Running Linux from USB: Are You Doing It Right?

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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

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. 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

If you’re an Ubuntu user, you have the option to enable persistent data on your USB drive. 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

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 (for maximum compatibility, don’t use them!).I don’t use proprietary drivers, and I personally haven’t had any issues in this regard.


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!

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