Updated by Christian Cawley on April 12th 2017
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? This can have massive benefits for your productivity, especially if you’re a remote worker, or cannot afford your own PC.
In short, we’re talking about turning Linux into the ultimate ultra-portable platform: running it from a USB flash device. Here are your three options for carrying Linux in your pocket. Find out which method is best for you.
Choose the Right USB Stick
Before you get started, however, it’s worth considering buying a new USB stick, especially for this task. Older USB sticks have already had their lifespan reduced considerably, and as flash has a finite number of read/write cycles, a dedicated, fresh stick of flash makes sense. Something affordable with a handy amount of storage space should do.
Also, you should consider the hardware you’ll be connecting the USB flash drive to. Does it support USB 3.0? If so, you’ll enjoy considerable speed (and other) advantages over old-fashioned USB 2.0.
To check if the destination computer has USB 3.0, look at its USB ports. If they have blue plastic in them rather than black, that’s a good visual clue. Not all USB 3.0 ports use this shorthand, however, so look up the specs of the PC. On Windows, you can check the Device Manager.
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.
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.
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 8 GB 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.
Linux Loves USB
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 macOS. 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.
To help you with your choice of distro, we have rounded up the best Linux distros to install on a USB stick.