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How to Install Linux to a USB Drive (and why you might want to)

Linux USBWe’ve mentioned Linux on several occasions since this blog got started back in 2009. I introduced readers to UberStudent  (now up to version 3.0) back in its early days, and last fall I pointed out some good reasons to experiment with Linux. Lincoln’s made the move to using Linux full time.

One of the nice things about Linux is that it can be installed to a flash drive as well as to a hard drive, providing not just the convenience of portable applications, but the power of an entire operating system.

I recently created a portable Linux computer on a 16GB flash drive (running Ubuntu 13.04) using “Method 0″ described on this page in the Ubuntu Wiki. It’s possible to achieve the same result using the Universal USB Installer from Pendrivelinux.com. (Note that it’s easiest to install Linux to a USB using either a Linux or Windows computer.)

Once installed to the flash drive, Linux can be run on any computer that can boot from USB (which excludes some recent Macs, unfortunately*). I found that my newly-created portable computer ran very well, and did indeed save changes I made to the system, including installations of Zotero and ReText. For some reason, though, it didn’t want to remember my wallpaper settings on reboot, and I got tired of choosing between “Try Ubuntu” (which is the option to choose) and “Install Ubuntu” every time I restarted. To get around this problem I edited syslinux.cfg as described in this forum thread. Problem solved.

My principal reason for creating this portable Linux computer is for use in class. There are times when I want to show students how to install software, and I shouldn’t — or simply can’t — install software on the classroom computer.

I can imagine other use cases, though. Someone who’s traveling and anticipates only an occasional need for a computer might find it simpler to travel with a flash drive rather than a laptop (assuming she or he will have access to a public computer, or perhaps a friend’s machine). Similarly, students who for whatever reason don’t have computers of their own (but who do have access to a computer lab) might find this a good way to carry their own desktop environment, applications, and files with them wherever they go.

If you’ve tried using a flash drive as a portable computer, let us know about your experiences in the comments.

*There are some workarounds. Those interested in booting from USB on a newer Mac might want to check out the rEFInd boot manager.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by pleia2]

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