How to Create Your Own USB Linux Distro with LiLi

Linux Live CDs have long been well known as a handy tool in PC repair. Personally I’ve used Linux CDs dozens of times to repair Windows problems, from virus scans to file retrieval to partition adjustments. As great as Live CDs are, they still have a few drawbacks, like an inability to save any new files or changes. Bootable USB sticks solve most of the problems with Live CDs. You can write to them, change the software or the whole system without burning a new CD, and carry them easily wherever you go.

There’s a new (Windows only, strangely enough) software tool out called LiLi USB Creator. LiLi makes it incredibly easy to create your own customized bootable Linux system on a USB stick, and even run it from within Windows using an portable copy of Virtualbox that’s included on the installation. Impressed? I am.

I ran LiLi on Windows XP Pro with Service Pack 3 and a 2GB Kingston USB drive. You can download the installer here. It’s a ZIP file and there’s no installer so you can just run it directly from wherever it was extracted. Once loaded you’ll get the main LiLi screen where all your choices are made.


Step 1: Choose a USB Key


If your USB drive isn’t already connected, connect it now and wait a few seconds before hitting the blue refresh button. When you click the drop-down list, you should see your flash drive in the list. Make sure you’re choosing the correct flash drive, as the program also lists your hard drives, and we certainly wouldn’t want to go wiping any of them. Which reminds me – in case this isn’t yet clear, this flash drive will be wiped clean so make sure there’s nothing important on there before we proceed.

Step 2: Choose a Source


LiLi needs to know what you plan to use as the base of your system. This is one of LiLi’s big strengths in my opinion. You can choose to use a Live CD ISO file you already have, a Live CD in your CD-ROM, or to have LiLi download an ISO for you. This last option is particularly impressive, as LiLi provides a list of some of the compatible distros and will automatically fetch and check the files it needs.


As for me, I went with Fedora because… well… pretty much just because I haven’t used it in a while. If you chose to let LiLi download a compatible ISO for you, then you’ve got a little time to wait while it downloads. Now might be a good time to make a snack, read a book, or better yet – browse articles on MakeTechEasier.

Step 3: Persistence


At this point, we can take advantage of the fact that we’re using a USB drive and not a Live CD. By setting some space for persistence, we can now save file and settings changes directly on to the USB drive. This is also the cause of some confusion when creating these live systems.

For clarity, we’ll use my 2GB Kingston flash drive as an example of how this all works. It’s actually about 1.9GB, and the files from the ISO will be using up about 700MB, so according to LiLi that leaves about 1.1 GB for persistent files to be saved. The math doesn’t quite add up, but I would guess that LiLi is using up a little more space than just the ISO contents for things like VirtualBox (discussed below). The slider bar in the screenshot above lets me choose how much of that space I really want to use. Unless you’ve got other plans for that space, you probably want to slide the bar all the way up.

If your USB drive is larger than 1GB and LiLi doesn’t let you move the slider past 0MB, just reformat the entire USB drive, reload LiLi and try again.

Step 4: Options


The first item in the Options section is whether or not you want to hide the system files on the USB drive. The only relevance this has is whether or not Windows will show the Linux system files on the flash drive. The benefit is that you won’t have to worry about a convoluted mess of files and directories on the drive if you just want to run VirtualBox (which we’ll cover in a moment). The down side is that it would be more difficult to access or edit those files from Windows, should you want to. Neither choice will have any significant effect on how your Linux system runs.

The second option is whether or not to format the USB drive in Fat32. Unless you have a specific reason not to, I’d recommend you allow the format to be certain that the drive is being wiped clean and installed correctly.

The last option is one of the really unique and interesting things about LiLi. As I hinted in the opening paragraph, LiLi is capable of adding a portable copy of VirtualBox to your USB drive. For anyone not familiar with VirtualBox, it’s a high quality free virtualization program. With VirtualBox on the drive, you’ll be able to run your new Linux USB system from within Windows, without rebooting. I’d recommend checking this option, so that your flash drive can be as versatile and useful as it can be.

Step 5: Create

Before clicking the lightning bolt to begin, there are a few things to check to make sure we’re not about to cause a disaster. First, make totally certain that the device you chose in Step 1 is the USB drive, and that you don’t mind wiping its contents. Next do a quick glance at the traffic light icons in the bottom right corner of each step. Each light should be green, indicating it’s got everything it needs in order to proceed. When ready, hit the lightning bolt icon, and go make yourself another snack.

Running your new USB Linux System

If you’ve followed this guide closely, then you now have two ways to start your new system. The first is from within Windows, using VirtualBox. Open My Computer to your flash drive, and you’ll see a Virtualbox folder. Open that and run Virtualize This Key. That will launch the portable VirtualBox to your Linux image and you can use your shiny new Linux system from a contained environment within Windows. Keep in mind, this method does give the benefit of being able to use both OSes simultaneously, but Linux will most likely be MUCH slower here than if it had been booted on its own.


The other method is to boot the USB key as intended, as its own OS. To do that, you insert the USB drive into whatever computer you’d like to boot, and restart the computer. Some computers may require you to open the BIOS settings to include USB in the boot devices. Others may give you an option when starting up like Hit F12 for Boot Menu, or something along those lines. Any fairly modern PC should be capable of booting from a USB drive.

Presuming all went well, you should now have a portable, self-contained, customizable USB Linux system installed on your USB drive that can be taken anywhere. This can be useful in repairs, file recovery, virus scanning, or just showing off. Files saved to the USB drive will persist across multiple reboots.

Other than a booting glitch when I tried LiLi with Crunchbang (which may or may not have been LiLi’s fault), everything seems to work smoothly. I was very impressed by LiLi’s simple yet powerful user interface, and the developers have clearly put a lot of thought and effort into making LiLi a quality piece of software. I’m a little surprised it only runs in Windows, but everything it does, it does well. Kudos to the development team.

Joshua Price

Josh Price is a senior MakeTechEasier writer and owner of Rain Dog Software

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