How-To: Install Ubuntu Linux With No Optical Drive

Posted August 28, 2008 1:58 pm by with 41 comments

Sick of burning CDs of Linux distributions every time you want to try out a new one? Don’t worry, you can reuse your USB stick as many times as you like and burn bootable ISOs to it. Is there an easy way to do this? Yes.

It’s actually pretty easy. But before I tell you how there’s a small list of things you need to do first:

  1. You need a USB stick that you don’t mind erasing all the data off of so you can put a distro of *nix on it.
  2. The computer you do this on must be physically connected to the router, i.e. no wireless here. Must be wired. Granted, some *nix distros come with decent wireless support, but better safe than sorry here. Configure the wireless later.
  3. The computer you do this on must be able to boot from USB. Being that the vast majority of computers can do this it shouldn’t be a problem. Just head into the BIOS, look at the boot device order and make sure USB is before HDD and you’re good to go.

A utility that you can use to create a bootable Ubuntu NetInstall image on a USB stick is UNetbootin. This is available as a Windows app or a Linux app.

In my particular situation I only had a 512MB USB stick at my disposal but wanted to install Ubuntu 8.10. Not a problem because Ubuntu has a "NetInstall" version so you don’t need a USB stick with large space (you could even get away with a 128MB).

I downloaded UNetbootin and ran it. This is what I did:


Above: I select the distribution as Ubuntu and the second drop-down menu as the 8.10_NetInstall because that’s the one I know will fit on the little 512MB USB stick. At the bottom the USB Drive is selected so that’s where the image will be written to.


Above: UNetbootin is retrieving the image from the internet to push to the USB stick.


Above: UNetbootin has completed the image install to the USB stick. Now I have a USB-loaded version of Ubuntu 8.10 NetInstall ready to rock. I clicked Exit to close the problem.

Notes before continuing: UNetbootin supports a ton of different *nix distros, including a few BSDs! You don’t have to use Ubuntu if you don’t want to. You could use Linux Mint or Fedora for example. But it should be noted that Ubuntu (aside from the "biz-card" ones like Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux) is the only one that has a NetInstall feature. This is the reason I chose it to begin with. I wanted a full distro without the size because the stick couldn’t hold it. Ubuntu was the one.

At this point you do the following:

  1. On the destination computer, make sure it’s wired into the router for internet connectivity.
  2. Insert the USB stick into the destination computer.
  3. Boot it.

If all goes well, the PC will boot from the stick, automatically acquire network connectivity and then ask you a series of simple questions (i.e. what keyboard layout do you want, etc.).

From there the base Ubuntu will be installed with no GUI.

After that you will be asked what you want for your Ubuntu. You can do the regular Ubuntu Desktop, Xubuntu, Kubuntu, "Media" version, "Basic Server" or whatever you like. Most likely you’ll just opt for Ubuntu Desktop which is what I did.

Depending on how fast (or moreover slow) your internet connection is, it may take time for the installation to complete. Possibly a really long time. Be patient. It will eventually complete.

If you didn’t use a NetInstall but rather a regular "full" distro, everything will load off the USB stick without issue and you’re good to go.

41 responses to How-To: Install Ubuntu Linux With No Optical Drive

  1. mateo August 29th, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    This is the most useful bit of information I’ve gotten all day, thank you. I wish I knew about this before.
    I have a question thought, can I just plug this into any computer and it will work (not counting that I would be missing driver for the new hardware)? because then I would have a portable OS for those times people crap out their Windows with viruses.


    • Blake September 4th, 2008 at 9:05 pm


      Although you can use this like a live CD and boot off it if you go the Ubuntu route, it won’t be persistent (it will not save any changes, like a fresh install each reboot). If that’s what you want, great. Otherwise, you can still use UNetbootin just choose a different distro like puppy linux, Slax, and maybe a couple others. You can read more about this in my Linux on a Stick series, where I detail my adventure of getting a portable OS on my flash drive.

