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Do you ever work on computers that aren’t your own? Ever find yourself frustrated at not being permitted to install your own programs, or having to adapt to different settings after you’ve already personalized a computer so it works just right for you?

What if I told you it didn’t have to be that way? What if I told you that you could carry around your own version of Windows in your pocket, ready to run on any computer you may encounter, with all the programs you typically use already installed and set up exactly the way you like?

Well, you can. Don’t worry, I won’t hold you in suspense. Here’s how you can set up your own Windows 2 Go USB Drive (or external drive, if you prefer) that will let you run Windows 8 or 8.1 anywhere you need to. It’s free, it’s portable, and it’s yours.

What Is Windows To Go

Windows To Go is a version of Windows 8.1 Enterprise designed to run on a portable device such as a USB flash drive or external drive. You can install applications, and work with files stored on the drive, but you’ll have to sync any apps you may have purchased from the Windows Store manually.

What You Need

You’ll need a USB Flash Drive with 16 GB or higher (32 GB would be ideal, so you can hold files on it), or an external drive. There are certified USB drives for this project, but you don’t need them with these instructions.

A certified USB drive will ensure your Windows To Go installation will work properly and boot up quickly. While a regular drive will work too, know that it may be slower — anywhere from taking a few extra moments to boot up, to 30 or 40 minutes extra to boot up. USB 3.0 will help, but your mileage may vary. You will also need:

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How to Set Up Windows To Go

First, plug your USB into your computer and make it bootable. That means it will be able to hold an operating system, and it will be able to launch it when you start up your computer.

You can make a USB bootable with Rufus or using the command line, which tends to be more reliable.

Command Line Instructions to Make a Bootable USB

Rufus can make a USB bootable How To Make a Bootable USB, CD or DVD to Install Windows Using an ISO File How To Make a Bootable USB, CD or DVD to Install Windows Using an ISO File Need installation media to reinstall Windows? In this article we'll show you where to get Windows 7, 8, 8.1, and 10 installation files and how to create a bootable USB, CD, or DVD from scratch. Read More , but occasionally it is unsuccessful. If you can use your command line, it won’t fail.

windows2go-rufus

Follow these command line instructions.

  1. Input diskpart
  2. Input list disk
  3. Identify the disk number that represents your USB. It will be the one with roughly the number of GB that your USB has. In my case, it’s the one that says it has 14 GB.
  4. Once you know which disk number, input the command select disk [x] without the square brackets, and with your disk number in place of the x.
  5. Input clean to clean the disk.
  6. Input create part pri to create a partition.
  7. Input select part 1 to select the first partition.
  8. Input active to mark the partition as active.
  9. Input exit

disk-partition

You can check that your USB drive became bootable with a drive partition manager Top Tools for Managing and Maintaining Your SSD Top Tools for Managing and Maintaining Your SSD Did your SSD start out Usain Bolt fast, but now limps along? You can whip your drive back into shape using a handful of toolkits and optimization software, but caveat emptor: Some SSD optimization software... Read More like AOMEI Partition Assistant — it should be flagged under Status as “Active”. You’ll need to format it to NTFS.

Now your USB drive is bootable and ready for your Windows To Go installation.

Imaging the Windows Installation files to your USB

To put Windows on the prepared drive, mount your Windows ISO files, so you can access the install.wim files.

To mount your Windows ISO files, open the context menu by right-clicking on the ISO file for the version of Windows you want installed on the USB. There should be a menu option that will let you Mount the drive.

Now that your Windows ISO files are mounted, open GImageX. This program provides you with a graphical user interface to complete this install, without a certified USB stick.

install-wim

Under the Apply section of GImageX, click the Browse button and navigate to the sources folder on your mounted ISO file and select the install.wim file.

windows2go-gimagex

Click Apply and settle in for what could be a long wait, especially if your drive isn’t very fast.

windows2go-GIMageX-applying-wim

Mine estimated a five hour wait, and finished in a little over four and a half hours.

windows2go-gimagex-complete

After it’s done installing, you’ll be able to use Windows To Go in a computer set up to let you boot from things other than the main operating system.

