About USB live sticks

Translations: fr

Freeduc-USB: live media!

OFSET's logo

Live media are small and easy to use thingies, which enable one to use a computer for a defined purpose. For example: boot an office system, or an educational environment, boot a communication appliance, and so on.

Their common feature is that they can boot a computer without accessing its hard disk, so even if the computer has no hard disk or if its hard disk is broken, live media fostered by usb.freeduc.org can boot in half a minute, and go fast.

Main features of live media

What can I do with live media?

There are heaps of possibilities, due to the wide range of packages available in Debian, which is used to produce Freeduc-USB (more than 60,000 packages maintained in year 2018, in the stable distribution).

Here are a few suggestions:

Artistic media and their dedicated readers
for example:
  • a musical track manager and a collection of sound files
  • a video browser and a few movies
  • a photo gallery manager and your preferred photographs
A software collection to teach science
To be used in the classroom, can be copied for each student, so they can use it at home in the same environment
A professional-grade typesetting environment
The LaTeX system, now stable for thirty years, used by many high quality publishers, works very well with live media.
An interactive kiosk
Can be based on Firefox, with a little set of plugins, to create:
  • a multimedia kiosk for a museum or for some show
  • a browser with restrictions, for example bound to a proxy server
  • a school exam environment, by embedding a Wims system on the same medium: this is useful for particular areas, when no Internet access can be provided, like in hospitals, prisons, etc.
A most handy diagnose and repair tool
As live media can boot a broken computer, they allow one to fix a hard disk even in extreme cases. The collection of software usable in that context is rich and very handy for technicians.

User Manual: I got a live USB thumbdrive ... what now?

The very first program starting in a computer, even before the operating system, (Windows, Mac OSX, GNU/Linux, or FreeBSD, etc.) is the boot loader installed by the mother card maker. This program, BIOS or UEFI, works generally silently, it finds storage devices connected to the main board, and lanch the bootstrap featured by one of those devices.

I choose the USB thumbdrive as the boot medium

To begin with, the computer must be stopped and the USB thumbdrive connected in advance. If the computer is running (for instance, with Windows), stop it, with the USB thumbrive plugged in. Then I must ensure that the live USB thumbrive will boot the computer.

If the BIOS allows me to choose the boot device
In many cases, a special key can be pressed during the boot process, to be able to select the boot device. The special key may vary, it can be F8, F9, F12, it may be announced during a few seconds in a screen's corner, or it may be described in the computer's User Manual. When this key is pressed, the boot process is suspended and a selection can be made between a few choices: hard disk, optical disk drive, network, USB drive. The USB thumbdrive can be often recognized by the keyword "USB" and some data, like its brand name.
Then, it is enough to select the USB thumbrive with up and down *arrow keys*, and validate with *Enter*.
Define the USB thumbdrive as a default boot drive
Additionnally to the previous possibility, one can pause the computer during the boot process to modify the default settings of the BIOS. Fort his purpose, there is also a special key, which depends on the computer model: it can be *Del*, *F2* or some other key, it may be announced in some corner of the screen at the begin of the boot process. When that key is pressed, a menu system appears. When browsing this menu system, the following points must be ensured:
  • That USB devices are supported during the boot. If they are ignored, the thumbrive cannot be considered. This option is often in "Advanced Settings"
  • Menu items abot "Boot" must be checked. There is unfortunately no general standard usable everywhere. In some cases, it is enough to check and modifiy the choices in a menu named "Device boot order"; in other cases, the USB thumbdrive is considered as a hard disk, and can be found in the list of detected hard disks: in such a case, reorder the boot priorities for hard disks to put the thumbdrive on the top.
After the change of boot orders, it is important to save the BIOS parameters before rebooting the computer.
Case of older computers
Some computers issued before 2005 cannot manage USB drives during the boot. Then, the only remaining possibility is to boot a Linux kernel which will find the USB thumbdrive afterwards. One can burn a live CDROM which provides it; at the beginning, both the CDROM and the USB thumbrive must be in place, the computer must be configured to boot the CDROM. Just after the boot process, the USB thumbrive is detected and given the control of the next stages. The CDROM can be changed after the boot process, so it will not clutter the drive.
## Booting Freeduc-USB ##
Selecting the boot options
Welcome screen
A welcome screen is suposed to appear when the USB thumbdrive controls the boot. If one makes nothing, after a few seconds the first option is taken in account for the startup. Before that, on can select an option with the arrow keys (up and down) (in the example above, the current selection is **ISN 64**, boot with a 64 bit kernel).
Les messages émis lors du démarrage
Screenshot during the hardware setup
During the startup, various messages are displaied, along the discovery of the local hardware (Freeduc-USB can run may types of computers, so the hardware discovery is done each time). If the startup stalls (it can happen), please write down the last messages displaied befor the halt: they can be useful to fix the specific issue with that computer.
Here we are, Freeduc has started!
An example of the desktop appearing when Freeduc-USB runs is shown below. It this cas, the desktop is based on the window manager LXDE. screenshot of a LXDE desktop menu lxde Please notice the symbol in the bottom left corner (menu lxde), one must click there to access the applications of the live medium. One must also click there to shutdown the computer in a clean fashion. It is important to shutdown the computer with the right application in order to keep the coherence of the medium.
One must wait until the complete shutdown of the computer before unplugging the live medium.
Just like you never would open your computer and pull out your hard disk whilie it is running, never unplug the live USB thumbdrive during the working session: it might contain scrambled data afterwards.
screenshot of the shutdown screen
When one asks for a *clean* shutdown, one must wait until the words "Shutdown complete" appear before unplugging the thumbrive, or until the physic switch down of the computer, which happens a few seconds later.

