This is a guest blog post by Sherman Nicodemus. This is my fourth post in a series this week on “Moving at the Speed of Creativity.” If you have questions about this post I’ll be glad to answer them via comments here.

If you purchase a netbook computer, don’t simply use the pre-installed operating system (OS) which came on it at the time of purchase. A wide variety of alternative operating systems are available which run great on new netbooks, and many of them are free. Reasons to install an alternative OS include:

  1. Testing the performance of your netbook’s hardware using different operating system environments.
  2. Gaining an appreciation for the power and utility of free, Linux-based alternatives to commercial operating systems.
  3. Learning how to install software using ONLY a USB thumb drive.

Lots of computer users today don’t even realize it is possible to run alternate web browsers on their computers, much less alternative operating systems. The experience of installing and using an alternative operating system on your netbook will almost certainly bring you a wide variety of learning opportunities which you might not otherwise experience. If you’ve got a netbook, resolve now (if you have not already) to jump with both feet into the world of alternative computer operating systems. With Google Chrome OS still looming on the horizon, anyone who tells you they know EXACTLY what the future of computer operating systems is going to look like is almost certainly smoking something they shouldn’t, and should NOT be trusted.

The first big challenge you’ll face in installing a different operating system on a netbook is most likely the lack of an optical drive, or CD/DVD drive. When it comes to failure rates on laptop computers, optical drives often figure high on the list as causes for those failures. While this prediction is certainly open to debate, it appears we are heading toward a computing future which will be dominated by flash-based / solid state hard drives (instead of the now-standard, spinning-disk hard drives which are oh-so intolerant of accidents like getting dropped) as well as computers WITHOUT optical drives. While computers with flash-based / solid state hard drives are still on the expensive side, that will be less the case in 1-2 years. If you opt to install a new operating system on your netbook TODAY without the aid of an external optical drive, you’ll be getting ready for the solid-state computing future now. 🙂

To use a USB flash drive / thumb drive to install an alternative operating system on your netbook, you’ll need a software program which can create a bootable version of your operating system CD/DVD or ISO image on a USB flash drive which has sufficient memory space. I have found an 8 GB flash drive, which until recently could readily be found for $25 US (however that price is falling) is more than adequate for this job. If you’re installing “skinnier” versions of Linux, an 8 GB flash drive will be overkill. It’s needed, however, for larger commercial operating systems like Windows7 or Mac OS 10.6. (Before attempting a Mac OS install on a netbook, be sure to read my guest blog post from yesterday, “What is a hackintosh?” and review the legal details of this carefully.)

You will most likely want to use a second computer to create your bootable USB drive that you’ll install from on your netbook. This second computer can be a computer running a variant of Windows, Macintosh, or Linux operating systems.

Recognizing the growing popularity of installing operating systems on netbook computers which lack optical drives, Microsoft has created a “Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool.” Unfortunately this tool is NOT usable for creating bootable versions of other non-Windows 7 operating systems, but it does work fine for Windows 7.

Novicorp WinToFlash is one option for Windows users needing to create bootable USB drives from ISO images. Options for Linux-based installations include:

  1. LinuxLive USB Creator
  2. UNetbootin
  3. PendriveLinux
  4. MultiBoot LiveUSB
  5. Ubuntu Live USB Creator
  6. Fedora Live USB Creator
  7. Free USB Installer

Ubuntu Netbook Remix is a free, Linux-based operating system optimized for netbooks which I have tried and strongly encourage others to use. The Ubuntu community provides an excellent set of tutorials for netbook owners on how to install operating system software from a downloaded disk image, using a USB thumb drive. Instructions are provided for doing this from Windows, Macintosh, and Linux computers.

Sugar on a Stick is another Linux-based operating system which I recommend you try out. Like the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, it can be run entirely from the flash drive without any changes being made to your actual netbook’s hard drive.

Open 1 to 1 (a Maine-based non-profit) also has a free, Ubuntu-based image worth trying out.

In creating a hackintosh installation on a netbook, I found the built-in application “Disk Utility” (located on a Macintosh in Applications – Utilities) to be a great solution. The program can create an exact duplicate of a disk image on a USB flash drive. In the case of the OS 10.6 installer DVD, you need to use Disk Utility to FIRST create a disk image of the DVD. Then using that disk image, you can create the bootable USB version with “Disk Utility.” Before booting up your netbook, however, you’ll need to tweak the USB drive with NetbookInstaller or another hackintosh software program. See the MyDellMini forum post, “MacOSX Snow Leopard / Win7 Dual Boot Success: Dell Mini10v” for a complete list of steps. One of the trickiest things to get a hackintosh installation working is the bootloader software. All the Ubuntu-installations I’ve tried don’t recognize a Mac OS partition. I’ve used EasyBCD successfully to allow a multi-boot into Windows7 or Mac OS 10.6, but others recommend “the Chameleon bootloader.” I am geeky enough to be able to get some of these programs to work for me, but not geeky enough to come close to understanding how they work. I DO know the bootloader is key, and without a bootloader which recognizes / supports Mac OS partitions and installations you can’t dual boot to Mac and Windows on the same netbook. I have yet to figure out how to triple boot with Mac, Windows, and Linux on the same netbook, but I haven’t tried Chameleon yet. On my next netbook, I most likely will try it.

For any USB software boot and installation, you’ll need to change the “boot sequence” for your netbook, saved as part of your computer’s BIOS settings. This may be the trickiest part of this process for many folks. The “hot key” to enter the BIOS settings and change the boot sequence varies by computer manufacturer. For Dell netbooks, this can be accomplished by holding down the F2 key at startup. Whatever the hot key, you’ll want to tell the netbook to boot FIRST from a USB drive if one is attached that includes a bootable partition.

If you plan to install multiple operating systems on your netbook and keep them permanently, you’ll want to PARTITION your hard drive first with separate partitions for each OS. I am certainly not an expert on this, but I was able to use the Mac OS X Disk Utility to partion my netbook hard drive successfully. I created a “journaled” Mac OS partition, and created the Windows partition as FAT32. Later when I installed Win7 on the netbook, the Windows installer changed that partition type to NTFS. I don’t think the Mac OS X Disk Utility provided a NTFS partition option.

If you’ve made it this far in the post, I hope I haven’t provided too much confusing information. As I noted yesterday on the topic of hackintoshes, this is a deep rabbit hole! The benefits can be great, however. At a minimum, I hope you’ll give an alternative operating system on your netbook a try if you have not already. The easiest ways to do this is to use Ubuntu Netbook Remix or Sugar on a Stick, running directly from the USB thumb drive.

For you Linux and multiple-OS gurus out there, what USB installer-maker options have I left out of this post which should be included, or should be moved to the top of the list from a usability standpoint? What other Linux distributions should go on a “must try” list for newbies to this multiple-OS world?

Good luck!

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One Response to Install alternate operating systems and software on a netbook via a USB flash drive

  1. Mark Ahlness says:

    Wes, I’m no guru on anything, but I did have success creating bootable linux-based SD cards on my XP machine, using something called Win32 Disk Imager:

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