A portable operating system is one that is compatible with multiple hardware platforms and also can be carried easily on a physical drive. Most of the portable OSs are lightweight and carry in a CD or USB drive. Running an OS from a CD/ USB drive is termed using live CD/USB. Even though the portable OS is lightweight, the performance is not to be underestimated and most of them are open-source with strong community support. There is nothing wrong to keep one Portable OS as part of your System First Aid; they can boot from USB, retrieve your data and convert your dead PC to alive.
We listed the best portable Linux OS Distro that can carry in a USB drive and boot on any desktop or laptop.
Puppy Linux is an ultra-small Linux OS that has a user-friendly UI. Despite being small it has readily available partitioning and file recovery tools packed with this portable Linux. This Linux Distro is suitable for basic computing and web browsing. Puppy Linux is highly customizable, different customized versions called “puplets” are available. Each puplets offers unique features or support. There are puplets such as non-English puplets, special function puplets, etc.
Puppy can save session data in separate files. This Linux distro includes its own package manager, which makes installing additional applications easy. The configuration tools allow the user to tweak the system’s setting. After all the tweaking, customizing and installing additional applications a user can turn the by-product into their Linux distro using the remastering tool.
Key Features: Size – 100MB | RAM – 256MB | Window Manager – JWM | Customizable | Download from Website
Slax is a user-friendly Linux distro. The standard version of Slax is small as 210MB, and fast Linux Distro. The size of this portable Linux is dependent on the user, and this distro is modular. The benefit of the modular distro concept is the user can add or subtract modules before downloading the OS. If one does not require office software, they can delete it before downloading, or add the multimedia tool if they wish.
This Linux distro is packed inside a single directory /Slax/. Slax Linux Distro is available in both 32bit and 64 bit. For old computers, the 32-bit version is advisable, whereas a 64-bit version is best suited for modern models of computers.
If one does not require office software, they can delete it before downloading, or add the multimedia tool if they wish. This Linux distro is packed inside a single directory /Slax/. Slax Linux Distro is available in both 32bit and 64 bit. For old computers, the 32-bit version is advisable, whereas a 64-bit version is best suited for modern models of computers.
Key Features: Size – 210MB | RAM – 256MB | Window Manager – KDE | Modular | Download from Website
Related: 10 Best Linux Server Distributions for your Business & Home
BackTrack (Kali Linux)
BackTrack is not light nor the heaviest OS. For a portable OS, it is a little bit heavy with a size of 2GB. But the 300+ apps readily available are enough to justify this extra size. This Linux distro is considered as Hacker favorite, meant for security testing. Kali OS can be used for wireless hacking, server exploiting, web-app assessing and so on. Although BackTrack Linux does contain a few graphical tools, this Linux Distro is good for command line experts.
BackTrack is serious about anonymity. Users do not have to register any names, bank accounts or user accounts as part of obtaining ISO image. There is no reporting back to any vendor by any spyware.
Ncrack is a tool in this particular distro that assists the user in identifying user accounts with weak passwords with no need for logging into each host. It must be noted that all the facility offered by Kali Linux distro is to be used legally only. It must be noted that the BackTrack project is continued as Kali Linux.
Key Features: Size – 2GB | RAM – 512MB | Window Manager – GNOME, KDE | Security testing | Download from Website
Damn Small Linux
As the name implies, Damn Small Linux is very small. It is only 50MB. The small size does not mean it is underpowered; it runs surprisingly fast even on low-powered hardware. Damn Small Linux packs many applications such as Firefox, VNC viewer, file manager, instant messenger, and even a web server. Thus DSL is capable of performing browsing web, write documents, manage files, play music, manipulate images and all other things a basic computer does.
This Portable Linux Distro can function as a server (SSH/FTP/HTTPD) right off on a live CD/ USB drive. DSL is based on yet another Linux distro called Knoppix. Hence applications from that distro can also be run in DSL.
