Install Raspbian on a USB Flash drive from MacOS or Linux

This guide will help you through the steps necessary to install Raspbian (current version at the time of writing, Raspbian Jesse) onto a USB Flash drive from MacOS (OS X) or Linux (ie Ubuntu). You will need a good quality USB Flash Drive, a USB MicroSD card and a Raspberry Pi (I’m using a Raspberry Pi 3 with WiFi).

Before we begin

This method of booting is experimental and won’t work with all USB Flash devices. I’ve tried this using a Raspberry Pi 3 and had success using both Corsair Voyager 3 and Toshiba Flash USB flash drives. Let me know your device and whether or not you succeeded in the comments.

Make your Raspberry Pi quicker and more reliable

The biggest benefit of using a USB flash drive is, they are far more reliable than MicroSD for running Raspbian and tend to be a lot quicker. It’s a cheap way of improving the performance of your Raspberry Pi.

Step 1 –  Download and install Raspbian image on the USB Flash and MicroSD

Visit the Raspbian website download page (Raspbian download page here) to download the image. I’m using Raspbian Jesse Lite as I don’t require the GUI but use Pixel if you wish. Once you’ve done that, insert your MicroSD card into the card reader on your computer.

Open a terminal window and type the following command if you’re using MacOS (inc OS X):

diskutil list

Or if you’re using a Linux machine (ie Ubuntu):

fdisk -l

You should see something similar to this (if you’re using MacOS/OS X):

We can see that the MicroSD device is located at /dev/disk1. This might vary on your machine. We need to unmount this using the following command in MacOS (inc OS X):

diskutil unmountDisk /dev/disk1

Or if you’re using Linux (ie Ubuntu), changing sdb1 for your MicroSD card:

sudo umount /dev/sdb1

Ok, next we need to copy the files from the image to the MicroSD card. I’m Make sure the Raspbian image is unzipped, I’m assuming that your Raspbian image is in your Downloads folder. Change directory to your downloads folder:

cd ~/Downloads

Next copy to the device using:

sudo dd bs=1m if=2017-04-10-raspbian-jessie-lite.img of=/dev/disk1

Remember to change the ‘2017-04-10-raspbian-jessie-lite.img’ filename to the actual filename of your Raspbian image. Also, remember to change ‘/dev/disk1’ to suit your machine.

After a while, the files will finish copying from the Raspbian Jesse image to the MicroSD card, you will see something like this:

Once this is done, eject the MicroSD card in MacOS (and OS X):

diskutil unmountDisk /dev/disk1

or if you’re in Ubuntu or similar:

sudo umount /dev/sdb1

Repeat step 1 but this time for the USB Flash Drive.

Step 2 – Prepare the Raspberry Pi

Next we need to insert the USB drive into the Raspberry Pi and boot it up. Once you’re booted and logged in, open the terminal window if you’re in the GUI and make sure you’re up-to-date using:

sudo apt-get update -y && sudo apt-get upgrade -y

Now we need to modify our config file to try and get our device to boot from USB Flash devices:

Next, edit the config file using this command:

sudo nano /boot/config.txt

Add the following line to the bottom of the file:

program_usb_boot_mode=1

Save and exit using CTRL + x. You will need to hit Y to confirm the changes.

Step 3 - Boot Raspbian from USB Flash drive

Now we need to insert our prepared USB flash drive into the Raspberry Pi. From the Raspberry Pi terminal, restart using:

sudo reboot

Once rebooted, from the terminal in the Raspberry Pi, type the following command:

vcgencmd otp_dump | grep 17

If you see 17:30200000a, the OTP has been successfully reconfigured. Shut down your Raspberry Pi:

sudo halt

Once the Raspberry Pi is completely shut down, remove the MicroSD leaving only the USB Flash drive. Reconnect the power and hopefully, the Raspberry Pi will restart from the USB Flash drive.

Conclusion

Booting from a quality USB Flash drive provides many benefits. They tend to be a lot quicker and more reliable than MicroSD cards. Let me know your thoughts and let me know if you got this working with your USB Flash devices. I will build a list of devices this works on over time.

Ste

Web Developer living in Manchester, working for Studio Skylab (http://www.studioskylab.com). Views and thoughts are my own.

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3 Responses

  1. Rick Commo says:

    Steve, how badly does running the OS from a USB drive impact the overall USB bandwidth? Maybe said a little more quickly, how dies it impact networking and the like?

  2. Rick Commo says:

    “Maybe said a little more clearly, how does it impact…”

  1. 23rd June 2017

    […] by Ste · 20th May 2013 Important information This tutorial is out-dated and has been updated here: Install Raspbian from USB Flash drive […]

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