If you’ve read the different ITgirl.tech’s Linux distributions overview (including lightweight ones), then you know that I recommend trying out a Live Linux USB version of your distro before committing to it.

A live Linux USB copy of your Linux operating system allows for a portable, temporary version of the distribution bootable from within your current OS. That way, you can take a look at the different features of your distro without having to make any changes to the host computer. 

The advantages of trying out a live Linux USB version of your distribution 

  • You can check for compatibility issues and ensure that your Linux OS will accurately detect your computer’s hardware. That way, your new operating system will be functional out-of-the-box.
  • If you realize that you aren’t a fan of the distribution, you don’t need to reinstall your previous operating system. Your machine’s current OS remains intact. Indeed, when you end the live USB session, the distro leaves the computer without a trace.
  • Apart from trying out a potentially new OS, using its live USB version creates a temporary virtual session with all the advantages it entails. As everything you did while using the live USB disappears upon logging out, it allows among other things…
    • To browse the web while making sure that nothing will be saved (no kept search history or cookies).
    • To check if documents or email attachments contain viruses.
    • To try out new programs and software without committing to having them installed on your current OS.
    • To test out websites or applications on different operating systems

How to use the live Linux USB version of your distribution

The procedure is pretty straightforward, but distributions have some latitude in terms of how they implement their version of the OS. As such, the steps will vary for each particular OS.

Because there are almost as many live versions as there are distributions, I chose to focus on four distros: Debian, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and Bodhi Linux. Two of them (Linux Mint and Bodhi Linux) are lightweight distributions. As for Debian and Ubuntu, they are amongst the most well-known distributions offered on Linux.

The example screenshots in this article use a MacBook Air as the host computer, but the steps remain the same whether you are using Windows, Mac, or Linux. The only exception would be when it comes time to burn the distro disc image. That procedure will differ according to your current OS.

A note regarding this procedure

For each Linux distribution, the “characteristics of the live USB version,” “link to the ISO file” and the Live install steps (step 8 onward) remain the same whether you choose to boot Linux Live from a physical USB flash drive or a virtual machine

However, step 1 to step 7 cater specifically to those who wish to use a pen drive to boot their distro. It includes such things as formatting your pen drive, burning the disc image and changing your UEFI settings.

For Windows 10 users who have never burned a disc image on a pen drive before, I highly recommend reading this ITgirl.tech article. Those on macOS can also find a handy step-by-step guide.

Those who would prefer to boot their Linux OS from a virtual machine can still follow the procedure found within this article! Once you know which distro you want to choose, skip ahead to step 8. Make sure that you first created a virtual machine for your OS

Finally, you will notice that step 2 requires choosing a desktop environment. If you are new to this concept or would like to see a comparative review of different Linux DEs, then I recommend this ITgirl.tech article.

How to configure the live Linux USB version of your distro

Debian

Debian splash screen
Debian’s splash screen

With Debian, you can access the live USB version through the use of a standalone ISO file dedicated to Live booting. In contrast to other Debian flavors, Debian’s live system isn’t necessarily ready out of the box. The reason why is because unlike the regular Debian ISO file, the live USB version doesn’t come with the possibility of having non-free firmware included. As such, if your machine’s hardware is prone to compatibility issues or requires proprietary drivers, you will have to install the needed packages manually.

In itself, adding the non-free packages isn’t complicated. ITgirl.tech has a handy guide on how to add these packages through the use of the “sources.list” file and the APT package manager

Characteristics of the live USB version

  • Desktop environments: GNOME, KDE, LXDE, Xfce, Cinnamon and MATE
  • Type: for the 32-bit PC (i386) and 64-bit PC (amd64) architectures only (more on how to find out which architecture you are using here). Note that most computers run either one of these architectures (if your computer is less than ten years old, then it is probably running 64-bit).
  • Flavors: Official, standard version only (no non-free firmware option available)
  • Languages: As per debian.org, “the images do not contain a complete set of language support packages.” If you need specific language packages for unique fonts or characters, you will need to add those later from within live Debian.

