30 12 | 2012

A desktop file managers failure: writing an USB stick image

Written by Tanguy

Classified in : Homepage, Debian, Command line, Grumble

Installing an operating system

When you want to install a new operating system, the first thing to do is to get an installer medium, which usually involves two steps: downloading an image, and writing it to a medium. There are two major types of media usable for that purpose: optical discs and USB sticks. There used to be a third one, floppy disks, but it is no longer used, and it was conceptually very similar to USB sticks.


If you are a power-user, you probably use USB stick, to be able to reuse them and because they are easier to carry. For you, writing an optical disc or an USB drive is almost the same:

$ wodim image.iso
$ dd if=image.img of=/dev/sdc

Regular user

But what would you suggest to a normal user? USB stick? You should not: while it is technically much easier to write an USB stick (just copy blocks from the image to the peripheral file, without any need to use any specific function), desktop file manager make it much harder. Indeed, for a desktop user, burning an ISO image to an optical disk is quite simple: right-click on the image file and choose the “burn” option. But writing an image to an USB stick? There is no similar option, so that will involve calling a power-user friend, which will tell you to open a terminal and type “dd if=…”.

Nautilus file manager context menu, with a “burn” option

Nautilus's context menu: write to optical disc…


Continue using USB sticks as installation media, but tell regular users to use optical discs until desktop file managers adapt.
Regular users
Use optical discs. If your computer does not have an optical reader, either invite a power user friend, or buy an USB optical reader.
Desktop developers
Please, fix that! Writing an image to an USB stick should not be harder than burning it to an optical disc! People are using more and more computers without an optical reader, and that situation is certainly not new, as it is only similar to that of the time when we were using floppy disks.


monday 31 december 2012 à 01:07 mirabilos said : #1

In fact, the time since I’ve last used CD-R (or other optical discs) is about twice the time since I’ve last used a floppy disc.

I guess USB sticks just took over. Not bad, especially as their childhood illnesses are by now mostly overcome.

monday 31 december 2012 à 03:51 Hashem said : #2

I filed a bug for you. Nice suggestion! :)

monday 31 december 2012 à 07:36 tomás zerolo said : #3

This is exacerbated by the fact that the GUIs typically mount the device. Just doing "dd" from a shell while the stick is mounted is... somewhat dangerous.

Thanks to Hashem: you did the right thing.

monday 31 december 2012 à 09:18 Tanguy said : #4

@Hashem : Thank you. This is of course the right thing to do, but I wanted to make the problem somewhat public before reporting them. And it affects more desktops than just GNOME.

@tomás zerolo : Yes, now such a function in a file manager should unmount the device before writing to it of course, and give appropriate warnings, just as the function to burn to a rewritable optical disk does I guess.

monday 31 december 2012 à 10:17 Tshirtman said : #5

There are a number of third-party gui tools to do this, i know ubuntu ship a simple one by default (usb-creator-gtk), i've used another one called multisystem (done by an user of the french ubuntu forums), and i'm pretty sure there are other out there, it may not be in the contextual menu of isos (and that could be fixed), but that doesn't mean it's impossible to use for gui users.

monday 31 december 2012 à 10:19 Tanguy said : #6

@Tshirtman : Sure there are external tools to do that, but having to install a specific tool for that is just as bad a having to install a specific tool to burn an ISO image to a CD with Windows: the problem of the standard file manager can be worked around, but it still sucks.

tuesday 01 january 2013 à 03:56 lachlan said : #7

This really makes perfect sense!
I never thought of this, i always pointed people to lili or unetbootin if dd was too difficult.

tuesday 08 january 2013 à 18:49 Alan said : #8

Upstream gnome-disks (see Fedora) appears to support saving and restoring disk images.

(It also drops LVM/RAID operations, which makes some sense, drops benchmarking... and hides a bunch of stuff inside menus etc... which was a bit of a surprise, but let's not start that thread).

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