Microsoft

Review: Universal USB Installer for Windows

Matt Nawrocki shows you just what you need for a bootable Linux distro written to a USB thumb drive.

As an IT guru, I like to play around with multiple Linux-based operating systems. Whether I'm going to perform a clean install or merely use the Live boot portion to give the OS a test drive, there's one thing I don't really like to do, and that's buying DVD-Rs and burning ISO images to them, only to then turn the disc into a new coaster for my drink when I get bored of it. Not only is this a waste of money, but discs are not particularly fast when compared to solid-state media.

Universal USB Installer

Product Information:

  • Title: Universal USB Installer
  • Company: Pen Drive Linux
  • Product URL: http://www.pendrivelinux.com/universal-usb-installer-easy-as-1-2-3/
  • Supported OS: Windows XP, Vista, 7 and 8
  • Price: Free
  • Rating: 4 out of 5
  • Bottom Line: When you need a Linux distro written to a USB thumb drive in bootable fashion and you want to avoid using burnable discs, Universal USB Installer for Windows is excellent for providing an easy way to go about doing this without learning tricky commands.

If you have a thumb drive handy that is at least 4GB or larger in size, Universal USB Installer can come to the rescue with its special superpower: the ability to write ISO files of popular Linux distributions to a thumb drive for booting and installation onto the destination hard disk. This utility even purports to do USB stick style installers for Windows Vista, 7 and 8, in case you want to skip the disc on those as well.

Whenever you want to create a bootable Linux installer stick, simply plug in your thumb drive, start the utility and select your favorite distro along with drive and format options, then click Create to begin the process. If you didn't download the ISO beforehand, Universal USB Installer offers an option to grab the file for you before beginning the creation process. Depending on the distro that is selected from the menu, the entire job from start to finish can take up to five to ten minutes, depending on the size of the ISO and the speed of the flash memory.

During my tests, every single supported OS I threw at the utility easily created a working bootable drive that I could use on my computer. For added convenience, a persistent file storage area can be added so that, if you are in a Live USB session and want to save documents, for instance, you will be able to save directly to the flash drive without running into read-only restrictions that obviously plague burned discs.

From a Windows user's perspective, drives are also formatted as FAT32, making it easy to sneaker-net files over as needed without requiring fancy Ext* file system drivers.

Some issues

Unfortunately, I did run into issues getting in the USB Windows Installer section of the tool. When I attempted to create a USB installer of my Windows 7 Professional Retail DVD, which was converted to an ISO beforehand, the files would indeed copy over, but I could not boot the flash drive properly. Whether this is a bug that exists with the particular DVD image I utilized, or whether I needed to use an OEM version of the operating system instead of a Retail version, I could not tell. This part was sadly a let-down for me, and I hope this problem gets fixed soon.

One final issue I have with the utility, although rather minor, is that there is absolutely no percentage to completion meter that measures an actual step in the process, save for the part when 7zip extracts files from the ISO. For instance, I was at a step where a drive was formatting and there was a progress bar with something in it, but nothing moved at all for about two minutes before moving on to the next step. Since this utility appears to be based off of Nullsoft's Installer System, this probably shouldn't come as too much of a surprise.

Bottom line

With all that said, when it comes to getting your Linux fix without touching the disc burner, Universal USB Installer does get the job done nicely in a Windows environment. No need to crack out fancy command line parameters, like calling dd, which can be rather crude and lacking in information.

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About

An avid technology writer and an IT guru, Matthew is here to help bring the best in software, hardware and the web to the collective consciousness of TechRepublic's readership. In addition to writing for TechRepublic, Matthew currently works as a Cus...

10 comments
earlehartshorn
earlehartshorn

I've used this USB Installer to create bootable USB installation media for Win7 Home, Win7 64 Home, Win8 RTM, and Win8-64 RTM, worked great everytime. You do need to download the Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool from MS to make it work. And I have used it for several Linux distros as well. A fantastic tool for those who like to play with a different OS every day.

charleyj98
charleyj98

"For added convenience, a persistent file storage area can be added so that, if you are in a Live USB session and want to save documents, for instance, you will be able to save directly to the flash drive without running into read-only restrictions that obviously plague burned discs." Can you elaborate on that statement? Charlie

wizard57m-cnet
wizard57m-cnet

as opposed to using 7Zip on a downloaded iso, extract it to your USB thumb drive, then run the built-in command to make the drive bootable? Most of the live distros I've played with have both Linux and Windows scripts for doing this. Works quite well too. I also tried UnetBootin, and while it did work, it put extras in the MBR that I didn't need compared to using 7Zip.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

How often do you need a bootable USB thumb drive?

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

Thank you for sharing your experience. I actually did not use the Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool like you mentioned, and that is probably where my problem was at. Appreciated!

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

In addition to dumping a Linux live ISO right onto the thumb drive, the "persistent" storage area you can create allows you to save changes to settings and files directly within the session so you can avoid losing that information when you reboot, like desktop wallpaper or newly created bookmarks in the web browser. For another explanation of this, read LifeHacker's piece on this feature... http://lifehacker.com/5574276/universal-usb-installer-makes-a-persistent-thumb-drive-version-of-any-linux-os Hope this clears that up for you!

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

Universal USB Installer doesn't simply extract files from an ISO and call it a day. It actually does the extras you mention, such as writing a proper MBR and aligning partitions so that your thumb drive will indeed boot the distro. Universal USB Installer is direct competition to UnetBootin and I tend to prefer the interface and experience of the former over the latter. :) Also, you mention a "built-in" command that can make a drive bootable. As far as I'm aware, no such feature exists in a Windows environment when creating a bootable Linux thumb drive. Not to mention, dd for Windows is a third-party port of a UNIX application, which can be found on the Net.

wizard57m-cnet
wizard57m-cnet

anyway with the 3 I've used most they were...usually named something like "install_to_usb.sh" or "install_to_usb.cmd" for Linux and Windows, respectively. These are included inside the downloads for Slax 6.1.2, the new Slax 7 and in Salix KDE 14. The associated web sites also have pretty good instructions on how to install the live distro to a USB. While this Universal USB Installer may be handy for a distro that does not include the "install_to_usb" commands, some of the ones that do may not behave as expected (that was my experience with Salix using UnetBootin). Sorry for the confusion, I did not mean the command was internal to Windows.

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

I see what you mean now. Despite that however, it's nice to have a tool that makes this all "centralized". I even discovered new distros using this tool that I never even heard of before, since they were all in a nice and organized list to choose from, versus Googling around with results that can be decidedly hit and miss.

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