Link to the ISO file: https://www.debian.org/CD/live/

Procedure:

  1. Have a formatted USB drive ready with an available space of at least 3 GB.
  2. Know which desktop environment you’d like to try out.
  3. Go to https://www.debian.org/CD/live/, then select the architecture you need under your preferred method of download (BitTorrent or direct link). Click on the ISO file associated with your favorite desktop environment (GNOME, KDE, LXDE, Xfce, Cinnamon or MATE) and wait for the download to complete.
  4. Burn the ISO file on your pen drive.
  5. Power off your computer and insert the USB flash drive. Restart your machine and enter the BIOS (click here for instructions on how to access and change your UEFI settings).
  6. Change your UEFI settings so that the pen drive containing your ISO file is at the top of the boot order priority list. If you use Windows 10, make sure that “fast boot” is disabled (see the article linked in step 5 for the procedure).
  7. Save and exit the BIOS. Your machine will restart after exiting the UEFI settings and should now boot the content of your pen drive. If you see the starting sequence of your usual operating system, make sure that you have correctly burned the disc image and modified the BIOS boot order.
  8. In the Main Menu, click on “Debian GNU/Linux Live (kernel 4.19.0-5-amd64)” *Note that your kernel might vary.
  9. You will boot into the live version of Debian. Enjoy!
  10. To revert to your primary operating system, end the session, turn off your computer, remove your pen drive, and restart your computer. You will see your usual OS booting up. Voilà.
Booting the live Linux USB version of Debian.
Choose the “Debian GNU/Linux Live” option within the main Debian menu

Ubuntu

Ubuntu splash screen
Ubuntu’s splash screen

Ubuntu’s live USB procedure is more straightforward than Debian’s. Indeed, Ubuntu gives you the option to choose a live session from within its regular ISO file. As such, you can download the disc image of your preferred Ubuntu flavor, open its main installer, and you’re ready to go. 

Characteristics of the live USB version

  • Desktop environment: GNOME 3 (Ubuntu’s default desktop environment)
  • Type: 18.04.3 LTS or 19.04
  • Flavors: Ubuntu’s default desktop (GNOME 3). Alternatively, other desktop environments such as Kubuntu (Ubuntu with KDE), Ubuntu MATE, Xubuntu (Ubuntu with Xfce) and more, which you can download here https://ubuntu.com/download/flavours.
  • Languages: Same as with the regular install. As per Ubuntu’s official documentation, “when you install Ubuntu, the language you select at installation gets installed together with English, but you can add further languages.”

Link to the ISO file: https://ubuntu.com/download/desktop

Procedure:

  1. Have a formatted USB key ready with an available space of at least 3 GB.
  2. Know which desktop environment you’d like to try out.
  3. Go to https://ubuntu.com/download/desktop, then click on the Ubuntu download link you prefer (either 18.04.3 LTS or 19.04). Alternatively, you can also go to https://ubuntu.com/download/alternative-downloads for other ways of downloading the ISO file such as BitTorrent, mirror images, etc. Wait for the download to complete.
  4. Burn the ISO file on your pen drive.
  5. Power off your computer and insert the USB flash drive. Restart your machine and enter the BIOS (click here for instructions on how to access and change your UEFI settings).
  6. Change your UEFI settings so that the pen drive containing your ISO file is at the top of the boot order priority list. If you use Windows 10, make sure that “fast boot” is disabled (see the article linked in step 5 for the procedure).
  7. Save and exit the BIOS. Your machine will restart after exiting the UEFI settings and should now boot the content of your pen drive. If you see the starting sequence of your usual operating system, make sure that you have correctly burned the disc image and modified the BIOS boot order.
  8. In the main installer, choose the “Try Ubuntu” option.
  9. You will boot into the live version of Ubuntu OS. Enjoy!
  10. To revert to your primary operating system, end the session, turn off your computer, remove your pen drive, and restart your computer. You will see your usual OS booting up. Voilà.
Booting the live Linux USB version of Ubuntu.
Choose the “Try Ubuntu” option within Ubuntu’s installer

LIGHTWEIGHT DISTRIBUTIONS

Linux Mint

The live Linux Mint desktop.
The live Linux Mint desktop

Linux Mint, a lightweight distribution of Linux, also offers the possibility of trying out a live version before committing to a full install. You can choose between the Cinnamon, MATE, or Xfce edition. Just as with Ubuntu, Linux Mint includes its live version within the main ISO file used to do a regular installation.

Characteristics of the live USB version

Link to the ISO file: https://linuxmint.com/download.php

For this guide’s procedure, I will show the steps using Linux Mint 19.1 64-bit using the Cinnamon desktop environment.

