What is a Live USB?

By · Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

What is a Live USB?USB flash drives have been around for quite some time; long enough for alternative uses to emerge. One of these alternative applications for a USB flash drive is something called a Live USB. A Live USB is a term given to a USB flash drive that is able to run a bootable operating system such as Linux. Although Live USBs are fairly rare, more people than ever before are taking advantage of them.

Live USBs are something relatively new, but its origins can be traced back to Live CDs. Live CDs date back to 1989 and were used to test new versions of software, load operating systems, repairing systems, as well as many other uses. However Live CDs have one particular weakness; no new data can be stored on them once created. This may not seem like much of a weakness, but for those who do repeatable testing, creating a new Live CD per test is rather a pain.

With the introduction of a Live USB, creators were given the possibility of updating their code and immediately seeing the results. This led to faster development and decreased cost. But faster development and decreased development cost were not the only advantages; below are some other benefits of a Live USB as well as some limitations.

Benefits

1. Data can be changed or altered at the users’ discretion. This allows them to carry their preferred operating system, favorite applications, user configuration, and personal files with them making it easy to support multiple users on a single system.

2. Live USBs have enhanced user privacy because all personal data is stored on the USB and not the host computer. This makes it much harder for someone to get a hold of your information. Just don’t lose the USB itself.

3. USBs are generally faster than traditional storage and provide faster loading times. However speed may be limited due to USB transfer speeds, so loading small applications will be faster, but loading large applications may take some time.

Limitations

1. Older computers may not have BIOS that supports USB booting. Even some newer computers may not be able to boot from a USB by default and must first be instructed to boot from a USB via a bootable CD or floppy disc.

2. Intel-based Mac computers may boot from a USB flash drive, but only in EFI mode. EFI stands for Extensible Firmware Interface and the best way to boot on Intel-based Mac is through Mac OS X. It is possible to boot outside EFI mode, but you will have to either change the Apple firmware to include a USB driver in BIOS mode, or change the operating system to remove the dependency on the BIOS settings. Either way is not very user friendly.

3. Live USBs tend to have shorter life spans than other USBs due to the increased write cycles associated with a full installation. However, this limitation does not affect live systems in which all changes are not saved to the USB until the user decides to log off. This helps lower the write cycles and extend the life of the Live USB.

Creating a Live USB is not terribly difficult and there are many different programs out on the net to help you create one for your particular operating system. A few notable applications include Linux Live USB Creator and Fedora.

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