Tuesday, 21 January 2014

How to create a bootable Linux USB drive using Windows XP

Posted by Gary Newell  |  at  20:30 31 comments


This is part of a series of articles showing Windows users how easy it is to install and use Linux and is aimed at the Windows XP users whose support is ending and for Vista users who are currently riding in cattle class compared to those users running Windows 7 and Windows 8.

If you are using a netbook that came pre-installed with Windows XP you may not have a DVD drive and so in this article I will show you how to create a bootable Linux USB drive using Windows XP and Windows Vista.

Further articles will show you how to backup your files and how to create a system image and there will be full guides showing you how to install Linux alongside Windows.

The idea of these articles is to help you make the switch and it doesn't matter how old you are or what your skill level is. The instructions should be easy enough for anyone to follow.

What you will need to follow this guide

  • A computer with at least 512 MB RAM running Windows XP
  • A USB drive (At least 1 GB)
  • A working internet connection


The strategy for creating a bootable Linux USB drive is as follows:

1. Download the Linux ISO
2. Download and install the software to create the bootable USB drive
3. Format the USB drive
4. Create the bootable USB drive

1, 32 bit or 64 bit

Before you can download Linux you need to know whether the computer you are using has a 32 bit processor or a 64 bit processor.

If you already know the answer to this then you can skip to step 2.

To find out if your computer is 32 bit or 64 bit press the Start button on your computer and choose the "My Computer" option.

At the top of the "My Computer" screen on the left hand side is a menu option which reads "View system information". Click this link.

The system information screen tells you about your system, including the version of Windows you are using, who the version of Windows is registered to and the computer's specifications. 

If your computer is 64 bit it will tell you on this screen otherwise your computer is 32 bit.

2. Download PCLinuxOS

The version that I am recommending uses the MATE desktop as it is lighter on resources than the KDE default and is therefore more likely to work with any computer currently running Windows XP.

If are used to using BitTorrent software then you can click on the relevant torrent link. (32 bit if you are installing on a 32 bit computer and 64 bit if you are installing on a 64 bit computer).

To download PCLinuxOS directly, click on the name of the country closest to you.

There are a lot of links on the download pages but the one that will work the best for most Windows XP users is the MATE version.

If you have a 64 bit computer click on the link that is something like the following:
  • pclinuxos64-mate-2013.12.iso
Note that the date portion may be slightly different.

If you have a 32 bit computer click on the link that is something like the following:

  • pclinuxos-mate-2013.12.iso

The file should start to download. 

(If you are using Internet Explorer then a little bar may appear at the top of the screen asking for permission to open the link, click on the bar and allow the link to be opened).

The file size is just 660 MB and so shouldn't take too long.

3. Format the USB drive

Insert the USB drive into your computer.

To find out if your computer is 32 bit or 64 bit press the Start button on your computer and choose the "My Computer" option.

In the section "Devices with Removable Storage" there will be a drive called removable disk. Take a note of the drive letter as you will need it later.

Right click on the drive and select Format.

In the window that opens make sure the file system is set to FAT 32. You can also check the box that says "Quick Format".

Note: It is assumed that any data on the drive is not required. If you have data on the drive that you want to keep copy it somewhere else first

Press "Start" to format the drive.

A message will appear when the drive has been formatted.

4. Download and Install UNetbootin

The software that is commonly used to create bootable Linux USB drives is called UNetbootin and can be downloaded from http://unetbootin.sourceforge.net/.

Click the "Download (for Windows)" link. When the download is complete double click on the file to run the installer.

With UNetbootin there are two ways to create a bootable USB drive. 

The first method is to choose the distribution you wish to install from a list (a distribution is basically a Linux based operating system such as Ubuntu, Mint, PCLinuxOS etc).

The second method is to choose an ISO image that has already been downloaded and is the method discussed in this tutorial.

To proceed click the "disk image" radio button so that it is highlighted and then click on the button with three dots on it.

Navigate to your download folder and choose the ISO that you downloaded from the PCLinuxOS website in step 2, Click "Open".

Notice that the filename is now in the box next to the three dots.

Ignore the "Space used to preserve files across reboots".

Change the drive letter to be the same drive letter as your USB drive.

Click "OK" to start the installation.

You will now be shown the progress of your installation and after the process completes your USB drive will contain a bootable version of Linux.

Reboot the computer with the USB drive plugged in and you should now get a menu with the option to boot into PCLinuxOS.

5. Troubleshooting

If your computer boots into Windows without showing a menu first giving you the option to boot into PCLinuxOS it means your USB drive isn't set to boot before the hard drive.

Basically computers have a boot sequence to determine where to attempt to load the operating system.

In the past the boot sequence was:

  • Floppy disk
  • CD 
  • Hard Drive
As computers have evolved this has been changed to be

  • DVD
  • USB
  • Hard Drive
If you are using older hardware then your computer may be set up to boot from hard drive before USB.

To fix this reboot your computer and you will see a little message appear before Windows boots that says "Press F2 to enter setup" (It may not be F2. It may be another function key).

