MakeUseOf reader Dado asked us, “How can I run multiple operating systems from a single USB?” He goes on to specify some different operating systems (OSs) that he would like to run and a few of them are Windows OSs. Dado adds that he would like to be able to boot into Windows on a USB and then install Windows from that same USB.
In theory, it could be done, but I’m not sure why a person would want to do that. First, you would be breaking some licensing agreements with Microsoft, unless you had some sort of site-licensing deal with them. Second, it would be a painfully slow installation process. Third, USB flash drives aren’t that expensive – why wouldn’t you have a few drives with the different Microsoft OSs on them? So, although I’m not going to answer Dado’s entire question, I will answer the part about having multiple OSs on one USB stick.
Where this becomes practical is if the different operating systems are Live CDs, that is, small operating systems designed specifically to provide maintenance to a computer from outside of the computer’s own operating system. This can be handy if the computer’s own operating system is corrupted through misuse, poor maintenance, or worse, malware.
There are a few nice programs that will help you create your multiboot USB stick. Today, we’ll take a brief look at three of them: XBoot, MultiBootUSB, and YUMI. Prior to using each of the different multiboot creation programs, I formatted my Kingston DataTraveler 101 16GB USB 2.0 flash drive, to ensure there would be no issues from the flash drive itself.
MultiBootUSB is available on SourceForge and appears to be a pretty popular program for just this kind of task. The MultiBootUSB software is also a portable application, meaning you simply put the MultiBootUSB-6.4.1.exe file onto your USB drive and run it all from the USB drive. No need to mess around installing it on your computer. This gives you a great deal of flexibility, should you want to change things up but you aren’t at your home or office computer.
While using it on my USB drive in a Windows 7 computer, I did get error messages every time I went to use it. It would tell me that MultiBootUSB was not installed on the F: drive. I checked my USB stick and it was labelled as the F: drive and, of course, the program IS on the USB stick.
It is limited to allowing installations of Linux-based Live distributions, however, most of the best Live CDs are Linux-based anyway. I decided to push on and just try adding the Kaspersky Rescue CD 10 ISO. The total size of the Kaspersky Rescue CD is 299 MB, so there is plenty of room for it on my 16 GB drive.
The total time to install it was about 25 minutes. It may feel like forever, but it is a process that you only have to do once.
The second ISO I added was the Ultimate Boot CD 5.11 ISO. At 359 MB, it took about 30 minutes to install. But if you have StumbleUpon or Facebook, the time flies by. Now, I have two different bootable operating systems on one USB flash drive.
At this point, you’re supposed to be able to click on the QEMU tab and test the installations without having to reboot the system. QEMU is a machine emulator and virtualizer, meaning it’s an operating system that will run in the Windows environment, but completely independent of Windows. I couldn’t seem to get this feature working with MultiBootUSB, even though I could use QEMU to boot the ISOs of the Live CDs I was using.
In the end, this wasn’t too important since I was able to boot my computer from the USB stick into both Kaspersky and Ultimate Boot CD. So, overall, the mission was accomplished.
One thing that I immediately noticed is that XBoot has a lot more documentation than MultiBootUSB, which is to say that it has some documentation. Both programs don’t really need a lot of instruction to use, but it’s nice to have in case something happens.
Installation of XBoot is really easy; double-click the executable file and it opens in seconds. From there it’s quite simple to add your ISOs – just drag and drop them into the main box.
From there, just click on the Create USB button. The program will prompt you to select the USB drive that you wish to install the ISOs on, and to select the kind of bootloader that you want to use. If your USB stick is formatted to FAT32, XBoot recommends Syslinux. If the USB stick is formatted to NTFS, Grub4DOS is recommended. You could also select Do not install any Bootloader, but since we want the USB stick to be bootable, I don’t see why we’d choose that. Click OK and we’re on the way!
The speed with which XBoot added the ISO files was also blindingly fast – mere seconds per ISO – versus the hour it took me to load the same ISOs into MultiBootUSB. I couldn’t get a screenshot of it loading the ISO fast enough.
Yep, that’s all I could screen capture. Xboot also has the same QEMU features, where you can boot a Live CD ISO or boot the USB that you just made. Once again, I couldn’t boot the USB in QEMU, but I could boot the Live ISOs. I’m thinking my computer is the issue here, so I’m not going to include this feature in my final analysis.
However, the USB stick did work, and I was able to boot my computer into both Kaspersky and the Ultimate Boot CD. So once again, mission accomplished, and much faster!
There seemed to be a lot of recommendations for YUMI around the web, so I added it to the crop to be tested. When I went to the hosting website, PenDriveLinux.com, YUMI and I got off to a bad start. Anytime I go to download software and the download page is full of advertisements, I feel like this is a shifty proposition. Throwing caution aside, I downloaded and installed YUMI. I didn’t feel much better as I did this. Check out the License Agreement.
All of a sudden I felt dirty. I continued though.
Once you get to the part where you are adding distributions to your USB stick, YUMI lays out exactly which ones are known to work, as well as where to download the distributions from. I thought this was pretty professional. You wouldn’t be wasting time trying to make something work that simply would never work! There are dozens of Linux distributions and other Linux-based Live CDs listed. At least one of them is likely to meet your needs.
I started with loading the Kaspersky Live CD. It took a bit less time than MultiBootUSB to load, about 20 minutes, but still a far more significant amount of time than XBoot.
Fortunately, Ultimate Boot CD 5.11 was on the list. So I added that as well. For whatever reason, adding the UBCD ISO only took a minute or two.
YUMI doesn’t have the additional QEMU tools like MultiBootUSB or XBoot, but then again, those tools don’t seem terribly necessary. Using the YUMI-created bootable USB drive, I was able to boot into both images without any issues. So, yes, YUMI does work.
The Take Away
Any of the three tools will help you create a USB stick that you can boot one of several operating systems with. All things being equal, and most things were, I would recommend XBoot over MultiBootUSB and YUMI, just for the sheer speed with which I was able to create a multi-OS bootable thumb drive. This program will be staying on my computer, the other two need to go.
Have you had any experience with these multiboot USB creation tools? Have you used another one? Any idea why the QEMU feature won’t work on my Windows 7 Pro system? Let’s talk about this in the comments. Sharing the knowledge is how we all grow and we are all on the same team here.
Image Credit: USB Flash Drive with Data via Shutterstock.