Installing Ubuntu from a USB Stick

Need to install the Ubuntu operating system from a USB device but not sure how? Perhaps you’re installing it on a netbook and don’t have a CD drive. Here’s a short article explaining how to get the ISO on a USB FDD and how to get that all installed on your PC.

Ubuntu ISO on USBWith the arrival of my new shiny netbook, the first task was to remove Windows 7 and stick on the trusty Ubuntu operating system.

As netbooks don’t have physcial space for an optical drive (CD/DVD), it was time to experiment with installing Ubuntu from a USB stick / flash disk.

Below is a short article explaining the important steps required to get Ubuntu, or basically any operating system, installed when CDs or DVDs aren’t an option.

Downloading the Linux OS

First things first, you need to pop over to Ubuntu’s download section, where you can quickly grab the operating systems in the form of a ISO image. An ISO file is essentially a large uncompressed archive file that is in a format that can be written directly to a CD or DVD. When written to an optical device, the archive is seen as a bundle of files. The file itself is quite big, some ~700Mb, so you may need to leave it downloading for a while if you have a slow connection.

However we don’t have an optical device available to the netbook – so what can we do with this ISO file?

Burning an ISO to a USB device

An ISO file is for optical devices, so to convert it to a USB bootable device we must use a ‘USB Creator’. This program will handle the device sector and file mapping technicalities that we realllllly don’t care about. If you do care about these technicalities… please get out more and breath some fresh air. Perhaps adopt a kitten, they’re kinda cute.

Windows users may need to use Linux Live USB as recommended by the Canonical boys. I (un)fortunately haven’t used it before, so please don’t fire off any questions to me.

However if you have a Linux system, you’re likely to have a disk creator already installed. Yippie! On my other Ubuntu system I did a quick search and found I had one called, surprise surprise, Startup Disk Creator.

Below is what Startup Disk Creator looks like:

Startup Disk Creator on Ubuntu

Here you can see I’ve selected the location of the downloaded ISO image, as well as inserted my USB FDD (flash disk drive) into a spare USB port.

‘Make Startup Disk’ button disabled?

If you’re unable to click the button to start the process because its greyed out, that’s because Ubuntu has detected that you’ve got data already written to the USB. Even if the drive is ‘blank’, as in you have no files on it, the drive actually still contains data. This hidden data is for the operating system, not for you.

Also its likely the USB disk drive needs to be setup using a different file system than the one you have it running.

Either way you need to backup whatever’s on the drive and click the Erase button.

The Make Startup Disk button should now become available.

Writing the ISO

Clicking the Make Startup Disk button will begin the process of writing all that uncompressed ISO data onto the USB FDD in a format that can be recognised by most computers after their POST test has completed.

You’ll get a little window with a block zipping back and fro…

Setting up the USB with an ISO

Once that’s done you’re ready to go!

Booting the USB device

Now you have the ISO converted and written to your USB drive, insert this USB disk into the computer you’re wanting to install Ubuntu/Linux on. If this computer is on already, switch it off first.

Now turn the machine on and enter the BIOS, this is usually done by pressing F2 when instructed to do so shortly after pressing the power button. The BIOS is usually a bright blue screen with white writing. Below is an example of a BIOS screen.

BIOS Example

Now I can’t really instruct you what to do, as each BIOS is different. However you’re looking to change the boot order so that your computer checks any plugged in USB devices for an operating system BEFORE it checks the actual hard drive. Don’t change anything else.

Once you’ve prioritised your USB FDD higher than your hard drive, Save and Exit.

Ubuntu SplashIf done correctly, after rebooting you should see a splash screen similar to the one shown here. It will vary depending on which version of Ubuntu (or even Linux) you downloaded the ISO for. This one is for Ubuntu 12.04, Precise Pangolin. Thumbs up for progress at this point!

Shortly after seeing this, (depending on your USB port speed), you’ll get the option to Try Ubuntu or Install Ubuntu.

Needless to say, at this point you’re probably quite able to perform the finishing straight on your own. However if you have a wireless connection available to you, read the section below.

Installing Ubuntu with a Wireless Connection

If you choose to install Ubuntu, one of the first things it’ll ask you is whether or not you want to ‘Download Updates while Installing’. Its best to check this option, however if you have a wireless network how do you set up that connection before you install the OS? In fact this option will be greyed out if you’re not on a wired connection. How do you make it available for WiFi connections?

Answer; simply click what looks like a baseball diamond in the top right hand corner of the screen. Here you’ll see all available wireless SSID’s. Select yours, enter your password and assuming you’ve entered it correctly, the option to Download Updates while Installing should now become available.

It’s also beneficial to check the Install this third-party software, otherwise you won’t get certain copyright drivers/software, such as MP3 codecs. This’ll cause you problems playing or ripping CDs to MP3 later on.

After a while, and a few forms and various screen, you should have a nice shiny desktop. A new Ubuntu machine born out of a USB converted ISO image. What a world we live in!

Well I’ve hoped this has helped you convert those Ubuntu ISO images to USB for installing on netbooks or other PCs. If it has helped, or even if its raised some questions, feel free to post them below.

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