RT Cunningham


Using a Linux USB Flash Drive to Bypass Windows on a Windows PC

USB flash drive I’m following up on an article sooner than expected because I was specifically asked to do so by an old friend. In the last paragraph of the previous article, I said it was pretty easy to download and burn a Linux Live CD/DVD to a USB stick (USB flash drive). I’ll correct myself:

It’s easy for me. Without the proper instructions, it could be confusing for you. I have to stop making assumptions. Way too many websites start out by making assumptions about the “average” person.

The USB Flash Drive

Over the years, I’ve heard USB flash drives called all sorts of things: Jumpdrives, flash disks, flash drives, memory sticks and thumb drives ( calls them USB flash drives, so I’m going with that). Those are just the terms I can remember without any effort. I like to say “USB stick”, but that isn’t really correct. It’s just easier to explain things sometimes by using a simpler term.

The capacities of USB flash drives have taken years to get to usable levels for some people. I remember how expensive they were when storage capacities were less than a gigabyte. Now you can buy a 512 gigabyte USB flash drive (bigger than the hard drive in my laptop) at a somewhat affordable price and the evolution will probably continue to even bigger sizes.

USB flash drives are used primarily as storage devices. The fact they can be used for more is amazing to me. For our purposes today, we’ll be using a USB flash drive as a bootable Linux operating system.

You can use a USB flash drive of any size, but I think anything over 16 gigabytes is overkill. And since you can buy 16-gigabyte USB flash drives for less than $5 each, you can afford to make mistakes with them.

USB Flash Drives versus Optical Discs

Most computers these days include at least one optical drive. That optical drive could work with CD, DVD or Blu-ray discs (or all of them). Optical discs are supposed to be cheap but in my experience, they’re not. Why? Because write failures happen more often than not. You have to have the right discs to work with your specific drive. Even then, write failures happen far too often.

With a USB flash drive, you don’t have to worry about write failures. I don’t have any facts to back up any statements, but I’ve heard you can write to USB flash drives thousands of times before they fail. When you’re talking about the inexpensive sizes, that’s a long time.

I’ll be honest. Since the day I figured out how to make a bootable USB flash drive, I haven’t used a single optical disc. Two of the three laptops in my house have optical drives that have never been used for anything. I’m planning to replace at least one with a solid-state drive enclosure, resembling a caddy, The enclosures are pretty cheap.

A Linux Live CD on a USB Flash Drive

I don’t know why it’s still called a “Linux Live CD”. I think “Linux Live USB Flash Drive” would be better suited to the Linux live system on a USB flash drive (which is what I’ll refer to in the future). That’s just my opinion, of course.

In the past, I’ve had issues with certain installers. Installing from Windows, you should try these in order:

If you do a search, you’ll find more but I can’t recommend any other than what I already listed. Once you’ve created a “live CD”, you can boot it up by dropping into your computer’s BIOS while it’s booting up. Some Linux distributions will work with the newer UEFI mode (like Linux Mint) and some will not. For the ones where it won’t work, you’ll have to change the settings in the BIOS to “legacy” mode.

Before you can do anything, of course, you need the Linux ISO to copy to the USB flash drive. Here are the places you can download a few of them:

You can also search for “slackware”, “opensuse” and others. I have no experience with any of them. I had some experience with Red Hat before it split into Red Hat and Fedora, a long time ago. I wouldn’t know what to say about Fedora today.

Do You Need More Help?

The steps are simple:

1) Download the proper Linux ISO to your computer’s storage drive (hard drive or solid-state drive).
2) Plug a USB flash drive in one of your computer’s USB ports.
3) Use one of the USB installers to install the ISO on to the USB flash drive.
4) Reboot your computer and make it reboot from the USB flash drive.

Again, this is simple for me but it could be confusing for you. Perhaps you don’t know which ISO to download. Perhaps you don’t know which format it’s supposed to be (which file extension). Perhaps you don’t know the difference between 32-bit and 64-bit.

Whatever the case may be, I obviously can’t answer an unasked question. Feel free to ask, either in the comments or sending me e-mail.

Why use a USB Flash Drive to Bypass Windows?

Because Windows stops doing what Windows is supposed to do sometimes. Sometimes it can’t read from a specific directory, sometimes it just fails to boot up. All manner of things can happen.

I’ve been using Windows off and on since Windows 3.11 (before 1995). I have yet to see a version that wasn’t riddled with problems. I have Windows XP on a netbook, Windows 10 on another laptop and Linux Mint on this one. Linux Mint is way more stable than anything else I’ve ever used.

Once you boot up with a Linux live USB flash drive, you have access to the entire storage drive. If nothing else, you can retrieve things you can’t get to anymore through Windows.

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By RT Cunningham
October 12, 2016