What is a LIVE CD / LIVE DVD / USB / etc.?

Screenshot of Ubuntu 10.04 (Lucid Lynx) after ...
Screenshot of Ubuntu 10.04 (Lucid Lynx) after booting from the live CD (subpixel font rendering turned off). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When your computer goes down, it's bad.  How bad?  Imagine, you need a battery for your car, but you can't get to the store to buy a replacement because your car is broken!  What you need is a friend to help you get back up and running.

Most friends are probably about as tech-savvy as you yourself and they have lives and families of their own, so getting ahold of them in a tech emergency can be difficult.  Meanwhile, big-box computer repair companies like Best Buy and Staples may have long wait times and in the case of both mentioned, repair prices for even the most basic of problems starting well over the hundred-dollar mark.

Fortunately, there is an alternative for basic tech repairs, a secret that all computer repair technicians use on a daily basis and that none of them like to admit to: a "LIVE CD."

What is a "LIVE CD/disc"?

A so-called "LIVE CD/disc" is really an entire computer on a CD, DVD, or USB thumb-drive.  This is the Special-Ops version of your everyday desktop; it's designed to get in, perform a specific task (like assassinating rogue software) using minimal resources and without killing civilians (your vacation pics), and get back out before you'd even know it was there.  The LIVE CD software is customized to run from a tiny storage space (like a CD or USB stick) on a broken computer and contains automated repair tools to perform all sorts of fixes on your computer.  LIVE CDs/discs can even help you gain access to lost files and backup hard drives destroyed by viruses, even if you cannot save the computer.

Who makes LIVE CDs/discs?

Everyone.  Everyone from small computer repair shops to students at MIT to big name antivirus companies like Norton, F-Secure, Kaspersky, AVG, and so on craft LIVE CDs according to the needs of their organisation.  If you have a commercial antivirus program installation disc, chances are it acts as a LIVE CD when you attempt to boot from the disc itself instead of the hard drive.  To attempt this, power up the offending computer and immediately open the disc drive to place the antivirus disc.  Next, reboot (since you're probably almost into Windows or MacOS at this point) and you should either see the antivirus LIVE CD boot (load rescue software), or see an option to do so manually.

How Much Do Live CDs/discs Cost and Where Can I Get One?

Live CDs are available as mentioned before from many antivirus manufacturers.  They and many other companies will sell you Live CDs with their antivirus software at a cost of about $39 for 6 months of service.  This may seem like a good deal, but a Live CD is not guaranteed to fix your computer, may require a high computer skill level to use, and can quickly become outdated.  Not to mention, it is possible to get these discs legally and for free from the manufacturer's website (of course it's best to do this while your computer is working so you have it in case of an emergency).

Some recommended Free LIVE CDs include:

Other LIVE CDs

There are many other LIVE discs not mentioned in this article.  Frankly, it's enough to have to find 3 that are free and work consistently, though we'll probably talk about some others in future articles.  For example, Best Buy's Geek Squad uses a proprietary LIVE disc in the form of the “MRI DVD” to fix everything automatically (what, you thought they knew how to repair computers themselves?).  There's also the UBCD (Universal Boot CD) project which does just that.  Linux developers such as Ubuntu have been making free downloadable LIVE discs for years now to try to convert PC and Mac users to the Linux experience (something Google is now doing with Android as well).  These are just a few of the LIVE CDs that may be discussed here in the future.

Does Lotito Technical Services Use LIVE Cds?

Constantly.  They help us to automate basic tasks so that we can work on multiple projects and not have to charge you for the 4 hours it can take to run a virus scan on an old PC or the 6 hours it can take to run a hardware scan.  It’s also worth knowing that at Lotito Technical Services, we keep our LIVE CDs up to date with the latest antivirus definitions, build many of our own tools, and know what to do when an automated fix doesn’t do the trick.

Related articles