In this article, we'll cover and compare some of the most popular Linux distributions to use for a live CD/DVD. Furthermore, you'll be given the information you need to make a decision about which one to use, as well as the links to the official Linux downloads pages for each Linux distribution.
Many Linux distributions offer an environment that you can boot your computer into without having to install anything to a hard drive. For some Linux distros, this is actually their main purpose. This is called a "live file system" and it allows you to boot into Linux like normal from a CD, DVD, or USB drive.
With a live file system, changes you make normally aren't saved after a reboot. When you boot to a live CD/DVD/USB, system files and everything else are stored temporarily in RAM, and RAM is always cleared when a system shuts down or reboots.
Live file systems can have a variety of purposes. For example, Ubuntu gives you an option during installation to try out the operating system first. You can use Ubuntu like normal to get a feel for it by using the live file system. Once you're done, you can exit and discard all changes or choose to proceed with installing to hard disk.
Other common uses for live file systems include troubleshooting, data recovery, and the like. If your PC is having problems, you can boot directly into a live CD and use troubleshooting utilities to diagnose the issue. Many Linux distros will come preloaded with various troubleshooting tools specifically for this purpose.
Have you ever seen a list of Linux distros that didn't contain Ubuntu? Neither have I. Ubuntu works well for many purposes, including as a Live CD. It's a user friendly and well rounded Linux distro that comes with all the common software packages you're likely to need - web browser, word processor, multimedia tools, etc.
Another positive for Ubuntu is that you have a lot of different choices for your desktop environment. GNOME is the default, but there are other flavors also available: Lubuntu with LXQT, Kubuntu with KDE, Xubuntu with Xfce, Ubuntu Budgie with Budgie, and Ubuntu MATE with MATE desktop environment. Choose which desktop you'd prefer to boot into and download the corresonding flavor.
Ubuntu's support for a big variety of hardware also means your computer is very likely to run it without a hitch. Graphic support, network drivers, and things of that sort are baked into Ubuntu. You can get the ISO images to create a Live CD from Ubuntu's download page.
Knoppix is a small Linux distribution based on Debian and it's one of the top choices for live Linux CD/DVDs. It's designed specifically as a bootable live system and one of its primary uses is to recover data from failing hard drives or inaccessible operating systems.
Knoppix is built around the size constraints of CDs and DVDs. As such, there are two versions you can download: either the smaller CD edition, or the larger DVD edition. Thanks to on the fly decompression, Knoppix is able to squeeze 2 GB of software into the CD version and a whopping 9+ GB onto the DVD "Maxi" edition.
Suffice it to say that Knoppix comes with all the main essentials and then some. It uses the LXDE desktop environment to help remain lightweight. Head over to Knoppix's download page to get the ISO images.
Debian gives you a lot of options for live images. There are 64 and 32 bit versions available and a nice variety of desktop environments, including GNOME, Cinnamon, KDE, LXDE, LXQT, MATE, and Xfce. You can't fit a live Debian image on a CD, so you'll have to use a DVD or USB drive.
Debian has been around for ages and has a solid reputation for its ease of use and its viability as a live image and a desktop or server OS. Download the live images on Debian's live install images page.
Fedora offers a lot of features for their live images. You can install software while using a Fedora live CD and you can even enable data persistence so the changes don't get erased. Fedora includes the latest and greatest Linux packages, and the live images are no exception.
You can choose from multiple desktop environments (Fedora calls then "Spins"), and Fedora supplies you with the "Fedora Media Writer" tool that can be used to create live CD or DVD images - depending on your size constraints. Check out Fedora's download page to choose between the desktop and server edition, or one of the alternative desktop environment selections.
Puppy Linux gets a special mention among live CD distributions. The entire operating system only weighs in at about 300 MB and its system requirements are incredibly small, making it one of the most ideal choices for live CD tasks. It's also user friendly or "grandpa-friendly certified" as Puppy claims on their site.
All of the everyday tools you'd need on a desktop PC are included in Puppy. Furthermore, there are a ton of versions to select from, so you're bound to find the perfect one for your needs. Choose from any of the official distributions on Puppy's home page or check out some of the community developed "puplets."
Peppermint specializes in being a very fast and lightweight distribution. It's based on Lubuntu and uses the very resource-friendly LXDE desktop environment to squeeze as much speed out of your system as possible. Another noteworthy feature of Peppermint is its tight integration with cloud apps, making it very suitable as a live operating system that doesn't write changes to disk.
The download links for the 64 and 32 bit versions of Peppermint are near the top of Peppermint's official website.
Kali is a Linux distribution built for security auditing and ethical hacking. It's packed with hundreds of penetration testing and similar tools. It makes our list of top live distros because its a live OS by its very nature. The developers even recommend against using it as an everyday operating system.
Kali has a very specific use case, which is to be a security professional's wet dream. Every hacker needs a USB stick with Kali Linux loaded on it and ready to go. Get the ISO file from Kali's download page.
Slax is a Debian-based Linux distribution branded as a "pocket operating system." It's exclusively used as a live file system and only comes with the most essential software packages you could need, which keeps the ISO files from exceeding 300 MB.
You can use the
apt package manger to install anything else you need. If you're using a USB drive to boot into Slax, you can make the changes persistent if you'd like, which writes the changes back to the USB drive. Obviously this isn't possible on a CD or DVD.
Navigate to Slax's website and you'll find the download links towards the bottom of the page. They offer both 64 and 32 bit.
Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu. Mint took an already user friendly distro and made it even simpler and more elegant. Mint developers also created the Cinnamon desktop environment, designed to restore some of the simplicity and tradtional interface that they felt GNOME was losing.
It remains a great choice as a live OS because of how straight forward it is. Mint presents a soft learning curve and great introduction into the Linux world, which is sometimes exactly what you need with a live environment. The 64 and 32 bit ISO images are available on Mint's download page, with options for Cinnamon, MATE, and Xfce desktop environments.