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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:
- An ISO file or CD-ROM of the installation files for Windows 8, 8.1, or 10. With this method, you do not need the Enterprise license except for Windows 10. You can download an ISO of Windows 10 from Microsoft.
- Rufus, one of many tools that lets you create bootable USB drives, or to be able to use command line (it’s not hard at all).
- GImageX, the tool that lets you put the Windows installation files onto the USB. You won’t need this if you are using a certified USB drive.
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, but occasionally it is unsuccessful. If you can use your command line, it won’t fail.
Follow these command line instructions.
- 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.
- 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
cleanto clean the disk.
create part prito create a partition.
select part 1to select the first partition.
activeto mark the partition as active.
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.
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.
Click Apply and settle in for what could be a long wait, especially if your drive isn’t very fast.
Mine estimated a five hour wait, and finished in a little over four and a half hours.
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, 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 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!