How to Boot from Your Windows To Go USB

One thing you need to know about this project is you can’t just plug the USB into your computer, turn it on, and expect it to run. First, make sure that the computer’s BIOS is set to boot from an external USB (flash) drive, before proceeding with booting from the system drive.

As Joel explains in this article all about the BIOS Discover Your BIOS & Learn How to Make the Most of It Discover Your BIOS & Learn How to Make the Most of It What the heck is the BIOS, anyway? Is it really that important to know? We think so and fortunately it's pretty easy. Let us introduce you. Read More , it’s the very first piece of software that runs on your computer. It stands for Basic Input/Output System, and if you take the time to set it up properly, you can host multiple operating systems on your computer, and change which one it boots into first.

If this is the first time you’ve tried to run an alternative operating system than the one that came with it, don’t fret. Chris explains a variety of BIOS issues including how to change the boot order The BIOS Explained: Boot Order, Video Memory, Saving, Resets & Optimum Defaults The BIOS Explained: Boot Order, Video Memory, Saving, Resets & Optimum Defaults Your computer’s BIOS (basic input/output system) is the low-level software that starts when you boot your computer. It performs a POST (power-on self test), initializes your computer’s hardware, and passes control over to the boot... Read More on your PC here at MakeUseOf.

After your BIOS is set up properly, you can plug your USB into a port on your computer. It can take a long time to boot, if you’re running it on a non-certified USB — upwards of 30 minutes for me (your mileage may vary significantly depending on the read-write speed of your USB, of course), but a certified one should boot in just a couple minutes, or faster. As it starts up, choose it from the BIOS and it should launch right into the version of Windows on your Windows To Go drive.

Now You Can Carry Windows in Your Pocket

There you have it: Windows, in your pocket. Of course, you’ll have to set it up with your favorite settings, but once you do that, they’ll stay.

What will you use Windows To Go for? What other portable apps will you side-load on any remaining space you have? Do you run any other operating systems on a non-traditional computer or external drive, and if so, what do you run and why? Let us know in the comments below!

  1. Terrance
    July 17, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    If you do not convert the flash drive you are using to be recognized as a fixed disk, you will not be able to update this Windows. Flipping the bit on say a Sandisk Cruzer extreme when last researched is not possible. The tedious process of flipping the bit on a fast usb 3.0 flash drive is to say the least very time consuming. In short, the best way to enjoy Window to Go in it's entirety is to get the fastest usb 3.0 or 3.1 flash drive you can flip the bit on. Make the flash drive a fixed disk and then you can update your Windows to Go.

  2. Cees Timmerman
    June 23, 2016 at 9:06 am

    Some older systems (pre 2007?) don't support partitiions (or even drives) greater than 32 GB due to FAT32 limitations, and there are free alternatives to Windows like Ubuntu.

  3. vandamme
    June 15, 2016 at 11:38 pm

    Sounds pointless to me. If I wanted to run safely on a strange PC or boot a system with a dead hard drive or borked OS, I'd use a Linux ISO, which is safer, smaller, easier to download, and includes a ton of apps. They almost all fit on a 2 GB flash drive or DVD; some fit on a CD.

    • Terrance
      July 17, 2016 at 7:03 pm

      I agree vandamme. I have Ubuntu 16.04 LTS installed to a 32GB Sandisk Cruzer extreme. Very fast, updateable, reliable, and obviously portable. As mentioned before, without flipping the bit on a flash drive intended for Winows to Go, you sacrifice the ability to get any updates.

  4. Chris
    June 13, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    Can you do this with windows 7?

  5. DMC
    June 4, 2016 at 1:10 am

    Anything like this for Office settings & options? I have customized most of my Office programs and hate using the on other than my own computer.

    • Clive Richards
      June 13, 2016 at 5:04 pm

      You very specifically mention Win 8 and 8.1 - is this not possible on windows 10?

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