In this project, I explore how to create a small bootable USB drive, running a copy of the Linux Raspbian Desktop.

Why Raspbian Desktop?

Raspbian Desktop is a variation on the Debian Linux operating system. It has been specifically adapted to run on older (32-bit) underpowered computers. It only needs 512MB of RAM (random access memory) to operate! That’s tiny compared to most of the new consumer and business grade laptops and desktop systems sold in 2018. (how to determine how much RAM your computer has.)

In my community, different community groups are interested in running tech-ed programs – but don’t always have a lot of resources or internal knowledge. I want to help make computing exploration available to anyone in Birmingham (AL) interested in learning about the technical systems that are quietly running more and more of our world, with or without an internet connection. 

This project makes it possible to use available desktop systems and laptops without making changes to them. Needed software can be run from a consistent external source, with a place for students to save their files. This allows students to continue work and explorations at home, without needing a fast internet connection. 


  • To enable community groups to successfully run a class or workshop on available desktop systems with needed workshop software quickly and easily. To be able to do so without affecting existing system restrictions and security.
  • To give workshop participants a USB stick that they can use at home with the software necessary for the workshop topic, and a place to store working files separate from work, school or home computers.

Materials needed:

  • Removable USB 2.0 or 3.0 flash drive. Color is used to indicate the different USB port and device speeds. Click through to learn what they mean.

    How to tell what USB connector you have by color

    USB  3.0 drives are more expensive but run faster. Suitable for newer computers (which have 3.0 ports and can take advantage of the speed). USB 2.0 drives are cheaper.

    • 2 GB capacity minimum.
    • 8GB recommended for adding additional software installations and student file storage.
  • A PC (personal computer) – any PC with a CPU (central processing unit) using the Intel x86 (32-bit) or x64 (64-bit) architecture. (most CPUs available today.) The PC must have a USB 2.0 or 3.0 port in which to insert the drive. 
  • A download of the Raspbian as Desktop OS image (.iso file). Choose a known destination folder; you’ll be going back to get the image file.

  • A download of the Etcher application. Install on your Mac, PC or Linux computer. (the website auto-detects your system). See bottom of webpage for demonstration of use.  Here’s a video tutorial if you need more. 🙂
    Balena Etcher webpage

    Balena Etcher webpage


  1. Insert the USB drive you’ll be using in a USB port on your computer.
  2. Launch Etcher
  3. Select the destination USB drive
  4. Select the distro image you want to install (burn) to the drive.
    Click Flash. Wait for the write to the drive to complete.
    Your computer will not see the completed drive. That’s OK!

To test the Raspbian Desktop USB:

Instructions for PC

  1. If you’re not familiar with your system BIOS (Basic Input/Output System, the microchip with firmware that starts up your computer),  see this video tutorial. Determine the keyboard key you need to enter to access your computer’s BIOS (list behind link.) It varies by make and model of computer.
    When the BIOS comes up, look for the settings that control the boot order for your system. Either change the boot priority so that the USB is checked for an operating system first, or select a drive to boot from. Steps for doing so will vary by manufacturer, model and age of the computer. Information regarding BIOS settings can be found on manufacturer’s websites. 
  2. Boot. The Raspbian Desktop operating system will come up.
  3. Choose how you want to run the OS from the USB. To be able to add and remove software, and save files to the drive, choose Run with Persistence.

Instructions for Mac

Start up the computer, while holding down the Option key. 

This will take you to the Startup Manager, where you can tab over to select a bootable drive. Select EFI.

Image showing a Mac Startup Manager screen with multiiple drives. The EFI drive has a circle drawn around it to indicate that it is selected.

The Mac Startup Manager screen showing available drives. You may see more than one EFI drive. Select one of them.

The operating system will launch. To be able to add and remove software, and save files to the drive, choose Run with Persistence at the first window.

Shows the upper left corner of a blue computer screen, and tells the user to select "Run with Persistence".

Select the first option “Run with Persistence”.

Photo showing a laptop screen with the Raspbian Desktop installation screen.

The Raspbian Desktop installation screen.

Instructions for Linux

To come. I need to set up a Linux computer!

Getting started with the Raspbian Desktop
(all systems)

Once launched, the operating system (OS) will prompt you for country, timezone settings and a password change from the default (raspberry). Make those changes.
The OS will then check for updates. Run them.
You are now ready to explore the OS and add any additional software.

Photo showing the default Raspbian Desktop, with the home menu in the upper left corner open.

The default Raspbian Desktop.

To do so, go to the Raspbian home icon > Preferences > Add/Remove Software. Type in keywords or the name of the software package you wish to install. 
Sound is not enabled by default. To turn on sound, go to the Raspbian home icon > Preferences > Audio Device Settings to enable control and use of your computer’s available hardware.

Explore your Raspbian Desktop!

  • Learn more about how Raspbian Desktop works. 
  • Raspbian includes the following software with the default installation. 
  • Nonprofits and educators – Promote your program! You can modify the desktop backgrounds, add specific software packages, and then either use a drive duplicator or disk duplication commands to make copies for distribution.

Educational side notes:  This distribution is the official successor to Pixel OS. Based on the Debian Linux distro (distribution), it has been reworked to be very similar in look and feel to the Raspberry Pi operating system. Raspbian Desktop is being actively maintained (updated and worked on)  – it will be around for the foreseeable future.

Project next steps:

Big shout out to Ethan Graham for assistance in working some USB drive formatting fine points, and to L. Dalorion Johnson, who first showed me that live drives like these were possible to create. 

This project isn’t finished yet. I’ve given out some USB drives for friends and family to test – and return feedback as to what does and doesn’t work. I’ll be updating this project’s instructions as I get feedback – and as my makerspace (the Red Mountain Makers) uses these for first workshops (anticipated Winter/spring 2019).

At TechBirmingham‘s request, we’ll also be testing and working out an implementation path with Chromebooks.

Once that is done, we have working parameters for customizable bootable opensource Linux OSs for newbies, and local coding and robotics camps where accessible desktop and laptop systems cannot be modified or have additional software installed.