Sun. Dec 10th, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • The Ubuntu Mini ISO is not a stripped-back installation of Ubuntu, but rather a small download that allows users to select a version of Ubuntu to install.
  • The Mini ISO is still in beta as of October 2023 and has some technical issues, such as lock-ups after selecting a version to install.
  • The Mini ISO may be useful for some, but the average Ubuntu user can ignore it.

What does the Ubuntu Mini ISO give you? If you’re expecting a minimalist stripped-back installation, or think it’ll reduce download times, prepare to be surprised. We set out to investigate why it exists.

Middle Aged Spread

The size of the Ubuntu ISO images has been growing steadily, year-on-year. As more applications are added to it, or deprecated, smaller packages are replaced with newer, larger, packages the ISO inevitably increases in size.

Some of this will be due to using Snaps for some of the pre-installed applications. Snaps pay for their immunity from dependency hell though an increase in size. Each Snap package contains its own sandboxed environment and bundles copies of dependencies such as library files. This leads to file duplication.

The Ubuntu installation program has always had an option to install a minimalist version of Ubuntu, with just a few essential applications. It was mooted, but never implemented, for that to be the only option in the installation program for Ubuntu 23.10, the Mantic Minotaur.

What happened instead was the two installation options were flipped, with the pre-selected minimal installation option taking the top spot. If you want the “everything including the kitchen sink” version, you must make a conscious decision to select it during installation.

And even if the minimalist option gives you a minimalist Ubuntu, to get your hands on it, you’ve still got to download the same, large, ISO image. All 5.2GB of it, at the last count.

That’s why the Ubuntu Mini ISO looked promising.

Related: What’s New in Ubuntu 23.10 “Mantic Minotaur”

Downloading the Ubuntu Mini ISO

At the time of writing, the (beta) Manic Minotaur Mini ISO is just 87MB.

The Mini ISO download page

Straightaway, that tells us this isn’t a stripped-back installation of Ubuntu. No matter how stripped back it is, they haven’t packed a working copy of Ubuntu into that space.

What they’ve created is a tiny download that lets you select a version of Ubuntu to install. Tools like Ventnoy already do this. With Ventoy you can pack a load of installation images onto a USB drive, boot from the drive, and choose which of the stored images you want to install.

That sounds like the Mini ISO, but the Mini ISO is different. Plainly, the installation images aren’t contained in the Mini ISO itself. When you boot from the Mini ISO you’re shown a menu that lets you select a version of Ubuntu to install. That version is then downloaded into RAM, and chain-booted.

You’re then using the exact same installation image as if you’d downloaded it manually from the Ubuntu website, and booted from it.

This is what it looks like.

Using the Ubuntu Mini ISO

I downloaded the file from the Ubuntu website, burned it to a USB drive, and booted from the USB drive. That’s when I hit the first problem. My test machine had 4GB of RAM, and that’s not enough for this method. If you have the entire Ubuntu Image residing in RAM, you’re going to need at least 8GB RAM to perform your install. With a regular Ubuntu ISO image, 4GB is enough to perform an installation.

I didn’t have more RAM on hand, so I repeated the exercise using a virtual machine. It booted into a GRUB menu with a single option.

The Mini ISO GRUB menu with a single option to choose a version of Ubuntu to install

Selecting that option kicks off some terminal fly-by, then you see the list of Ubuntu versions available to you.

The Mini ISO selection of Ubuntu versions

The Mini ISO is still in beta, and although it is called the Ubuntu Mini ISO 23.10 (Mantic Minotaur), it didn’t offer to install 23.10 for me. As time goes by, the listed versions of Ubuntu will change. After all, at the time of writing Mantic Minotaur has yet to launch.

The Mini ISO selection menu with Lunar Lobster highlighted

I selected Lunar Lobster, and pressed “Enter.” Eventually, the Ubuntu 23.04 installation media GRUB menu appeared.

The standard Lunar Lobster GRUB menu

We’re in familiar territory now. Selecting the “Try or Install Ubuntu” option launches the Live version of Ubuntu (albeit from the in-RAM ISO image), and you follow the usual configuration prompts to set your keyboard and so on.

Choosing the language in the Lunar Lobster welcome screens

You’re given the option to “Install Ubuntu” or “Try Ubuntu.”

The try or install Ubuntu screen in Lunar Lobster

Choosing “Install Ubuntu” kicks off the usual sequence of installation screens.

The normal (full) and Minimal (stripped back) installation options in Lunar Lobster

The first screen lets you choose from the regular Ubuntu with its usual large collection of applications, or the minimal installation that contains only a few essential applications.

It’s a long way round, but we’ve got our installation started.

Related: How to Burn an ISO File to a USB Drive in Linux

It’s Only a Beta, But Still

The Mini ISO is a still a beta build at the time of writing in October 2023. Although its labeled as the 23.10 Mantic Minotaur Mini ISO, I can’t see how this will be ready for release at the same time as Ubuntu 23.10. Then again, no one has announced that it is supposed to.

The Mini ISO failed to work more times than it actually worked. The most frequent issue was a lock-up directly after selecting a version of Ubuntu to install. These technical issues will be addressed, there’s no doubt about that. This is an official Ubuntu supported project, after all.

But putting the teething troubles to one side, I’m struggling to see a need for this. The one thing that it does, is let you carry around a very small USB drive that you can boot from to install one of a choice of Ubuntu versions. You don’t have to create a multi-boot drive or use something like Ventoy.

You can only use it if the target computer has an internet connection, and enough RAM. This isn’t going to be great at reviving old hardware.

There’s no time saving either. You’re downloading the entire regular ISO either way. And worse, if you’re going to install Ubuntu on several computers you have to wait for the ISO image to download to each of them in turn. It’s true that the downloaded images don’t need to be written to a USB drive, but you’ve not really gaining much because you’ve been through the writing phase by putting Mini ISO onto a USB drive.

I wondered whether the Mini ISO could be cobbled into some sort of network-based installer, but there’s no need for that. There’s already a tried and trusted network installer available.

The Ubuntu network installer download page

I couldn’t reconcile this as a portable rescue disk, either. Yes, you can boot into a live environment—eventually—but only if the machine you’re trying to recover has an internet connection and plenty of RAM.

Waiter, This Isn’t What I Ordered

When the Mini ISO was announced, there was a buzz around the various Linux chats and forums. But that’s because people assumed this was going to deliver a smaller ISO image that installed a naked, bloat-free Ubuntu.

There used to be an unofficial (and now discontinued) project that did just that. People wrongly assumed that idea had taken root within Canonical and it was being given official attention. But that’s not what the Mini ISO delivers.

There may be a use case out there for this tool, but it is unlikely to be one that the average domestic Ubuntu user faces.

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By John P.

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