Procedure:

  1. Have a formatted USB drive ready with an available space of at least 3 GB.
  2. Know which desktop environment you’d like to try out. Note that both MATE and Xfce are lightweight desktops. 
  3. Go to https://linuxmint.com/download.php, then click on the architecture (32-bit or 64-bit) associated with the desktop environment you prefer (Cinnamon, MATE or Xfce). You will find a page showing the Mint version’s file size, documentation, and other pertinent information, as well as a list of download mirrors. Click on the mirror link that is most convenient for your particular situation. For example, I chose the “Manitoba Unix User Group” as its location is in Canada (which is also where I live). Wait for the download to complete.
  4. Burn the ISO file on your pen drive.
  5. Power off your computer and insert the USB flash drive. Restart your machine and enter the BIOS (click here for instructions on how to access and change your UEFI settings).
  6. Change your UEFI settings so that the pen drive containing your ISO file is at the top of the boot order priority list. If you use Windows 10, make sure that “fast boot” is disabled (see the article linked in step 5 for the procedure).
  7. Save and exit the BIOS. Your machine will restart after exiting the UEFI settings and should now boot the content of your pen drive. If you see the starting sequence of your usual operating system, make sure that you have correctly burned the disc image and modified the BIOS boot order.
  8. Instead of displaying the main installer, you will find that Linux Mint boots directly into its OS, just as if you had already installed it. That is normal. This distribution doesn’t offer a choice between a full install or a live version. Instead, you boot automatically in Linux Mint Live and can opt to do the full install by double-clicking on the “Install Linux Mint” desktop icon.
  9. You are thus automatically using the live version of Linux Mint. Enjoy!
  10. To revert to your primary operating system, end the session, turn off your computer, remove your pen drive, and restart your computer. You will see your usual OS booting up. Voilà.
Booting the live Linux USB version of Linux Mint.
With Linux Mint there is no main installer; you automatically boot its live version instead.

Bodhi Linux

Bodhi Linux splash screen
Bodhi Linux splash screen

A lightweight Linux distribution, Bodhi Linux is based on the latest Ubuntu Long-Term Support release (18.04.3 LTS as of September 2019). It uses the Moksha Desktop environment. Unlike other Linux distributions such as Ubuntu or Debian, Bodhi Linux uses the live version as its default way of trying out the OS. So instead of having to download a dedicated live ISO file or having to choose the live OS option from within the main installer, Bodhi Linux boots you directly into a live session. It is only then that you can opt to install the OS on your computer from within the desktop menu.

Characteristics of the live USB version

  • Desktop environment: Moksha
  • Type: Standard Release, AppPack Release, or Legacy Release. I recommend starting with the AppPack release, as it is the one with the most features and apps pre-installed. 
  • Flavors: Bodhi Linux 5.0.0 (as of October 2019). You can also find the ISO files of older versions on SourceForge: https://sourceforge.net/projects/bodhilinux/files/.
  • Languages: Same as with the regular install.

Link to the ISO file: https://www.bodhilinux.com/download

For this guide’s procedure, I will show the steps using the Bodhi Linux AppPack release.

Procedure:

  1. Have a formatted pen drive ready with an available space of at least 3 GB.
  2. Know which desktop environment you’d like to try out. Note that both MATE and Xfce are lightweight desktops. 
  3. Go to https://www.bodhilinux.com/download/, then click on the version you want to use (Standard, AppPack or Legacy). You will then find a SourceForge webpage where the download will automatically start within a couple of seconds. Wait for the download to complete.
  4. Burn the ISO image on your pen drive.
  5. Power off your computer and insert the USB flash drive. Restart your machine and enter the BIOS (click here for instructions on how to access and change your UEFI settings).
  6. Change your UEFI settings so that the pen drive containing your ISO file is at the top of the boot order priority list. If you use Windows 10, make sure that “fast boot” is disabled (see the article linked in step 5 for the procedure).
  7. Save and exit the BIOS. Your machine will restart after exiting the UEFI settings and should now boot the content of your pen drive. If you see the starting sequence of your usual operating system, make sure that you have correctly burned the disc image and modified the BIOS boot order.
  8. You will see the main Bodhi Linux installer. Choose “live – Legacy/BIOS boot the Live System,” then press Enter.
  9. You are now using Bodhi Linux. Enjoy!
  10. To revert to your primary operating system, end the session, turn off your computer, remove your pen drive, and restart your computer. You will see your usual OS booting up. Voilà.
Booting the live Linux USB version of Bodhi Linux.
Choose the “live – Legacy/BIOS” option within the main installer
Moksha splash screen
Moksha’s splash screen
The live desktop of Bodhi Linux.
Live desktop of Bodhi Linux

As you can see, creating a bootable live Linux USB isn’t as complicated as it sounds. Once you get a hold of the differences that exist between disc image versions, you can virtually boot any live distribution from your pen drive using the procedure above. Give it a try using your favorite distro!

© 2019, ITgirl.tech. All rights reserved.

Larryssa
Owner and content creator behind ITgirl.tech. Geeky girl and blogger based in Montreal, Canada. Chocolate and nature lover (in that order). View all posts by Larryssa →

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