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usb hard drives

Booting Any Version of Win-8 From a USB Hard Drive


The official way to get Windows booting and running from a USB connected hard drive is by way of something called Windows-to-go which is only available in and for the Enterprise edition of Windows-8. There is a way however to get any version of Win-8 bootable from a USB drive, and it can mostly be done by point and click in any version of Win-7 or 8, (for other OSes see Tech-Bench below). Windows-to-go can also of course make a bootable USB thumb drive, which we will be able to do after we have made our USB booting hard drive. info iconRunning Windows 8/8.1 from a USB/SD Flash Stick or Card.

What's needed.
You do have to possess a copy of Windows-8 (see box below) and be capable of installing a Windows operating system. The intended hard drive would ideally be wiped blank and then repartitioned and configured as we require, which we can do entirely from any version of Win-7 or 8 using the Disk Management utility. It will not matter how the target drive is connected for this, be that by SATA or USB, as it just needs to be seen by Windows. When we come to install the Win-8 operating system however we will need the drive connected by SATA, either internally inside a machine, or by way of an eSATA external case, dock or leads.

We don't have to build our drive on the machine we intend to use it on, as it will be capable of adapting to and booting up on most common and reasonably up-to-date hardware. Performance will be limited by the speed of the USB connection, so for anything more than just the testing of Windows-8 or for occasional and limited use, a USB 3 connection would be desirable. An SSD hard drive is unlikely to provide much benefit as it won't improve on the limit of the read/write speeds of the USB connection. The size of the drive can be anything that is normally supported by the software and hardware of the machine it is plugged into, but a small drive will suffice for just a functioning Win8 install. If we want to go on and make a USB/SD flash device then we will have to keep things small.

Our first screenshot here in fig:1 is of the Windows Disk Management utility that we have open and running from inside the Windows-7 operating system that our machine is currently booted into.

Disk Management screenshot
We have connected up our intended target drive and deleted all the partitions on it and made sure the drive has not been configured for the new GPT style of partitioning. There is no need for more extensive cleaning of the drive as any remaining MBR or bootmanagers will be over-written by the Windows 8.1 operating system we are about to install. We are next going to create a new partition and if you need instruction on how to create partitions with Windows Disk Management then please refer to this page of our guide on the subject.



Disk Management screenshot
We are only using a small 120gig drive and in our example here in fig:2 we have created the smallest partition we suggest you use. Our choice of only a 20gig partition is because in most cases it is all we will need, but also because if we go on to create a bootable flash drive this partition will comfortably fit on a device of only 32gig. If it is the 64bit Win8 you are going to be using, or you envisage installing software or Windows updates, then you can give it a little more space, but don't go above 28gigs if you want to later make a bootable USB/SD flash device.



Disk Management screenshot
Next we have to create the component that is going to make this whole thing work. In standard conditions Windows won't boot from a removable device, but when Windows-8 has been installed to a Virtual Hard Drive (VHD) it becomes capable of various feats, one of which is booting from USB. So we need to create a new virtual drive that will run from the partition we have just created on our target hard drive. Click on the Action tab on the top menu bar and select Create VHD and a new dialog box will pop open.



Disk Management dialog box
Here we have to choose the location for and the name and the size of the virtual hard drive we want to create. Click the Browse button to get the next window.



Disk Management settings box
In the left column select the drive that the partition we created is showing as. In our example that is Drive G: with the name New Volume, It will either be empty or just have a Volume Information folder listed in the right side box. We have to give our new VHD a name and we do that by typing it into the File Name: box. Keep it short and simple and make sure you are going to remember it for when you need it later. Then click Save.



Disk Management settings box
That will be the location and the name of the VHD taken care of and it will be entered for us in the first text box. Next is to set the size of the virtual drive and in our example we have chosen 16 GB, which is the recommended minimum size for a Win-8 install. Leave the last option on the recommended Fixed size and click Ok.



