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:

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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.

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

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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.