First Steps - How To Boot from USB
written October 30, 2023 by Time Traveler
Category: BlogEntry Tags: USB; Booting; Intro; How To; #51
If you wish to boot from a USB, have powered off your computer, put in the USB, and turned it on, and it starts up and goes to your normal desktop, then your system is not currently configured to boot from USB first. If you wish to boot from a Linux based USB drive, have no idea what a computer's BIOS is, do not know how to configure your system at a low level, then this blog post is for you.
It may be worthwhile to review this blog entry also:
What NOT to do with a Bootable USB Drive or Collection
You can refer to anecdotal configuration options for different systems at our Reference pages here:
Boot From USB
That reference information assumes you know all about the following...
Top level view: The hardware in a computer has a very limited set of what it can do, and is designed to run a full operating system (like Linux, Windows, Mac OS X, etc.). If you power up a motherboard with no hard drive or other media, all you might see is a cryptic message that says something like "DISK BOOT FAILURE, INSERT SYSTEM DISK". Because you can boot from various media, the BIOS (Basic Input / Output System) has a Boot Order - which media to look at first. If it finds an operating system, like a well trained dog, it will always boot the first operating system it finds.
To alleviate this issue, some human will need to configure the settings in the computer to change the boot order. Instead of Boot from Hard drive, Boot from CD/DVD, Boot from Network, etc., the option to Boot from USB must be enabled AND be first (or first among available options). For security purposes, the boot from USB is most likely not going to be first, so knowing how to get into your system configuration options is a requirement.
The good news is that this really isn't that big a deal, and is about on par with putting gas in your car. If you've always had full service, and never put gas in your car, you may be a bit confused if you pull up to a self-serve station. Where is the gas intake? On an old VW bug, the door is front right, and the release is by the glove box. An Acura is back left, and has the gas door release integrated with the trunk release. A Ford has a push to release door on the back right. Some cars have it behind the rear license plate, etc. Similarly, different manufacturer's have different approaches to get to the system configuration. Some require an Esc key during startup, some have F1, or F9, or Del key. Typically there is a brief message that is shown at the very beginning, and you need to watch like a hawk as the system starts from a powered off state, once you turn it on with the power switch. Worst case, you need to check with the manufacturer.
Once you get into the BIOS (a legacy term for the system configuration where you can set the boot order). Today it might be called settings, or configuration, or options, etc. Some systems have a menu option "Select Boot Device" or something like that. On these systems, you can simply select the USB option, and it will faithfully boot that operating system, i.e. your Linux Distro on USB. On others, you have to find something like "Boot order". Some of these system configuration options can be a bit quirky and not necessarily intuitive, so you may need to read the options. Some use F5/F6, or arrow keys, etc. to re-arrange boot options. Once you have put the USB first, refer to any instructions on how to "Save" this - some use an F10 key, some require you to select a "Save these options/confirm", etc. You can always restart, go back into the BIOS, and verify your changes are the now current settings.
It is also very easy to confirm you've configured your system correctly. You will boot from the USB, and NOT go to your normal desktop.
For the vast majority of systems, the above general information is all that is needed to boot from a USB vs. the hard drive. To be clear, however, there are various other settings that may be required. Things like legacy vs. UEFI, or CSM (a compatibility mode), etc. are just enough to confuse new users. This is why checking with the manufacturer, or doing an internet search for your model or motherboard manufacturer, and search for "how to boot USB on Gigabyte" or "how to boot USB on Dell Inspiron" may be the quickest & easiest way to guide you to the solution.
So in summary, configuring your computer is much like putting fuel in your car. Without this critical component, the car is a useless hunk of metal & plastic. Being unable to control your computer, limits what is available to you on modern day systems. So being familiar with configuring your system unlocks its potential, and being in control is much better state of mind than being intimidated by the depth & complexity of modern day computers. Note that there are computers that come pre-installed with Linux, but with a bit of configuration, the "Live" media approach lets you run Linux without affecting the existing operating system on your hard drive. This provides many benefits, and makes your computer even more flexible. It can provide security, anonymity, additional tools, and a myriad of other options available in the vast ecosystem of Linux.