Key Features: Size – 50MB | RAM – 256MB | Window Manager – Fluxbox, JWM | Download from Website
Kali Linux is another distribution based on Debian, but it is not “just another” Linux distro based on Debian. It was specifically made for penetration testing and digital forensics. In other words, for hackers and people who have the technical ability to use the 300+ specific tools it provides. These tools have been built by a team of elite security experts. Recently, the distro has even gained a sort of incognito mode. Essentially, running a simple script can transform Kali Linux to look a whole lot like Windows 10.
While running a script is pretty easy, it can see, daunting to someone who is used to clicking through the UI to change themes. That’s the essence of Kali Linux. If you’re not someone who can handle the command line well, you probably should stay away. But if you can, Kali Linux is an excellent portable Linux distro which is bootable and can be run from a USB. In fact, it was designed to be used that way. This facilitates an unhindered workflow irrespective of the place you’re at.
Key Features: Size – Approx. 2.6GB | RAM – 2GB | Window Manager – GNOME | Download from Website
Peppermint is a cloud-focused Linux distro so it is more like Chrome OS but it looks quite different. It’s also a more mature platform in comparison because you can run not only Google Chrome but any other browser you prefer. On top of that, it’s not limited like Chrome OS so Linux apps integrate a lot better with it compared to Chrome OS.
Peppermint OS is based is basically an Ubuntu lightweight desktop. It was created as a competitor to Chrome OS but it still retains the functionality of a full Linux desktop. Although you can install Google Chrome and access its vast library of extensions and apps, you don’t have to. Even if you use another browser, Peppermint lets you create web apps that run as native apps through an app called ICE.
Key Features: Size – 4GB | RAM – 1GB | Window Manager: LXDE | Download from Website
This particular Linux distro is of less than 300MB. Porteus is available in both 32 bit and 64 bit. Similar to Slax, Porteus is also modular. Precompiled modules can be activated or deactivated before downloading this Linux distro.
The user can select default software and select applications such as browser, office, etc. Even Skype can be set as a default application. The user has the provision to select the drivers they wish. Finally, the user can customize the system password and boot behavior of the OS.
Key Features: Size – 300MB | RAM – 256MB | Window Manager – KDE | Modular | Download from Website
Tiny Core Linux
Being 10MB this Linux distro is the smallest of the portable OS. This is also the lowest RAM demanding OS. One of the downsides of being so small is that it packs no applications, no file manager or so. These can be later installed by users though. Since it does not have anything unwanted out of the box, Tiny Core Linux is fast and responsive. Tiny Core is not void though; it has a window manager, custom tools, and a terminal.
If there ever was a portable Linux distro, it’s this. Music players on smartphones have a larger size than this entire OS. The largest version called CorePlus is only 106MB. The regular version, called TinyCore, is a mere 16MB! And if you think that’s amazing, there’s another version called Core which has a size of 11MB! You can easily carry this around on a Pendrive or even a 256MB microSD card from 2005.
One of the downsides of being so small is that it packs no applications, no file manager or even graphics driver. These can be later installed by users though. Since it does not have anything unwanted out of the box, Tiny Core Linux is fast and responsive. Tiny Core is not void though; it has a window manager, custom tools, and a terminal.
Key Features: Size – 106MB (tiny Core Plus) | 46MB RAM (64MB recommended) | Pentium 2 or higher CPU | 11MB to 106MB in size | Window Manager – KDE | Very fast boot time | Download from Website
Related: Top 7 Free Operating Systems For Laptop or Netbook.
FatDog64 is a 64 bit multiuser Linux distro and a derivative of Puppy Linux. Many applications are included out of the box. Since it packs more applications than Puppy Linux, it is heavier than the same but is not the heaviest of all.
FatDog packs applications like Libre Office and GIMP. There are also other lightweight applications for image editing, note-taking, and other various tasks. There is room for some entertainment in FatDog64 since it packs some games. It has a save file persistent feature which asks the user to save any changes. This feature makes sure that the system changes made by the user stay unchanged while future uses.
Key Features: Size – 350MB | RAM – 256MB | Window Manager – JWM | Download from Website
Knoppix is a well established and stable Linux distro. It is based on Debian, like Ubuntu, but it is designed especially to bootable from live USB which makes it ideal as a portable Linux distro. This gives you access to a Live Linux Filesystem on your Pendrive. Knoppix can also be booted from a CD/DVD drive if you’re still using those.
