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Boot to open source desktops with Linux on USB sticks

Want to try a new OS sans commitment? Linux on USB sticks can be the first step to replacing Windows XP with an open source desktop such as Xubuntu.

You liked Windows XP because it was a mature, stable operating system that just got the job done. Microsoft has ended its Windows XP support, however, so it's time to look toward the future. Many people have criticized Windows 8, partly for its user interface, and you might be on the fence about the upcoming Windows 10.

May I suggest Xubuntu Linux? It is a lightweight, high-performance version of Linux under the Ubuntu family of distributions. Xubuntu uses the XFCE desktop and, depending on your preference, it can even be made to look like XP.

With so many versions of Linux available, you should be able to find one that fulfills your needs. One benefit of Linux is that most distributions allow you to test out the OS before committing to it. This is accomplished by running your notebook through a USB stick with the prospective OS on it.

Running from a USB stick is slower than a regular notebook installation, but it's definitely usable. For example, I ran Xubuntu from a USB drive on a year-old Lenovo IdeaPad, and virtually everything, including Wi-Fi and the touchscreen, worked flawlessly out of the box.

On the stick using Rufus

In order to put Xubuntu on a stick, you'll need a USB creator utility such as Rufus. Rufus is a simple application that you download to your Windows machine and use to install a bootable Xubuntu Linux image file (.ISO file) on a USB stick.

The test machine for my installation was a Lenovo Idea Pad U430. It has a Core i7-4300U Intel chip, 4 GB of RAM, 802.11n Wi-Fi, a 500 GB hard drive and a 14-inch, 1600x900-resolution display.

Of course, whenever you're rebuilding a machine, it's wise to back up its files. The installation formats the disk and changes the partitions, effectively erasing all of its data. Without a backup, you will not be able to recover any data once the formatting and installation is started.

If you want to just try Linux, run it from the stick and don't do the installation on your hard drive. Then, when you remove the stick and restart the notebook, Windows will reboot normally.

To get started, download the latest version of Xubuntu. Most midrange to high-end notebooks use the 64-bit version. The particular image I used was about 930 MB in size. Older or low-end machines typically use a 32-bit version.

Next, download Rufus and install it on your Windows notebook. I used version

Make sure the USB stick has at least 1 GB of capacity and doesn't contain any valuable data, because it will be erased. Insert the stick into an open USB port.

Start Rufus and select the correct USB stick from the menu drop-down box.

Adjust the following as needed:

  • Use the MBR partitioning scheme for BIOS and UEFI computers.
  • Choose File systems -- FAT32.
  • Use the default cluster size.
  • Allow the new volume label to simply be derived from the image name.
  • Check the box for device bad block test.
  • Check the box for fast format.
  • Check the box to create a bootable disk using the downloaded Xubuntu image.
  • Press "Start." Make sure it shows the correct USB stick. Say "yes" to destroy the data on the USB drive. Formatting and installation on the stick takes five to 10 minutes.

Now, shut down Windows and restart your notebook. On the Lenovo, I pressed the tiny silver button on the edge next to the main power button.

You should see a small menu. Select "Boot from the USB device." Plug in the USB stick and press "Boot." The notebook should boot into Xubuntu and the XFCE desktop after about a minute.

If you don't want to install Linux just yet, poke around the desktop and try it out. If you choose to keep Linux permanently, all you need to do is select the "Install" icon on the desktop to load Linux onto your hard drive.

Install Xubuntu on the notebook hard drive

Once you've started the installation, select "English" on the Welcome page. Press "Continue."

Select "Connect to this network," and choose your LAN. Continue.

Check the box for "Install third-party software" and make sure the requirements listed on the page are fulfilled. Press "Continue."

On the "Installation type" page, select your desired installation. I usually choose "Something else" so I can configure separate partitions for Linux and user data. Doing it that way lets me easily update the operating system without altering any of the user documents, files or configurations.

For users new to Linux, choose the second option, "Erase __________________ and reinstall." This action wipes the disk and installs Xubuntu on the hard drive. As you gain experience, repartitioning and segregating data may make sense. Press the "Continue" button.

Select your location on the "Where are you?" map. Continue.

Select your keyboard layout. Continue.

Enter your username and password information on the "Who are you?" screen. Continue.

The installation will proceed, loading the required software and configuring your applications. Remove the USB stick.

You'll eventually get a message telling you that the installation is complete and that your machine will restart.

Enter your user name and password at the login screen.

Beyond the basics

Follow-up jobs might include configuring your account information on the Thunderbird email client, loading additional software like the Google Chrome browser or the LibreOffice productivity suite, or customizing the XFCE desktop.

Moving over user files is pretty straightforward. Plug your backup USB stick or external drive into a USB port and copy the files over to your Documents directory using the File Manager on the main XFCE drop-down menu. (This is located in the upper left-hand corner of the desktop under the little mouse logo.)

Connecting to your LAN is accomplished using the up/down arrow icon on the right side of the main XFCE taskbar. Click the icon and select your LAN's service set identifier, or SSID. You'll know you're connected when the icon changes to a curved, radiating-bar icon.

Browse and load additional software using the Ubuntu Software Center on the main XFCE drop-down menu. You'll need to be connected to a network to download the files needed for installation of applications.

What's next

We've just scratched the surface of running Xubuntu Linux independently from a USB stick and installing it on your hard drive. There are literally thousands of open source programs available under Linux. I haven't purchased software in over 15 years, and I can do everything needed to run my consulting, writing and speaking practice.

As with anything new, there is a learning curve, and it varies from person to person. Linux on notebooks is very mature and stable. Don't be intimidated. Instead, look at it as a productive new experience that will provide you with everything you need to keep your organization running smoothly.

Give Xubuntu a try, and I think you'll see why I'm enthusiastic about Linux.

Next Steps

Is an open source OS your next step after Windows XP?

The Rufus USB tool can ease building bootable Windows drives

How to back up and restore bootable USB device images

Microsoft readies Windows 8.1 download for Windows To Go USB sticks

Assess the pros and cons of Linux desktops

Dig Deeper on Alternative operating systems

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Have you examined Linux as a replacement for Windows XP, and if so, what did you choose?
I like the ease of Zorin
Very useful article.

We've been using Ubuntu on servers for several years now, but have not tried to use it to replace users' desktops.

I've heard very good things about Mint (Debian-based too), regarding user friendliness.  Have you tried it?  What's your opinion of it in comparison to Xubuntu?

I haven't used Mint Linux, mainly sticking with other Ubuntu-based distributions, like Xubuntu (or just plain Ubuntu) for the last few years. I've noticed that Mint typically is at the top of the Page Hit ranking on, which is great. It uses the APT (.deb) package format, which means that Ubuntu people will be familiar with loading applications, using the Synaptic package manager and apt-get. Mint is billed as an easy, nice, clean Linux variant. I saw a few people running it at OSCON. I've had good success with Xubuntu (with the XFCE desktop) because it's uncluttered and a little lighter weight than KDE or Gnome.

My advice is to load up Mint on a current notebook and see how it works.
Whole new understanding
puppy linux looks good with its own variants - only just over 100Mb too. Need to examine it to see if it has everything needed but praised by users.
Thanks for the article. Never tried Linux before, no need, but this makes it seem both interesting and harmless. Great combination. I'm in for one....
Nice article. Will have to give it a try. I have always wanted to try it out with out possibly messing up my existing Windows system.