Try Linux with LinuxLive USB Creator

Features Mark Wilson Feb 17, 2013

Discover the best Linux distros and create live USB drives with ease using this free tool. Mark Wilson is your guide

It’s easy to forget, but Windows is not the only operating system that you could install on your PC. If you have the time and energy - and suitable hardware - you could install OS X, but this is a route that is not going to be open to everyone. There are also countless emulators available that can be used to transform your computer into everything from an ancient, outdated system to a modern-day games console.

In terms of everyday operating systems, though, PC owners are left to choose between Windows and Linux, with the former getting the lion’s share of the market by quite some distance. One of the reasons that OS X and Windows have become so prevelant can be attributed to the fact that, on the whole, they are incredibly simple to use. Ease of use is not something that most computer users would associate with Linux, but the sheer number of different versions that exist mean that whatever your level of computing ability, no matter what you’re looking for in your operating system, there should be a distro (as these various versions are known) for you.

Knowing just where to start with Linux is what puts many people off biting the bullet and trying out a different operating system. This is somewhat understandable, as there are several potential stumbling blocks before you get too far down the road. The first is working out which of the seemingly endless varieties of Linux you would like to use, and you then need to find out where you can download it from. Even when you’ve decided on a particular flavour of Linux, you’re likely to find that there are still choices to be made. Would you like to replace Windows completely or run a live version of Linux?

For most people, it would be a big step to consider completely replacing Windows. While it is possible to install Linux alongside an existing copy of Windows, this is an option that is fraught with potential problems. This is why you might want to consider running Linux in a ‘live’ environment, which means there’s no need for installation as the operating system can be run directly from CD, DVD or USB drive. Even this can seem a little intimidating, and this is where LinuxLive USB Creator (or LiLi as is it affectionately known) can help you out.

This is a fantastic free tool that guides you through every step of downloading a suitable version of Linux and creating a bootable USB drive that can be used to take it for a test drive. The fact that this is a live operating system rather than one that has been installed, coupled with how easy LinuxLive USB Creator makes the whole process, means you can try out as many different Linux distros as you like without having to worry about your data getting wiped out. That’s a risk you might run if you were to install one operating system after another as you change your mind and decide to try something else.

You can download a free copy of the program by paying a visit to the website at www.linuxliveusb.com. Click the ‘Download’ tab at the top of the page and then click the ‘Download LiLi’ button. At time of writing, the latest version is 2.8.18, but there are fairly frequent updates released. The file is only around 4.5MB in size, so you should find that it only takes a moment or two to download.
Once the download is complete, double-click the executable to start the installation, clicking ‘Run’ if Windows displays a ‘Security Warning’ dialogue. Click ‘OK’ to continue, and then click ‘Next’ before choosing where the program should be installed and clicking ‘Install’. When the installation is complete, click ‘Next’, make sure that the box labelled ‘Run LinuxLive USB Creator’ is ticked and then click ‘Finish’.

There’s something that you can’t fail to notice - LinuxLive USB Creator is something of an unusual-looking program. Despite the out-of-the-ordinary user interface, the program works in very much the same way as any other Windows utility. The first thing you’ll need to do is to plug in a USB drive. At this stage it doesn’t matter whether the drive is empty or not, but you should ensure that it does not contain any files you want to keep. The amount of space you’ll need is somewhat dependant on the version of Linux you end up using and what files you intend to store on it, but as a rough guide you should aim to use a drive that is at least 4GB in size, but anything more than this would be advantageous.

The interface is divided up into five sections, and each of these relates to a different step of the production process. In step one you need to select the USB drive you’re going to be using, so make sure that you have it inserted before using the drop-down menu to select the relevant drive. Assuming everything is okay, you should notice that the traffic light icon to the right of this section turns green.

Next, you need to choose what is going to be used as the source for the USB drive you’re creating. While you’re able to use a Linux image that you have already downloaded or an existing CD that you have burned, LinuxLive USB Creator really has been designed to be used by everyone, including people who have never downloaded a copy of Linux before. With this in mind, you can download one of many distros from directly within the application to save you from having to do so separately.

Click the ‘Download’ icon in the step 2 section and then make a selection from the drop-down menu - we’ve opted to work with the latest version of Ubuntu. Having chosen the distro you want to use, click the ‘Automatically’ button and once you’ve followed the steps to download the file (this may take a few minute as many of the files are several hundred megabytes in size), the second set of traffic lights will turn green.

Moving on to step 3, you need to decide how you want to use your USB copy of Linux. While you can opt to use your USB operating system in Live Mode (this works in the same way as when you use a live CD, so it means that you start afresh each time your switch on your computer), enabling the persistence option enables you to not only save files to your USB from within Linux, but to also make changes to the operating system that will be retained between sessions.

To use persistence, all you need to do is to move the slider that is displayed to choose how much of your USB drive’s space should be set aside. With this done, the fourth step beckons. You can leave the two boxes that are ticked by default as they are, and if you still have files on the USB drive that you need to wipe out, you should also tick the middle option to format the drive completely. Although there’s an ‘Options’ button in the step 5 area, you can ignore it.

All that’s left to do is to copy the necessary files to your USB drive, which takes nothing more than clicking the lighting icon in the final step at the bottom of the program window; you’ll just need to click ‘OK’ to confirm the drive formatting. You’ll have to wait for a short while as the necessary files are extracted and copied into place, but once this has been done, you can close down the program and you’re ready to get started.

There are two ways in which you can use your newly created USB drive. The first is to check in your BIOS settings to ensure that your USB drive is set to be the first boot device, so whenever you start your computer with the drive inserted, Linux will load. This is how most people will want to work with the operating system, but it’s also possible to run Linux in a virtual environment. Using Explorer, open up the content of the drive, open the folder called Virtualbox and then double-click the file called Virtualize_This_Key.exe. This will launch a portable version of VirtualBox, which can be used on any computer running Windows, and your chosen version of Linux will run within this virtual machine.

Working with live USB drives in this way is a great way to try out new distros so you can see which one is going to work best for you. You might decide to stick with the live versions of the operating system, but you could use it as a way of deciding which version you’re going to install as your main operating system.