This Knoppix portable OS was one of the first live CD distros to get popularity. It packs more than 1000 software packages. The browsers such as Chromium, Firefox/Ice weasel are available. For office package Libre office is available. Tools for data rescue and system repair are parts of this distro. There are many distros derived from Knoppix. Adriane Knoppix, Damn Small Linux, and Kali Linux are some of them.
Key Features: Size – 700MB | RAM – 128MB | Window Manager – KDE | Download from Website
The latest version, MX Linux 17, has switched to Debian 9 (stretch) as the base. Although it still uses a merge of antiX technology with the best components of MEPIS ad is still intended to work efficiently on both older and modern PC.
The switch to Debian provides upgraded artwork, fresh MX tools, and better live operation courtesy of antiX. MX Linux is based on antiX and MEPIS and is intended to work efficiently on both older and modern PC. It features a tweaked version of the lightweight Xfce desktop.
This means you can customize it all you want although MX Linux is designed to be beginner-friendly by default. MX Linux is powerful but also light enough to smoothly run from a USB stick. Not every Linux distribution is known for being stable but MX Linux has earned a reputation for its dependability and stability. This distro’s efficient performance, intuitive interface and exceptional collection of apps make it a top choice for all users.
Key features: Size – 1.5GB | RAM – 512MB | Windows Manager – Xfce 4 | Download from Website
Porteus Linux is a distro based on Slackware Linux. The latest 4.0 build is under 400MB in size. Not only does the small size make it extremely fast, but it also makes it suitable as a portable Linux distro that is bootable and can run from a USB. Porteus is available in both 32 bit and 64 bit. Similar to Slax, Porteus is also modular. Precompiled modules can be activated or deactivated before downloading this Linux distro. This allows users to choose their specific configuration before downloading the OS image.
For example, Porteus offers a choice amongst several desktop environments. These are KDE Plasma, Cinnamon, XFCE, Mate, LXDE, LXQT, and Openbox. The user can select default software and select applications such as browser, office, etc. Even Skype can be set as a default application. The user has the provision to select the drivers they wish. Finally, the user can customize the system password and boot behavior of the OS.
Key Features: Size – 300MB | RAM – 256MB | Window Manager – KDE | Modular | Download from Website
If it wasn’t already clear from the name, Ubuntu GamePack is based on Ubuntu. It was created to provide Linux users a chance to play more than 28000 game titles otherwise developed for Windows or Mac.
Ubuntu GamePack ships with pre-installed delivery systems for Internet games, game clients like Lutris and Steam, and programs like WINE and Plays on Linux to help run Windows programs. Ubuntu GamePack was not specifically designed as a bootable, portable Linux distro to be run from a USB.
Ubuntu GamePack ships with pre-installed delivery systems for Internet games, game clients like Lutris and Steam, and programs like WINE and Plays on Linux to help run Windows programs.
However, with a 2.6GB size, it can be easily used directly from a USB drive. The distro provides a guarantee to lunch about six thousand Linux and Windows games. While Ubuntu has moved onto the GNOME desktop environment, Ubuntu GamePack still uses Unity. Keep in mind that Ubuntu GamePack does not include any games pre-installed. It simply opens the door to installing and running Linux, Steam, Windows, and various consoles’ games on your machine.
Key features: Size – 2.6GB | RAM – 2GB | Window Manager – Compiz | Download from Website
SliTaz is a simple, high-performance GNU/Linux based operating system that aims to deliver a fast, beginner-friendly, and highly customizable Linux distribution. The name SliTaz stands for Simple, Light, Incredible, Temporary Autonomous Zone.
SliTaz’s total Live CD/DVD size is merely 35MB to 50MB which makes it a great choice if you’re planning on running it from a USB. It’s definitely one of the smallest Linux distros with a fully functional graphical user interface. As it set out to be, it’s also highly customizable letting you even change desktop effects.
