Mobile Revelations - Bootable USB Flash Drive (Updated)

Micro SD

Like lots of folks, I'm enthralled by the idea of plugging a USB flash drive into any computer--such as a university computer when visiting campus, a friend's house, at any computer when I need access but don't want to login or risk viral/malware infection--and having access to a complete operating system.

In fact, Ben Wilkoff wrote a blog entry--Question 268 of 365: Can We Take Everything With Us?--that I haven't been able to forget. He writes:
Yesterday, I decided to give load up Ubuntu Linux on a micro-SD card. This tiny little card holds an entire operating system, all of the programs I will need to run on it, and every preference I could possibly have. Currently, I am running it on a Netbook that I was given for a test drive. But, I popped the card into a USB stick and loaded it up on my Mac, my wife’s Dell and any other machine (save my iPad, I suppose) that I could throw it’s way.
It is nothing short of a revelation.

Recently, a colleague asked me, "How do I set up UbuntuLinux on my computer?" The answer involved a few screenshots, but to be honest, the process has gotten a WHOLE LOT easier in the past few years...and allow you to achieve "mobile revelations" when you can take run an operating system off a flash drive, save your data on that flash drive, boot up into another machine and access it.

Below are three solutions that I've come across:

1) USB Universal Installer - This is a phenomenal solution from the folks! It makes it very easy to download an ISO--that's a single "image file" that you can make a CD/DVD of fairly easily--and copy the content of that CD image file to a USB flash drive. I've done this successfully with USB flash drives ranging from 1gig to 16gigs in size, and one time, I used an external USB hard drive successfully (a waste of space, though). 

Here's how they describe themselves on the web site:
Universal USB Installer is a Live Linux USB Creatorthat allows you to choose from a selection of Linux Distributions to put on your USB Flash Drive. The Universal USB Installer is easy to use. Simply choose a Live Linux Distribution, the ISO file, your Flash Drive and, Click Install. Other features include; Persistence (if available), and the ability to format the flash drive (recommended) to ensure a clean install. Upon completion, you should have a ready to run bootable USB Flash Drive with your select Linux version installed.

Now, what's neat about USB Universal Installer is that when you copy the contents of a "live" GNU/Linux CD/DVD to a Windows formatted (FAT32) flash drive, everytime you restart your computer, any work you did on that drive is gone. However, USB Universal Installer enables you to create a "persistent" drive that works much like your own hard drive. The PenDriveLinux folks describe it in this way:
For USB Linux users, a persistent Linux install is one that allows it's user to save data changes back to the USB storage device instead of leaving the information in system RAM. This data can then be recovered and used again on subsequent boots, even when booting from different machines.
This means you can start a project on one machine, switch to another, and the data is safely stored on your USB flash drive, as if you'd been working on ONE computer all along. Ben Wilkoff writes about persistence in this way:
I think that describes what I am doing pretty well. I am using a persistent system. It persists as a part of me, even as I add to it and change my workflows to meet the operating system that is so tight and compact that it can fit into a single Gigabyte. I can now take everything with me that I need to get down to business. Everything.
The only limitation of USB Universal Installer is that it requires Windows. It won't work on GNU/Linux or Mac. You can read the complete list of requirements online.

2) Unetbootin - This is a cross-platform tool that works well, like USB Universal Installer with one exception--it doesn't do "persistence." Otherwise, it works flawlessly on Windows and GNU/Linux computers.

And, tonight, trying to find the less painful answer to my plurked question, I stumbled upon another solution that I'd never heard of:

3) LinuxLive USB Creator - "For those interested, I run Mint 10 from a 2Gb USB pendrive, the installation on the drive is created using LiLi USB Creator. It is extremely easy to use with the advantage of producing a persistent file unlike UnetBootin."

This runs on Windows and they have a beautiful web site. I haven't tried it yet but it's on my list....

and thanks to Ron Houtman's suggestion in the comments, an update to the list:

4) Passmark Software's Image USB - From their web site, "ImageUSB is a free utility which lets you write an image concurrently to multiple USB Flash Drives. Capable of creating exact bit-level copies of USB Flash Drive (UFDs), ImageUSB is an extremely effective tool for the mass duplication of UFDs".

This is definitely a tool to know about if you're mass duplicating USB flash drives, say for a class of participants!

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Ron Houtman said…
Another good tool to add to your list might be ImageUSB (Free) from Passmark Software. Beside being able to write ISOs to the flash drive it has one very useful trick up it's sleeve.

It also supports writing the ISO to multiple USB drives at once. I've used this feature a few times with a 7-port USB hub to blast the image to all 7 at the same time. It's a big timesaver.
@Ron, thanks so much! Here's the link for others...
Unknown said…
And if you would like to create a pen drive with *many* Operating Systems to choose from take a look at
@John, thanks for another awesome suggestion! So much to learn in this area.

How would you folks suggest handling creating a Win7 or WinXP bootable USB flash drive?

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