The 5 Greatest Linux Distros to Set up on a USB Stick

Sometimes you can't avoid using someone else's computer. Some airlines limit the amount of baggage you can bring with you. Occasionally you need to leave your machine at home. If your computer breaks, you may have to use someone else's while waiting for a replacement. Except before that happens, you need a way to save your information.


What can you do in this situation? Slide a version of desktop Linux onto a USB stick and start it up as needed. But what's the best live USB Linux desktop you can install?

1. Linux USB desktop for every PC: Puppy Linux

Puppy Linux installation options

For some time now, Puppy Linux has only been viewed as a curiosity. Designed for use on the toughest hardware devices, it can chug comfortably on early Pentium machines without breaking a sweat. But it wasn't that practical. Many installed Puppy Linux on their antique hardware to see if they could.

But Puppy Linux never went away. Updates and new versions will continue to be released regularly. Sure, it's still stripped down and meant for low-end or underloaded hardware. But you can now install Puppy Linux on a USB stick and get things done.

Puppy Linux is not a single Linux distribution. It consists of several versions based on different code but using the same tool and philosophy. One version is based on SlackWare, one of the most established Linux distributions.

People keep using it as their daily operating system. People get it. Then there are several options based on Ubuntu, the most popular version of desktop Linux.

2. A more modern desktop experience: basic operating system

elementary operating system desktop

Are you a newbie to Linux who just wants something simple and attractive in your pocket? Look at the elementary operating system.

The elementary operating system is a cross between the popular GNOME desktop environment and what you get on a Mac. The resulting experience is so intuitive that you can capture it yourself with just a few clicks.

AppCenter offers apps designed only for basic operating systems, as well as other important features like the LibreOffice suite, the GIMP image editor and the Audacity sound editor. That way, even if you have no idea what software is available for Linux, you can get started right away.


Since the basic operating system has a lot in common with Ubuntu, rest assured that you won't have to deal with gremlins for hardware compatibility. Plus, it's buttery smooth even on low-end hardware like laptops and cheap Atom and Celeron machines.

This is important if you are also concerned with the inherent performance bottleneck that comes with booting your desktop from a live Linux USB drive.

Hard drives are made up of blocks called partitions. Your computer's hard drive may only have one partition for all of your files and folders. Or it has one partition for your programs and another for your documents. From time to time you may need to resize these partitions or delete them entirely.

GParted is a popular Linux tool for managing these partitions. Many distributions are already preinstalled. But if your computer doesn't start, it won't do you any good. You need a copy that you can load from a USB stick.

It's called Gparted Live, a USB Linux distribution for your flash drive. When you load this little program, you'll be able to reshape your hard drive as needed. Be careful, however, as a mistake could potentially make your hard drive unbootable.

4. Educational software for children: sugar on a stick

Sugar Live USB Linux DesktopImage Credit: Sugar Labs

Sugar is a free software project designed specifically for children. The aim is to provide an experience that encourages collaboration, reflection, and discovery. Sugar started out as part of the One Laptop Per Child project, but Sugar Labs has since found a home as a member of the Freedom Conservancy Software.

Sugar developers develop the software for use in areas where ubiquitous broadband cannot be taken for granted. Aspects of the interface can be peer-to-peer and do not require an internet connection at all.

While you have the option of installing Sugar directly to a hard drive, you can also run a copy as a live Linux USB desktop. The team actively supports this and has developed a version of Sugar known as Sugar on a Stick.

With Sugar on a Stick, you can let a child temporarily use every computer in the house without devoting one PC to the job. This is also a way to expose them to the values ​​of free and open software at an early stage and not to the consumption-dependent experiences of commercial operating systems.

The screenshots don't really convey what it's like to use Sugar. Fortunately, you can actually test Sugar in your browser!

Ubuntu GamePack with Steam, PlayOnLinux and other game software

Live Linux USB sticks aren't just about getting work done and saving PCs. Sometimes you just want to have fun. With Ubuntu GamePack, your flash drive is like a portable gaming PC. While you're limited by the specifications of the machine you borrow, as long as you stick to titles with modest requirements you shouldn't have many problems.

Ubuntu GamePack contains software that makes it easier to play on Linux. This includes Steam, which allows you to download your existing library of Linux titles. There's also Lutris, an open source platform that makes installing games easy. Alternatively, you can use PlayOnLinux or Wine to launch supported Windows titles.

If you're at a friend's house for a LAN party but don't have your own PC, Ubuntu GamePack can serve you in a pinch. You can also keep copies on different flash drives to ensure that everyone is using the same version of the game with the same configuration.

Are Linux USB sticks useful?

How does using Linux on a flash drive work in practice? You may have concerns that running a desktop operating system on a USB flash drive could be frustrating. But actually it's not that bad.

Modern USB standards mean the delay is far less. Plus prices have crashed while inventory levels have increased. You can now get a 256GB drive with as much storage as your laptop that won't cost you a lot of money.

You can't just have a Linux desktop on your flash drive. As with your computer, you can dual boot multiple live Linux desktops from a single USB stick.

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About the author

Bertel King
(324 articles published)

Bertel is a digital minimalist who writes from a laptop with physical privacy switches and an operating system recommended by the Free Software Foundation. He values ​​ethics over functions and helps others take control of their digital lives.

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