Ubuntu Install From USB – Works For Other Linux Too!


Because of the rise of small ‘netbook’ laptops like the Asus Eee, which don’t come with any kind of CD/DVD drive, it’s quite handy to have good, clear instructions on installing Linux from a USB stick. Even if you do have an optical drive, why bother burning a CD every time? It’s so wasteful.

So I worked out a really easy way to transfer the contents of ther Ubuntu LiveCD to my USB stick and set it bootable, and I thought I’d document the process here in case it can help anyone else.

This method also works with Edubuntu, Kubuntu and Xubuntu, as well as most other Ubuntu-based distros and even some other distributions too (basically, as long as the CD uses isolinux as the bootloader, which 99% of them do). It won’t hurt to give it a try, and I’m happy to help anyone out who wants to give it a go.

These instructions assume that you’re using a Windows machine to prepare the USB flash drive, as there are plenty of guides out there on how to do this from within Linux itself. Also, the latest version of Ubuntu comes with a USB stick creation tool right on the LiveCD, so if you have another machine with a CD drive you can boot into that and give it a go.

Preparing the files and USB flash drive

* First up, we need to format the USB stick in Windows – go into My Computer, right-click on the USB drive, and then click Format. When prompted, select FAT32 as the file system. Don’t use NTFS – it won’t work!
* Download and install 7-zip. It’s free and extremely useful, for this and anything else you might need to do with compressed files. It’s also open source, just like Linux, so that has to be a good thing. Get the latest stable version to be on the safe side – not the beta.
* Download Syslinux, which is the bootloader we will be using to make the stick bootable. Just get the latest version in zip format, and extract it to the Desktop – right-click, select 7-zip, then extract to syslinux-7.1.1 (or whatever) and then rename that folder to “syslinux”.
* Open a command prompt (on the Start Menu under Accessories, or run “cmd”) and cd to the syslinux folder:
* cd Desktop/syslinux/win32
* Run this command to install the syslinux bootlader to the thumbdrive:
* syslinux -ma f: (where f: is the letter of your USB thumbstick)
* Now we need to extract the Ubuntu ISO – Right click on the ISO file, and select 7-zip/extract to ubuntu-8.04…

The preparation is done! You should now have syslinux installed on your USB thumb drive, and a folder called Ubuntu-8.04-somethingorother on your Windows desktop. Now it’s time ot create our bootable Ubuntu LiveUSB Stick!

Putting it all together

* Drag all of the files you just extracted from the ISO into the empty USB drive.
* Move everything from the isolinux folder into the root of the drive. So, if your USB thumbdrive’s letter is F, as in our earlier example, move all the files from F:\isolinux\ into F:\
* Rename the isolinux.cfg file to syslinux.cfg
* Eject the drive, insert into the computer you wish to install Ubuntu onto, and boot! Shazam!

You may need to configure your BIOS to boot from USB, or at least go in there and change the boot order to try external drives first. It’s quite a simple process, but varies depending on your motherboard manufacturer, and so I can’t really go into it here.

Most modern computers will let you press F12 during the very first boot screen to select a temporary boot device – you should only need this once so that could be sufficient.


This has now been tested with Zenwalk and gOS (see my gOS Gadgets introduction here) and works flawlessly. However, for an even easier method I can highly recommend UNetbootin, which fully automates the process under Linux or Windows. If you are using the method above and running into problems, why not give it a try!

Also, for some reason this doesn’t seem to work with Ubuntu Server. I am looking into it!