Disk Management screenshot
The new virtual hard drive will now be created, which may take several minutes. You will see a percentage progress bar bottom right. If you have decided on a physical partition larger than 20gigs, then you can of course make your virtual drive larger. Up to 24gigs for a 28gig partition.



Disk Management screenshot

Our new Virtual Hard Drive will immediately show in Disk Management as if it was a real drive. In our example it is listed as Disk 2 and it is identified as a virtual drive by the small blue colored drive icon. You can check everything went correctly to plan by looking on the target drive (G: in our example) in Windows Explorer for the presence of a single .vhd file with the name you gave it and a file size of 16gigs.



Disk Management screenshot
We need to initialize the new drive so right click in the details box and choose that option from the menu.



Disk Management settings box
Just make sure the correct drive and the MBR option are selected and then click the OK button. That completes the creation and configuring of our virtual hard drive.



Disk Management screenshot
One last very important setting we have yet to do is define the active partition on the physical hard drive where our virtual drive exists. In our example we only have the single G: partition and by right clicking on it the pop-up menu will give us the option we want. Click on it and we are all done and ready to install Windows.



Disk Management screenshot
A final check should show that the partition on the target drive is Primary, set as Active and formatted as NTFS. Whatever drive letter it currently has is immaterial because it will be seen as the C: drive during install and from inside the new Win8 OS. Our virtual hard drive should be Online and 16gigs in size. We are leaving it un-partitioned and unformatted for now simply because the Windows install will do that correctly for us.

If you have no plans to later use this project to make a Win8 bootable USB thumb drive then the partition on the target drive and also the virtual hard drive can be made much larger if you think you may want extra space in Windows. We suggest you keep at least a 4 gig difference between the size of the partition on the physical drive and the size of the VDH so that Windows on the virtual drive can locate its swap file on the physical drive, which it will have a mind to automatically configure if possible.

Any unallocated space left on the physical drive can be turned into a data partition, or if you are adventurous used to make the drive dual or multi-boot with additional operating systems, or you can later just simply expand the physical partition to fill all the available space.


Step 2:- Installing Windows-8

Apart from one small addition that we have to make during the install setup, the process of installing Windows is no different than normal. We need our hard drive connected through a standard SATA channel, then we boot the computer from the install media, either DVD or USB flash device, and point the install to the drive and partition we want it to use.

Ideally we want our drive to be the only one connected during the install so that we can be absolutely sure all of the Windows boot components go to the Active partition on that drive, only then will it be bootable from USB. If you plan to try this while there is another hard drive connected then be aware that simply changing the bios boot order to place our target drive first in the boot list may not over-ride how the Windows install environment will see the drives by their SATA channel numbers. If the target drive is not correctly seen as the boot drive then the Windows boot files could go to the wrong drive, which will not only result in our target drive not being independently bootable, but will see the other drive altered for dual boot by having its boot files reconfigured or replaced.


custom install window
So start your Win8 install and continue as normal until it stops at this option screen where you have to choose what type of installation you want. Don't select anything yet but instead type Shift+F10 to open a command box.


diskpart dos box
We apologize to people who hate the command line, but we could not find any other way to do this. We only need to type a couple of very short lines so if you can read and use a keyboard you will be fine.

Start by typing:-
and pressing Enter.

Wait a few seconds till a few more lines of text appear and the Diskpart utility is loaded.

Next we have to type a command to get our VHD file seen. Ours is called win81v but you will of course use the name you gave to yours.

select vdisk file=c:\win81v.vhd
and press Enter.

Then type:-
attach vdisk
press Enter

Wait just a few seconds till you see the success message, then type:-
and hit Enter,

The following fig:15 shows what the entire exchange should look like.

Once you have dropped out of diskpart you can then shutdown the command box by the usual top right close X button. You will then be back at the choice window (fig:13) of What type of installation do you want? Choose the bottom option Custom: Install Windows only to move on to the next step.


where to install windows
As this window appears you may just see the virtual drive pop into the list of options. You should be able to identify it for sure by the size you have given it, which in our example was 16gigs. Highlight it and click Next and the Windows install should continue and complete exactly as any other install. You may notice there is a message informing us that Windows can't be installed on this drive, it is wrong and can be ignored.