      If you really want Ubuntu though, and you want it to be persistent, I think you will need at least a 4GB flash drive to hold the OS itself, and then either an actual CD or a second flash drive to hold the installer from UNetbootin. Connect them both, boot from the install CD/USB, load the installer, when it asks which drive to install to tell it the 4GB flash drive.

      The problem with Ubuntu, besides the large amount of space it takes up compared to puppy, slax, damn small linux and others, is that it has not been optimized for portable use. It is built as a desktop OS and is expecting to be installed on an internal hard drive. For this reason you are more likely to drastically reduce the life of your flash drive with all the read/write operations, and also see it run slower since it doesn’t have the transfer speed that an internal hard drive would have.

      Good luck!


    • Stavros December 15th, 2008 at 7:16 pm

      I couldnt agree more, this has made my day thank you!! seriously.
      I got my missus a little acer aspire one, and linpus was a dog, no optical drive and this was a life saver
      Again Thank you


  2. mateo August 30th, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    I misunderstood the article. how dumb. i thought i could run linux off a usb stick. this is only referring to using a usb stick to install linux but you would have to install it to a hard drive. i might try installing it to a 4GB usb stick and see what happens though…

    Bare Minimum requirements for Ubuntu.

    It should be possible to get Ubuntu running on a system with the following minimum hardware specification, although it is unlikely that the system would run well. You should use the Alternate install CD to attempt such an installation.

    * 300 MHz x86 processor
    * 64 MB of system memory (RAM)
    * At least 4 GB of disk space (for full installation and swap space)
    * VGA graphics card capable of 640×480 resolution
    * CD-ROM drive or network card


    • Rich Menga August 30th, 2008 at 7:49 pm

      You can run *nix off a USB stick easily. I’ve done it both with Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux. In fact you can use UNetbootin to install either and it’s ready to rock in a matter of minutes (literally).


  3. Running Linux With No Optical Drive (Part 2) | PCMech September 1st, 2008 at 8:40 am

    [...] Last week I tried this out with smaller distros, but now that I had a full 2GB at my disposal I could try the CD-sized distributions. So of course I installed Linux Mint "live" mode on the stick and gave it a go. [...]


  4. | news and opinion September 2nd, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    How-To: Install Ubuntu Linux With No Optical Drive |…

    \r\nSick of burning CDs of Linux distributions every time you want to try out a new one? Dont worry,…


  5. rovr138 September 2nd, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    I’ve actually been using this method for a while. The only problem I had, is sometimes, when I put the USB drive again on the computer, the computer would try and mount it as a CD. It would fail and I would have to mount it from the command line.

    What I had to do was edit fstab. There was an entry there for the usb drive. I only had to remove it (actually, I commented it out… haven’t removed it yet…)

    If anyone runs into this, all you need to do is go to
    Applications > Accesories > Terminal
    there type
    gksudo gedit /etc/fstab
    and look for the line that points to your usb drive. And comment it and test it (comment it adding a # sign on the beginning of the line)If it works, you can remove it.

    I hope this helps if anyone encounters this problem…


  6. rovr138 September 2nd, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    mateo, the only problem with installing it to a pendrive that I can see, would be with drivers on different computers. The installation would install the drivers it needs for that computer. In another computer, it might need other drivers that might not loaded or installed…


  7. haarg September 2nd, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    “But it should be noted that Ubuntu (aside from the “biz-card” ones like Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux) is the only one that has a NetInstall feature”.

    Unless I’m missing something, this is inaccurate. At least Debian and Fedora DO have netinst images that fit under 200M, possibly other distros do as well.


    • Rich Menga September 3rd, 2008 at 9:21 am

      My fault for not being more specific. Ubuntu is the only one with a NetInstall selectable distro *within* UNetbootin (although you can specify you’re own downloaded ISO, but it’s not pre-built into UNetbootin currently). So you could use a biz-card distro unlisted in the software but you have to download the ISO yourself first.