Each BIOS is different so I can't explain how to change the boot order of every single machine. Please refer to your computer's manual (or Google the instructions for your make and model).

If all this sounds like too much trouble and you have a DVD drive create a bootable DVD.

About the Author

Gary Newell started the Everyday Linux User blog in 2010 and has written reviews on dozens of different Linux based operating systems. He has also written a number of tutorials.

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  1. Thank you for this! My computer is from 2002 I believe and it's just gotten worse and worse over the years. Because of this I can finally run at faster speeds with a more comfortable OS.

  2. First of all, many thanks for your very useful tutorials. Without them I as an inveterate XP user would be lost...

    Technologically I am a Zero, so hope my question is not as stupid as I suspect:
    If I want to be able to keep Windows XP to access applications that won't run on Linux or would run on Linux using Wine, do I have to keep all the mountains of "security" patches and updates Microsoft has been shovelling onto my hard drive or can I delete them (as I won't be using XP to access the Internet) to free up space?

    1. I would not recommend removing any of the security patches whether you intend to allow Windows XP to connect to the internet or not. Have you read this guide? http://www.everydaylinuxuser.com/2014/01/preparing-your-disks-for-installing.html
      It shows you the files that are safe to clean if you are trying to salvage some disk space.

  3. Unfortunately, the "unetbootin-windows-603" executable is currently being flagged by Norton as containing a virus (Suspicious.Cloud.7.EP) and is automagically deleted after download :-(

  4. Norton has a habit of being a bit trigger happy and flagging applications as viruses. I will read up and see what I can find out. I might even flag it up with the UNetbootin developers

    1. Looks like someone either tweaked UNetbootin, or Norton, because it works like a champ today. No issues when downloading ... now my former WInXP box is a re-purposed 64-bit CentOS machine. Many thanks to whoever resolved that problem!

  5. I've been trying to build Simplicity Linux 14 on a USB drive for my Windows XP Netbook.

    When I run Unetbootin 603 it doesn't see my 4GB USB drive; it tells me to format in FAT 32, which I have done a couple of times to no avail. Windows sees the USB drive no problem.

    Any help with this would be appreciated.

    1. What is the make and model of the USB drive

    2. It's just a generic Staples (Canada) "Relay" brand.

    3. Is it worth trying another USB drive? You only need a 2gb. Alternatively try using this method instead... http://www.everydaylinuxuser.com/2013/04/installing-and-booting-2-or-more-linux.html.

    4. Gary,
      I had found an older HP 2 GB drive the other night and it worked. What I noted was that Windows categorized the 4GB stick as a "hard drive", but the 2 GB was a "removable storage device". Thanks for the help.

  6. I selected HDD USB 2.0 in the advanced BIOS menu and it gives me an error message "Operating System Loaf Error."

    1. "Load, not loaf" haha

    2. Your system has encounted a loaf error.... out of bread.

      All joking aside it would appear that the OS wasn't copied to the USB properly. Which distro did you use and where did you get the ISO

    3. I used the distro that you recommended... file name is pclinux-mate-2014.04.iso. I got it from the link you put here, not using bittorrent

    4. I just re-downloaded and tried again, but to no avail. :/ (And I think I fixed the loaf issue- just stuck a whole grain in the disk drive and it never bothered me about it again! xD )

    5. what is the make and model of the netbook?

    6. Toshiba Satellite M55-S139. It came stock with a 512 MB RAM stick but I recently put 2 GB in it

    7. Not sure why I felt I needed to say that

    8. You could try this http://www.everydaylinuxuser.com/2013/04/installing-and-booting-2-or-more-linux.html which is a tool that lets you boot multiple distros from a USB drive. I've searched Google but I am not sure why your USB isn't recognised.

    9. It picks up the USB but fails to recognize that there is an operating system on it

    10. I tried with a different USB and then it just says "Disk error. Press any key to restart."

    11. go to www.pendrivelinux.com and download the universal installer. Maybe the universal installer will work better for you. not sure why UNetbootin doesn't work

    12. Pendrivelinux says there was an error, and that the USB won't be bootable

    13. There must be something wrong with the USB drive for UNetbootin and Pendrivelinux to both fail

    14. I would recommend going to osdisc.com and buying a pendrive with PCLinuxOS already installed but I can't ascertain whether this would work or whether there is something about the computer that isn't allowing USBs to work properly.

    15. If it comes down to that, I'd rather not haha. I'd rather suffer through and try to find a free way to do it... but I don't think it's the computer. I have another one with similar results

  7. I want to thank you for writing clear, lucid instructions that are literal & do not assume ANY prior knowledge. You would be surprised how many on line how to(s) & even worse-books on "learning to program" never understand that instructions have to be written from the user point of view-not the "knower"(authors) point of view. Sounds trivial? Anything but! So kudos to you!

  8. My trouble remains. I press F2, change boot sequence, hit F10 (save and exit) but the computer still boots into windows. What do I do now?


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