Key features: Size – 8MB to 43MB | RAM – 192GB GUI, 16MB to 48MB CLI | Window Manager – Joe’s window manager | Download from Website
The portable OS can perform basic computing and more with extraordinary power. Portable Linux Distributions are used for system recovery, hardware compatibility testing and so on. Hence community support and long-term support are at hand, and portable OSs are independent of the hard disk of the system.
They run on the RAM and hence are faster than the most mainstream OS. The only speed limiting factor of these Live OSs are the speed of your USB drive/CD. The Portable Linux distros are no less than any commercial operating system in terms of features and driver support. The above-mentioned distros seem to outperform conventional operating systems in many scenarios.
They can perform a specific task such as system recovery, penetration testing and so on, which most of the other OS fails to perform. Linux distro does all these and still manages to be light enough to be carried on a USB flash drive.
Puppy Linux CLAIMS “Puppy can save session data in separate files” but in practice this has never worked for me not even once, While it runs unbelievably well off the USB or DVD installing it to a disk has always caused me some serious problems such as failing to boot again or lost data
Bilibop software for debian distros (on synaptic manager) will do this. Bilibop-udev is the minimal app for persistance on debian usb installations. I’ve never really put Puppy to the test. Generally I’ve just burnt a disc, check that it boots and works, and never use it again. FatPuppy64 doesn’t seem to have been updated since Aug2016, I’m not sure how much it matters if pups from other flavors continue to be updated, but it’s not encouraging.
Look no further than Knoppix. I’m amazed they listed it last unless they are trying to tell us which is best. 7.2.0 is probably the best of all versions ever done. I have been with Knoppix since version ONE and it has never let me down in any way. Run it from DVD for best security. With lang and keyboard switches it does not matter which language your iso is. It runs in any language you choose! The USB can be set-up any time you want but its not wise to use it over a week or so without renewing it. It can become a house for bugs. Klaus Knopper is the IT Einstein of the 21st century – hans-down –
I am really not a superuser, and I can’t run Gnome on my Kali Live w. Persistence ( I’ve mounted persistence n.p.) Than I read forums saying: “Gnome is not supposed to work on Kali. Kali is version of Linux intended for system maintainers etc.”. Seems that if you want to install anything to Kali Live, you need to do it using command line.
just install another WM – xfce, openbox, plasma, KDE, Unity…
On one hand, Kali caters to beginning forensics and pentester students, not just “system maintainers”. But if you are so unfamiliar to linux as to think Gnome3 is the only window manager available, it is probably beyond your skills. You can do serious inadvertent damage, especially with forensics tools, both to the Kali installation itself and target systems. If you insist, Kali will run MATE, which is based on Gnome2 and should seem familiar.
I stay away from it, because Offensive Security does kinda market it to linux newbies, and even offers a Windows 10 “Linux Subsystem” version, which is counterproductive. Win10 might advertise your use of this system online, so you can expect spam from online “white hat hacker” course providers. It almost looks like a honeypot for script-kiddies.
I’m wary of it on Android devices, as well. When a security distro doesn’t protect newbies, why should I trust the vendor at all? I also don’t need to pat myself on the back for being l33t because I can avoid these glaring vulnerabilities. There are other good alternative pentesting distros, like Parrot OS, which also is fairly small and runs well on USB sticks, and Fedora Security spin. Tails isn’t that good, because despite making it easy to set up a persistence partition, it does not save settings easily.
Tiny core linux is listed smallest with 10mb? Strange….menuet linux runs straight from a floppy disk (a non-10mb floppy disk). Think this article can use updating.
Thank you for the feedback. Tiny Core with command line interface is coming with 11MB. The Core Plus with installation tools is size about 110MB. We have been updated the article with the changes.
Menuet is not a linux distro. It is a unique OS written in x86 assembly, which is why it is so small. It is not written in C, and doesn’t even resemble unix. Minix3 is closer to the mark for a small, free un*x. Even that can’t really be considered a linux distro. I’m sorry a couple of these comments are from noobs. Hint for noobs; ask a question when you are so uncertain. Don’t post comments as if your criticisms are written from knowledge or understanding.