  8. jack September 2nd, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    This article *****! Who cares about MS Windows… err if you are going to write such a post I’d be more interested in how to do this from within GNU/Linux. But hey- no huge loss. Network booting would have been more interesting- that is actually what I thought this was going to be about.


    • rovr138 September 3rd, 2008 at 10:04 am

      From within Linux?, Just get UNetbootin for Linux. It’s right there on the website. Just download it and execute it. Same GUI, same steps.


  9. kyle Wilke September 2nd, 2008 at 11:42 pm

    You know that instead of going to all this trouble you could download Wubi. It installs Ubuntu to your computer like it were a program in windows. It does everything for you from partition your hard drive to doing the whole instillation. It makes a duel booter out of any computer and if you dont like it Wubi will uninstall it like it never happened.


    • Rich Menga September 3rd, 2008 at 9:22 am

      Doesn’t work with Vista. It will break it. Only with XP.


  10. pau1 September 3rd, 2008 at 5:49 am

    very nice article. just started using unetbootin to flash some appliance type devices and wish i had seen this first. just one minor point… ubuntu is not the only distro with a net-boot type image, at a minimum debian and red hat do it too, and i’d be surprised if any enterprise grade linux (suse, et al) did not as well.

    to the previous comment regarding running *nix live off a usb… one of the options is to run a live CD from usb. personally, i would only do this in a pinch for a couple of reasons… it would run slowly (but functionally) and recurring read / writes to your thumb drive will drastically shorten its life and reliability.

    my two cents and worth every penny.


  11. Blargh September 3rd, 2008 at 5:52 am

    “UNetbootin supports a ton of different *nix distros, including a few BSDs! You don’t have to use Ubuntu if you don’t want to. You could use Linux Mint or Fedora for example. But it should be noted that Ubuntu (aside from the “biz-card” ones like Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux) is the only one that has a NetInstall feature.”

    What? Just Ubuntu has NetInstall? Are you really sure about this one? I’ve installed SuSE, Red Hat/Fedora, Debian etc many many times for the net.


    • Rich Menga September 3rd, 2008 at 9:22 am

      See my above response to this.


  12. din100’s blog » Blog Archive » How-To: Install Ubuntu Linux With No Optical Drive September 3rd, 2008 at 5:53 am

    [...] read more | digg story [...]


  13. erichansa September 3rd, 2008 at 7:01 am

    “Don ’t worry, you can reuse your USB stick as many times as you like”

    False, flash memory has a fixed rewrite count usually around 1 million or so.


    • Rich Menga September 3rd, 2008 at 9:24 am

      Yes, and we all intend on trying out 1 million different *nix distros. Thanks for commenting.


  14. Adam Williamson September 7th, 2008 at 2:15 am

    Just for info, on the Mandriva Linux mirrors you can find an all.img file, which is a bootable image intended to be written to a USB stick (or other bootable media – SD card, whatever). It’s only around 10MB. You can boot from that and then do a hard disk or network install. See .


  15. Retep Nertsam September 7th, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    Wait a minute. You want me to grant administrator rights to a binary that I’ve downloaded!?!?

    I don’t care how great a tool this is. It ain’t gonna happen!


    • Jim Robinson September 8th, 2008 at 2:03 pm

      Agreed. The apparent requirement to run as root is disquieting. However there is a ‘-u’ option that seems to let the program not run as root. Do
      “./unetbootin-linux-275 –help”
      to see all the options.


  16. Ubuntu Podcast by the Ubuntu Georgia LoCo - Ubuntu Podcast Episode#7 September 12th, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    [...] NetInstall image on a USB stick is UNetbootin. This is available as a Windows app or a Linux app. - *Ubuntu in Pop Culture Movie – They are students – at least that’s what their parents think – they [...]