What the project Freeduc-USB is not:

  • Freeduc-USB is not a distribution of free-libre educational packages. If you search educational packages, you can visit the project Debian-Edu, the website Framasoft, ...
  • Freeduc-USB is not a family of USB sticks with free-libre applications for Windows. In fact it depends not on locally installed software or OS, you can event boot a Freedu-USB stick on a diskless computer. If you search sticks to add free-libre educational software to a Windows environment, take a look at Framakey.

Specific features of Freeduc-USB

Freeduc-USB is a family of fast live USB sticks. They come as an appliance, without a hardware backbone. Just plug a Freeduc-USB stick into a laptop or desktop computer, and let it boot itself.

Half a minute later you get an educational appliance based on free software. Freeduc-USB allows a nomadic usage of educatioanl applications. As the software is free, there are no legal barriers preventing its scalability.

  • Freeduc-USB is fast: the local workstation is ready to use faster with Freeduc-USB than booted ordinarily.
  • Freeduc-USB provides freedom: the licenses of the embedded applications and background software allow the duplication of Freeduc-USB seamlessly.
  • Freeduc-USB is a collection of free-libre educational applicances.

Under the hood of Freeduc-USB

Here is a sketch of the software sources which were are used to build Freeduc-USB

Structure of a Freeduc-USB key

A Freeduc USB key has two partitions, one which can be accessed with any operating system, and another one which is practically reachable when Freeduc-USB is running. Here is a more technical description of the partitons:

  • Master boot record: this one is provided by the package syslinux, it allows one to boot from the first partition.
  • Partition 1: primary partition, flagged "lba boot", with a fat32 (vfat) filesystem. Its content will be available from every system. It contains directories like "boot/", "efi/", "KNOPPIX/", which must be kept as they contain Freeduc's inner engine. There is some place left add other files. Do not mix your files with the system directories.
  • Partition 2: logical partition, with a reiserfs filesystem. This filesystem will contain all of the customisations, history and the user data unles you save them to the first partition.

Published Freeduc-USB versions

Making a new release of Freeduc-USB is now a few hours's task, thanks to the package freeduc-usb which is maintained as a free software (license: GPL V.3), available at https://salsa.debian.org/georgesk/freeduc-usb

Here are a few published versions of Freeduc-USB


Freeduc-jbart : the name of this pendrive honors the memory of the corsaire Jean Bart, qui au temps de Louis XIV, who saved from starvation the region of East Fladers by putting an end to a blocus organized by the British Navy. This pendrive is developped for lycée Jean Bart of Dunkerque. It is used to teach computer science, robotics, sciences.


This pendrive feature the TeXlive suite. It allows you to create your bes documents, which you will compose with the best typographic software ever, LaTeX. With Freeduc-LaTix, you can:

  • create shot documents, reports, articles;
  • create interactive presentation for a beamer;
  • write a thesis, abook;
  • manage glossaries, bibliography, a well-structured index;
  • and so on!


Freeduc-AMC, version 1.0 (August 2010). Features the package auto-multiple-choice. It allows you to create paper exercises with replies based on multiple-choices, which can be scored automatically with an optical scanner. To deploy the appliance you need locally a computer hooked to a printer and a scanner (or a composite peripheral with both features).


Freeduc-Wims features a WIMS web server, coming on the pendrive. It provides also a few thousands of training modules, mainly in math, science, language.

The first generation of live USB thumbdrives

an USB stick

The first Freeduc-USB thumdrive was marked with OFSET's logo.

Click this link to learn more about the preparation of live USB pendrives.

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