Ubuntu on USB Drives

Monday Apr 22nd 2013 by Matt Hartley
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If you're on Windows or a Mac and would like to give Ubuntu a try, follow these steps to install Ubuntu on a USB drive.

There was a time not all that long ago, when you needed to rely on optical media to install or run Ubuntu on your desktop. These days, you can easily use USB for those tasks, thanks to a combination of large capacity flash drives and modern motherboard BIOS options.

In this article, I'll show you how to create a USB drive that can install or run Ubuntu if you're currently using Windows or OS X, or if you currently run Ubuntu and want to install it on another PC.

For Windows Users

For most people, coming to Ubuntu means jumping ship from Windows, usually XP, Vista or Windows 7. For this example, I will be explain how to setup a USB flash drive using USB Creator for Windows. My reason for using this tool versus others is that it works flawlessly each time without tons of hassles.

  • Download the preferred Ubuntu ISO file you'd like to use. This can either be the standard Ubuntu release or a daily build Ubuntu release, depending on your preferences.
  • Keeping in mind that this will erase all the data on your USB flash drive, insert the drive into a free USB port. Open up USB Creator and select the ISO file you're going to be using for your Ubuntu installation.
  • If you don't want to install Ubuntu onto your hard drive, you can select the persistent data option, then choose the amount of persistent data you wish to retain on your USB flash drive. This is useful when you wish to retain your user data without needing to utilize an internal hard drive to retain these settings.
  • Once you're all set to complete the USB setup, go ahead and click on the "lightning" button to begin the setup process and create your Ubuntu for USB installation.

Considerations: It's important to remember that your flash drive needs to be formatted as FAT32 in order for it to work. Luckily, USB Creator will alert you to this if it's needed and allow you to easily format the drive, right there within the software. Also, if you are on a newer Windows 8 system, you may need to download and use rEFind to get around the UEFI headaches found on Windows 8 computers.

For OS X Users

For those of you looking at installing Ubuntu from USB to OS X, there is really only one truly reliable option to get Ubuntu set up without frustrating yourself into giving up. And that option is Unetbootin. What might surprise many of you is that getting Ubuntu to work on a Mac isn't as simple as one might think—you will need to use some terminal commands in conjunction with Unetbootin.

  • Download a copy of an Ubuntu ISO image (see links above). Remember, you will need to decide whether you prefer using a daily build or a stable release of Ubuntu. In either case, it must be 64-bit Ubuntu to work.
  • Download both rEFind and UNetbootin. Because we're dealing with a controlled situation where Macs don't make running Ubuntu from a USB drive easy, rEFind is helpful for booting into your USB flash drive after things are setup. You will need to follow these instructions to make your USB flash drive Ubuntu-bootable. The easiest approach however, is to install the install.sh script onto your OS X drive.
  • Download and install UNetbootin for OS X. This will make installing Ubuntu from USB easier than with other less accurate guides available on the Web.
  • Run Unetbootin, select your downloaded Ubuntu ISO image as the "source" image and then use your flash drive as the destination for the installation. Click OK, then wait for an error to appear that this won't boot the USB drive on your Mac. This is expected, rEFind is going to be used to address this issue.
  • Reboot your Mac, and you should be presented with a rEFind boot menu. Select the USB flash drive with Ubuntu installed and continue with your boot up.

Considerations: If you're looking to skip running your Ubuntu installation from a flash drive and simply wish to install it onto your Mac's hard drive, follow this guide for step by step instructions.

For Current Ubuntu Users

If you have an existing Ubuntu installation and you wish to install Ubuntu from USB onto another PC, this guide is for you.

  • From the Unity Dash, search for Startup Disk Creator. By default, it should be installed already. If it's not, search for it from the Software Center and install it from there.
  • Download a copy of Ubuntu via the instructions given previously, choosing the ISO image that best suits your needs.
  • With the Startup Disk Creator installed, run the program and browse to the ISO you wish to use and choose Make Startup Disk.

Considerations: You can choose either to leave persistent space on the flash drive for user settings or not, depending on how you wish to proceed.

Forget Flash Drives Altogether

If you don't have a DVD drive on your computer, you do also have other options for installing Ubuntu other than a USB flash drive. One option I've used over the years is an external DVD drive that attaches via USB. It works out of the box on Ubuntu, Windows and OS X. Unlike installing Ubuntu via a USB flash drive, there is nothing to setup, just burn the ISO image to a DVD and install.

Another option is commonly known as a network installation, but it's not for the faint of heart. You can follow this Ubuntu network installation guide if you wish to explore using a network installation instead of trying to install Ubuntu from a USB flash drive.

Final Thoughts

Installing Ubuntu is brain-dead easy these days. Whether it's using Ubuntu 64bit for UEFI-enabled PCs or simply running Ubuntu within the confines of a USB flash drive, Ubuntu is accessible just about everywhere.

My advice if you're new to Ubuntu is to try it first via a USB flash drive to see if it's something that works for you. If it's working for you, great, then you can easily install it straight away. If it's not working for you, but you'd still like to keep it around, relying on the USB flash drive is a great way to keep Ubuntu accessible without touching your existing OS installation.

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