  17. Ken September 26th, 2008 at 10:55 am

    A side question, when installing ubuntu with Unetbootin, in the ubuntu install process, will it recognize and install to a partition of an external HD? I’ve got a new 400 gb iomega portable and I want to partition out 5 gigs or so out as a ubuntu partition and perhaps another 5 out as a debian. Then as I boot other computers, I’ll choose which one I want to go into or just plug it in and use the rest for windows / backup / storage. Thanks


    • rovr138 September 26th, 2008 at 1:42 pm

      I know it’ll be recognized, but I’ve never really tried to install to an external drive.


  18. Install A Bootable Linux To USB Stick | PCMech October 15th, 2008 at 11:00 am

    [...] is a follow-up article to this one showing how simple it is to use Unetbootin to install a Linux distribution to your USB stick. Bear [...]


  19. Richard October 31st, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    I am A silver surfer so please bear with me Ihave fitted a second hard drive only 4 Gig formatted Ntsc nothing on it I have done what you say about downloading Ubuntu 8.10_netinstall to a pen drive.How do I put on the second HD. I have XP onthe first one. Any help would be appreciated. Richard


    • rovr138 November 5th, 2008 at 3:17 pm

      simply set your BIOS to boot from pendrive. Then just restart your computer.

      You might also have a Boot Selection menu option when booting your computer. Usually you can access it by pressing F8. Here you select your pendrive and then it’ll boot.


  20. ajit November 19th, 2008 at 4:34 am

    i want to install os with pen drive but there is no option like install with pen drive .there are only 3 options
    1. cd drive
    3. pci lan
    plz somebody suggest……..


  21. Can You Go "Optical-Less"? | PCMech December 12th, 2008 at 7:10 am

    [...] that you can install a full version (meaning not "biz-card") of a Linux distro with absolutely no optical drive [...]


  22. Tux December 16th, 2008 at 10:35 am

    Thanks for you article. I will now definitely have to test that!


  23. Ubuntu Linux - Replacing Windows Day 1 - TicTechTo Tech Blog January 24th, 2009 at 5:37 am

    [...] I will not repeat the tutorial. Rich Menga of has detailed out in his post: How to install Ubuntu with no optical drive. [...]


  24. Shrinath K February 23rd, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Hey everyone… i ran into a small problem. Apparently, UNETBOOTIN dosent seem to work if windows is NOT in the C:\ drive. I have it in E:\ and due to some reason, i am unable to boot !

    Thanks !


    • rovr138 February 23rd, 2009 at 7:26 pm

      Shrinath K,
      What Operating System isn’t booting?
      The one on the USB stick (USB drive, pendrive, etc.) or the one on your Hard Drive (Windows)?


      • Shrinath K February 24th, 2009 at 12:01 pm

        Hey rovr138,

        First, i wasnt “tryin” to install it to a pendrive. i was just tryin to install fedora onto my Harddisk, without burining a CD. So i tried UNETBOOTIN.

        I installed UNETBOOTIN and aftr that, it shows a entry while starting up windows….below “Microsoft Windows” is “Unetbootin” and it is “supposed” to boot into Unetbootin. But it dosent. Some problem with the NTLDR and BOOT.INI files.

        It dosent boot into UNETBOOTIN if windows is NOT in C:\.

        Windows boots normally though.



  25. » Blog Archive » Ubuntu Linux – Replacing Windows Day 1 August 29th, 2009 at 5:12 am

    [...] I will not repeat the tutorial. Rich Menga of has detailed out in his post: How to install Ubuntu with no optical drive. [...]


  26. Craig June 30th, 2010 at 8:52 am

    Why did you need to write a whole article on downloading a well known utility and following it's ridiculously easy interface? This whole page is just for the purpose of spilling your cerebral diarrhoea onto the internet. Allow me to sum it up in one simple sentence; Download UNetbootin and your chosen distro's LiveCD image then load up Unetbootin and use your god-given intuition and common sense to figure out what to do next.


  27. raptor August 5th, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    does this work with linux mint?


  28. Allan_cris October 6th, 2010 at 4:39 am

    fuck u?


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