Can Manjaro really be installed on an external hard drive?


I’ve been using Manjaro for about two years now and love it. My computer has never been so useful before–no more crashes and can do much more than in the past.

I’ve been trying to get some family members to give it a try but they’re afraid of moving from their current OS, although quite frustrated with it; and the cost of purchasing another internal drive to match their current (for a dual-boot system) is a bit too expensive for current finances; and they don’t want to partition their current drive.

I was reading over these two articles that claim a persistent version of Manjaro can be be installed on a USB flash drive. I’m writing to ask if it is truly possible to install Manjaro on an external hard drive (for example, one of these 1-2 TB versions rather than a less-durable flash drive) such that it would work the same as a normal install on the internal hard drive.

If it is possible, I assume that the performance would depend upon the USB port speed. I think I read somewhere fairly recently that a 3.0 is about the same as an internal SSD.

If possible, would that external hard drive be truly portable to another machine that has slightly different hardware? I don’t mean 32-bit versus 64-bit architecture, but differences in installed RAM, graphics card, and the like.

Thank you for considering my question and for any guidance you may be able to provide.

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Most definitely. An external drive is just another type of drive connected to your computer, it can do anything all the others can.

You haven’t specified what the OS is, so I’ll list both possibilities:

  • If it is Windows, they will have to update the boot order in their UEFI every time they want to switch OS. (Though, Manjaro may not be the best way to start a Windows user on Linux.)
  • If it is Linux, you can add a new GRUB entry to point to the external drive. GRUB will also be installed on the external drive, so you should be able to just steal the boot entry from there.

It depends on the port speed of the weakest port in the chain, or the drive itself, whichever is lowest. But yes, USB-C/3.0 can reach blazingly fast speeds rivaling or even exceeding (if you have a good port) the best SSDs.

For example, say you have a brand new external SSD with a USB-B port, and you connect it to to your computer through a USB-C port (USB-B to USB-C adapter). The speed would be bottlenecked by the USB-B port. And, even if you connect an HDD or thumb drive via only USB-C, you will be bottlenecked by the drive itself instead of the port. (Also note that advertised drive speeds are total BS, benchmark it yourself!)

On modern day Linux most of these things should work no problem as long as you keep to the same architecture (both bit count and type). The GPU drivers may be a bit of an issue depending on how different they are, but as long as you don’t need anything heavy duty you can always default to software rendering in a pinch. However, it is impossible to say anything specific whatsoever without more details on the computers. (Preferrably with inxi, but if they are on Windows that may be tricky.)

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Thank you very much for taking the time to write such a complete answer from the limited details I provided. I greatly appreciate it.

My family members are currently using Windows 11. One is a small form factor desktop (16GB RAM, 8 cores, Intel 9700 (?), NVIDIA graphics card) and the other some type of Z-book laptop work station that is about the same as the desktop but a bit newer than 9700; I think maybe 11850H or something like that.

I was just curious about the potential of portability between machines. In these cases, they would just get set up for their specific machines and stick with it; they’ve no need to be able to boot the hard drive on a different machine.

May I please ask a follow-up question? Apart from the information you mentioned about the ports and SSD versus HDD, are there any other items regarding the physical external drive that would make one superior to another in terms of being used as the bootable OS?

Thank you.

These all sound relatively recent, and all either integrated or NVIDIA GPUs, so you should probably be fine? I’m really not an expert on drivers. I would find an excuse to sneakily test it out yourself and get things set up before pitching it to your family.

However, if each family member only uses one device, just give them each their own partition on the drive. Then the setup will be unique to that computer, and everything should work great.

Can you clarify what you mean by this?

Get an SSD, get one that is well reviewed, and that has the capacity to fit your needs. There isn’t much more to it than that.

For an external drive specifically, consider how you are connecting it to the computer: some of the mentioned devices are laptops, you will need a physical location to put the drive that is convenient, and where the cable management works well.

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Thank you. I hadn’t thought about them sharing the same external drive; but that might work for them.

To clarify the statement you asked about, I meant I was curious whether or not one could plug the portable drive into any machine having the same architecture and run Manjaro. For example, could I build a drive including some desired software and a custom program made for Linux OS only, mail it to a relative running Windows, and they could boot it up and run everything without issue? Or, must the drive be built using the same machine (or machines if sharing a drive) that will run it, such that it may or may not work on a differnent one?

From your last response, it appears that the answer is it is specific to the machine; and, unless the other machine is very similar, there may be issues. Perhaps, “fixable” issues but Manjaro isn’t going to hold every potentially needed driver and use the correct one for any machine that may attempt to boot from the external drive.

But that was only a separate interest and not specific to getting these two machines to run Linux.

Thanks for the information. I’ll give it a try.

It varies. That’s really all I can say. Systems are made to run on one computer, and they are installed with that computer in mind. The more complicated the system, and the things you run on it, the more specific to that computer they are. Many things will work without a single issue, and some things will not work at all. I can’t tell you which is which.

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