all sorts of needs. And the fact that there are no licenses involved means that installing Linux on a USB stick is rather simple to do, unlike Windows and Mac OS X. Now that you know what your options are, it should be very easy to decide which solution is best for your needs. Or, now that you’re aware of your options, maybe it’s not so easy.

Which of these three options do you use the most, or are most interested in? Why? Let us know in the comments!

  1. sanchezDust
    April 7, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    Could a live USB drive replace a hard drive ? Could I work on a persistant live USB all the time ?

    • Leonardo
      June 22, 2016 at 1:47 am

      Usb drive can replace the hard drive, installing the system on it (usb) (it is a little different from a live usb), the matter is that usb drive have a limited live (write times), there are work to do to achieve a longer live: don't use swap, mount /var/log, /tmp, cache directories using RAM among others, recently may drive died (i had two years using it with linux running from it). P D ¿live or live? i wonder you can understand the idea.

  2. Ben
    March 2, 2016 at 3:45 am

    Installed Ubuntu on a thumb drive if USB is not plugged in it does not boot directly to Windows. Looks like grub is on the USB and without thumb drive it does not boot. also put USB in laptop and nothing happens.

    • Leonardo
      June 22, 2016 at 1:33 am

      May be you put the /boot partition on the thumb drive but the MBR on the disk , recently my usb died (i/o errors in /boot folder) but grub can run yet (but do not find /boot/grub files), or the thumb drive is OK (with grub and MBR on it) but the laptop is not configurated to start from it

  3. Michael Weldon
    August 8, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    Puppy Linux every time. Couldn't agree more. As mentioned, it's designed from the word go for removable media installs; the squash file system folders that are used keep absolutely everything persistent.....and they also keep the size as small as possible. It IS fast, and it IS very secure. I always have a Puppy with me.

  4. Bennet van der Gryp
    July 31, 2014 at 7:21 am

    I hate the fact that everything I know about linux is null and void with Puppy. No apt-get or yum... Some new pip format or something. I don't even have rpmbuild as a standard command and the normal rpm function has a lot fewer parameters than the one I usually use. Installing packages like java has become an effort when you just download the normal tar ball.

    The look and feel reminds me of Windows 3.1 as well, which annoys the hell out of me. I've seen a lot better looking tiny distros out there (which unfortunately didn't support persistence which is why I tried puppy). Maybe it's just that I'm not all too familiar with Slax.

    Think I'm rather going to go for the CD version of CentOS.

  5. Leoner R
    April 21, 2014 at 9:40 am

    I use YUMI.. I have 4 linux distros in one USB drive..

  6. Alex V
    April 12, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    I used the first one until now, but I think I'll switch to the last one. It works great. Love flexibility!

  7. Pedja I
    March 27, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    Just the thing i was looking for!!

  8. Wantoo Sevin
    March 20, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    Great article!

    I use Slax on a thumbdrive. Persistence works a charm. Changing too much of config files that come bundled as part of Slax (like KDE or files in /etc) does seem to cause a bit of an issue though, so I just run it as-is and then install add-ons, which are freely customizable.

  9. Mohammad Rafay
    February 16, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    Well I was instslling ubuntu on my computer with two hard disks and my external 2TB hard disk was attached to the same computer and without my knowledge I installed ubuntu on my hard disk. For long I never knew that I have full fledged OS my external hard disk. One Iwas working on my todiba Lap top and the external hard drive was connected to it. I had to restart the computer and to my surprise it started Ubuntu full version. Now that's something Next time my ubuntu on the computer crashed and I started computer with external hard drive retreated all the data and reinstalled ubuntu. This I did when Makruseof first released ubuntu manual why you restrict your self to USB 4 gb drive. You can keep options open for small size TB drive. But thanks to you guys at makeuseof I learned so many things. You are not just website but an institution to learn and keep abreast with new technologies just few hours a week Thanks to you all. Dr.Mohommad Abdul Rafay

  10. uchefe atuyota
    February 14, 2014 at 1:45 am

    Would like to know what the experience is like with unetbootin. It was mentioned to me by a friend.

    • Anomaly
      February 16, 2014 at 1:51 am

      Unetbootin works but last time I checked it does not do persistent installs. That means you lose all customizations on every reboot.

    • Dennis R
      February 18, 2014 at 6:09 pm

      Unetbootin does persistent with Ubuntu distro's. Use all the time!

  11. Fred M
    February 11, 2014 at 10:12 am

    Been doing it that way for a few years now! And by the way Puppy Linux would run on you'r wristwatch if ya can get on there. :)

  12. Anomaly
    February 11, 2014 at 1:58 am

    I use Universal USB Installer to make persistent installs on USB thumb drives.

    I have found that doing a full install of Linux on a USB thumb drive, as you suggest in option 3, causes many problems. They are slow and wear out the USB drive very quickly. I have also had issue with sleep/stand by mode with this method. The laptop would sleep alright but could not be brought back to working state. Ihave to hard restart.

    What program is pictured in the section on persistent installs?

    • jasray
      February 11, 2014 at 4:32 pm

      The top picture looks like LILA--Linux Live USB Installer--a popular tool that does well. PenDriveLinux offers the Universal USB Installer that also offers persistence for those distros that have persistence as an option. Most Ubuntu derivatives such as Mint will have the persistence option, but not all distros offer persistence.

      For simple use, SLAX may be the best distro (or Puppy) for USBs. Mint runs relatively well. Ubuntu versions vary in performance.

      Oh, the second picture, Make Startup Disk, looks like the tool offered in Ubuntu for making a USB stick--rather old looking distro interface.

    • Daniel E
      February 11, 2014 at 4:51 pm

      I did a full install of crunchbang (http://crunchbang.org) on a 16GB USB drive. I do experience lags every now and then. But no trouble with sleep, it boots right back to where I left off. Running it on an aging ThinkPad SL400.

      As to the distro in the picture, that's Fedora 19 (see the top right corner of the image)

    • Daniel E
      February 11, 2014 at 4:53 pm

      Forgot to add that it doesn't install the bootloader onto the USB drive, but instead installs GRUB on the hard drive. That does limit its portability. I suppose with some work I could install a bootloader on the USB drive but I'm content with what I have for now

  13. Josh G
    February 10, 2014 at 10:05 pm

    I have VirtualBox installed on multiple Windows [7, 8, 8.1] machines and have my [Linux Mint, Windows XP, other] guests installed on a USB3 flash drive.

    I had to copy over / edit the Vbox config files on each of the hosts, but it works.

  14. jasray
    February 10, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    Yes, Puppy provides a fast and reliable boot with USB. I typically use Slax because of the modular build properties and the unbelievable boot speed and persistence. The larger distros do work on a USB, but speed can be an issue. Ubuntu may be the worst experience for me after version 10 or so. Mint keeps the persistence feature and tends to operate faster than my experience with Ubuntu.

  15. Scott H
    February 10, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    i did the with back track 5 r3 when it come out very useful

  16. Jon
    February 10, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    Two words: Puppy Linux

    It's made for running from removable media, and saves state, documents, everything. It's a fun, quirky distro, and worth learning. I think you ought to cover it here.

    • Frankie
      February 11, 2014 at 2:27 pm

      Two words: Puppy Linux

      The dogs have it when it comes to Linux Distros. And I've tried most of them on different systems. It's fast, secure as hell, stable, easy to use and good looking. Barry the developer should be the Billionaire and on the cover of Time. The World is truly upside down.

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