Chris, thank you for the wonderful feedback.
Perhaps I’m late to the party but…
FIRST, FORGIVE ME FOR MY ENGLISH… 🙂
I use to repair PCs and live bootable OSes are my “daily bread”.
The above suggested distros are cool, but I would like to suggest some other:
1) System Rescue CD: based on Gentoo, it’s a rich but quite small (559 MiB the latest version) ISO and often updated ( about every 2 or 3 months). It has a lot of tools you can use for many tasks: backup, diagnostics, imaging, data recovery and so on… The grapohic side has other tools like Gparted and other. Strongly suggested!
2) Bitdefender Rescue CD: it’s the best live bootable antivirus. Kaspersky has recently released a new version of its rescue disk but Bitdefender is my 1st choice. Last update goes back to 2017 (they usually release a new version every 2 years) but is you install it on a USB stick the definition update is persistent, while all the other live disks don’t have persistence.
3) Clonezilla: my first choice if I want to easily backup both Linux and Windows. It uses Partclone and create an image of the USED SPACE (not all the drive!) with a 50% compression rate. So, if you have a 500 Gb partition and 100 Gb used space, you wil get a 50 Gb image you can restore. Clonezilla has also a command line option (no X) with a lot of tool: ddrescue, testdisk/photorec, chntpw and many others.
Clonezilla has different architectures ISOs: three based on Debian, and two based on Ubuntu (called “alternative”). Nowadays the alternative is the best choice (32 or 64 bit) unless you have a very very old machine: in this case you can consider to use the debian based version.
If you have a UEFI based PC you MUST use the Alternative 64bit version. Note that the Alternative 64 bit version is ready for secure boot, so you don’t have to disable it before.
4) Sparky Linux: while it has a lot of flavors, it has a Rescue Version which has tons of tools, both graphic and comman line based. It’s very complete and update but it’s a rolling, so you can experience some bugs. It’s a great distro anyway, perhaps one of the most comprehensive. My 2nd choice after System Rescue CD if Sparky has some instability issue, being a rolling. It has a stable version too but with older software.
5) If you want to go further, look for CAINE, a Ubuntu based Forensic distro (absolutely one of the best) with a lot of programs for deep analysis of PCs. It’s a very particular and professional distro but it’s worth a try.
6) If you are a privacy fan and know how to use Tor Browser, don’t go further than Tails, a Debian based distro which uses Tor to surf the internet. Be careful! Tor can be dangerous if you son’t know how to use it and if you wnat more privacy you have to set it in a proper way. I HAVE WARNED YOU!
7) Finally, if you are a pentester or… a hacker 🙂 you can use Kali (former Backtrack). It’s not an easy distro: it’s not for newby! You should be a programmer and be very skillful if you want to use the hundreds of tool it has. It’s the first choice of every security expert and pen-testers. Other cool and rich pentesting distros are; Parrot OS and BackBox. Consider that both Kali and Parrot are rolling, so you can meet some instability issue and bug.
Remember that almost any distro is a live, so if you don’t have particular needs, you can use a live of Ubuntu, Debian etc… Finally, don’t forget that some (not all) of the distros lised above are HD installable: this is an action people use to do with Kali and pentensting, being more effective and fast on a hd or ssd than on a USB stick.
The live distro world is almost endless, so I could list many other bootable Linux based OSes…
I hope you can enjoy the distros I suggested. 🙂
Thank you for sharing the information for our readers.
How about Linux Kodachi ?
Damn Small Linux’s website does not work at this time. Not sure why. It’s March 8th, 1045am.
Damn Small Linux hasn’t been actively developed since 2009. I’d suggest Slitaz if size is a concern.
parrot linux is best =D https://www.parrotsec.org/
I need some advice . I have a very old laptop it is a HP COMPAQ NX9105 with 512 mb Ram , Windows XP based processor. Can I run a portable OS from USB drive ?
yes you can. just choose the right distro for your specs. IE damnsmalllinux lubuntu xubuntu. you can even install on your old hardware
It will perform way better than xp ever did.
I run Bohdi persistent on USB. Runs really well actually…