The 20gig partition called New Volume that we created as the first partition on our physical target hard drive should be first in the list and show as Partition 1: on Drive 0 and additionally be marked under Type as System. If any of this is not correct then you should back out of the install and try again. If you are attempting all this while there is another hard drive connected and it is that drive that is being seen as Drive 0, then it will be the System partition on that drive that will be designated as the C: drive, hence our progress will he halted at the command box when our command select vdisk file=c:\win81v.vhd fails because our target partition has been given a different drive letter.

Once you successfully have Windows up and running you can start using or tweaking it or you can take it off the SATA connection and immediately use it from USB on most PCs. Your build machine should be totally unchanged and unaffected and if you use a computers' built in Bios Boot Menu to select and boot USB drives then you can have dualboot without having to make any fundamental or permanent changes to a machine. You can have Linux on another USB hard drive or flash stick/card and so have multiboot capabilities. If you progress to configuring a single drive for multibooting then you can have various operating systems on one USB hard drive.



win8 logoGetting Windows 8.1
If you want a USB bootable drive to be permanent and legitimate then you will of course have to activate Windows, which means purchasing a valid product key. Or you can buy a physical DVD from a local or online store, or you can purchase and download an ISO file from the Microsoft Store from where you can make your own physical DVD or USB/SD install media.
info iconMake a DVD from an ISO image file. info iconMaking a USB/SD Flash Device from an ISO.
If you already have Win-8 and you want to try out 8.1 without doing the online update to your Win-8 install, then there is a work-around that will let you download the full 8.1 iso file, then you need this work-around to let you do a full clean install. You then have a short trial period of 8.1 before activating it and deleting your Win8 install.
Another option is to see if you can download a trial copy from Microsoft. The Enterprise Evaluation version is primarily aimed at IT staff but if you have almost any kind of Microsoft account including even a free HotMail or Live account then you should be able to register for and download the iso file with which you can install a copy of 8.1 Enterprise that will be completely functional for a full 3 months. info iconWindows 8.1 Enterprise Evaluation

image USB keysCloning to USB/SD flash device.
Once we have our hard drive all configured and bootable from a USB connection we can use it to make a bootable USB/SD flash device. All we have to do is clone the partition from the hard drive to our flash device and we will end up with something similar to Microsoft's own Windows-to-go where we can take our Windows operating system with us and boot to it on many different PCs. However unlike the Microsoft approved Windows-to-go that only works for the Enterprise Edition, this version will work for any edition of Windows-8 or 8.1. To be permanent and legitimate it will of course need to be activated. To have decent performance it will need to be USB3 or have good SD specs. info iconRunning Win-8 from a USB/SD flash device.



Spanner icon Tech Bench Stuff for the more experienced or adventurous.
If you don't have access to a Win7 or 8 machine, then the steps in this tutorial from fig:3 to fig:10 can easily be achieved from the command box during the Win-8 install. Create the Primary NTFS partition at the start of the target hard drive and make sure it is set as Active. With the target hard drive as the sole drive connected by SATA, start the Win-8 install and continue to the position shown in fig:14.
To create our virtual hard drive called win81v on the partition on our physical drive, start diskpart and enter:-
create vdisk file=c:\win81v.vhd maximum=16000 type=fixed
Then proceed exactly the same as detailed in the main guide above, enter:-
select vdisk file=c:\win81v.vhd
attach vdisk

Close the command box and proceed with the Windows install.
Having only the target hard drive connected with the partition set as active is what ensures it will be seen as the C: drive and that all the Windows bootfiles will go to it during install and be correctly configured for our needs, thereby removing any requirement for us to be messing with the BCD to get Windows booting.

Note that if you are creating partitions with a tool other than Disk Management in Windows Vista,7 or 8, then you need to be aware of what alignments are being set and whether the hard drive is Advanced Format or not.




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spacermultibooters.com: - December 2013

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