Running Linux From a USB Pendrive: Are You Doing It Right

By | February 24, 2022

You may have heard of previewing and installing Linux from a USB drive, but did you know that you can also save data between uses or even run a full permanent Linux installation on a USB Pendrive? This can have huge benefits for your productivity, especially if you are a remote worker, or can’t afford to buy your own PC.

In short, we are talking about turning Linux into an ultra portable platform: running Linux from a USB flash device. Here are your three options for carrying Linux in your pocket. Find out which method is best for you.

Select USB Flashdisk

Before starting, it’s a good idea to consider buying a new USB stick. Older USB sticks have had a reduced lifespan, and since flash has a limited number of read/write cycles, the newer Pendrive makes sense. Something affordable with a practical amount of storage space would be the best flash drive for a bootable version of Linux.

In addition, you must consider the hardware that you will connect the USB Pendrive with. Does it support USB 3.0? If so, you’ll enjoy considerable speed (and other) gains over the old-fashioned USB 2.0.

To check if the destination computer has USB 3.0, look at its USB port. If it has blue plastic in it instead of black, that’s a good visual clue. However, not all USB 3.0 ports use this shorthand, so take a look at the PC specs. In Windows, you can check Device Manager.

Burn ISO Direct to USB

It’s really easy to take an ISO image of your favorite Linux distribution and write it to an appropriately sized USB drive. From there, you can boot your Linux system on any computer that supports booting from USB media. There are many tools that can burn ISOs for you, and this method is compatible with almost all Linux distributions out there.

One option is balenaEtcher, a free and open source tool available for Linux, macOS, and Windows. While burning an ISO isn’t as complicated as it sounds, Etcher is as simple as it can be.

However, the downside of this approach is that you will lose all data as soon as you shut down or restart the computer you are working on. As a Live environment, all data is stored in RAM and nothing is written to the USB drive; therefore, nothing is saved when the system is shut down.

If you want to keep a custom Linux environment in your pocket, this is not what you want. However, if you want to use the drive as a way to carry out secure communications (think banking, or any activity that requires the use of TOR) and ensure that no sensitive information is stored anywhere, this is definitely the way to go.

Enable Persistent Data

Depending on your distro, you may have the option to enable persistent data on your USB drive. It’s great: it lets you write relatively compact ISO files to boot, and you can actually store additional installed applications and saved documents.

To make this work, you will need a compatible program to do the installation. One of the options is Rufus, a Windows application that supports creating live Linux USB sticks with persistent storage. If you are already using Linux, you can try mkusb As a replacement. This tool will run on Ubuntu and Debian based distros, plus a few others.

Having persistent data is ideal if you use a wide variety of systems with USB drives, as the live environment detects what hardware is available every time it boots. So the advantage in this scenario is that you can store your stuff, use less drive space, and have maximum support for whatever hardware you plug in.

The downside: you automatically boot into a live user account, which isn’t password protected. Also, you should be careful with software updates, as newer kernels can damage the bootloader.

Perform Complete Installation to USB

Finally, you can choose to perform a full installation to a USB drive. You’ll have to use a disc or another USB drive for the installation media, but this method really lets you have a full Linux system in your pocket that’s as flexible as any other traditional installation.

The advantages are pretty obvious: you get your own system setup the way you like it, right in your pocket. But there are still some disadvantages.

First, you’ll need a larger USB drive for this type of installation. Indeed, it wasn’t as much of a problem as it used to be. If your only option is an old drive lying around, 8GB is worth it. But with 128GB and 256GB drives having drastically lowered prices, you shouldn’t have to spend a fortune to run Linux on a flash drive comparable in size to an SSD.

Second, because the system thinks it’s installed normally, it will tend to make ideal changes to the hardware you’re currently working with, but not necessarily to the hardware you’ll encounter in the future.

This mainly concerns the use of proprietary drivers. For maximum compatibility, don’t use it. Many open drivers are fine for most uses.

Linux Loves USB

Linux has always been very flexible, so it can meet all kinds of needs. And the fact that no licensing is involved means that running Linux on a USB stick is rather easy 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 know your options, it may not be easy.