Bootable USB Flash Drive

Category: Gadgets , Hard-Drives

When your hard drive won't boot, you need an emergency backup operating system on a bootable removable medium. CDs or DVDs fill that role most of the time. But optical media has its drawbacks. Here's how to make a reliable boot disk on a flash drive, to use when hard drive problems arise...

Bootable USB Flash Drive

How to Create a Bootable USB Flash Drive

CD and DVD disks are bulky and fragile. A disk may be safe and sound on a shelf or in a drawer at home or office. But if your laptop dies on the road, that bootable disk you've been carrying for months or years may have gotten scratched. It may not boot when you need it desperately. Or it may be at home in the drawer. A USB flash drive, on the other hand, is just about the perfect storage medium for an emergency bootable disk image.

USB drives take up very little space. They're rugged compared to optical disks; you can't scratch or bend them. USB flash drives are hard to lose if you take the simple precaution of hooking them to a keychain, laptop strap D-ring, or even the laptop case itself.

Don't worry about the electronic memory of a USB drive "fading" over time. USB drives have been in use for many years; in actual use, USB flash memory has proven it retains data for well over a decade.

Before relying on a bootable USB flash drive, check to be sure that your computer is able to boot from a device attached to a USB port. This is a function of the computer's BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) which loads upon power-up even before your operating system. Your computer's owner manual (or a little Googling) will document USB bootability and show you how to enable this BIOS function. Most computers built since the mid-2000s can boot from USB. (If yours is older, you might want to check out my article on How to Buy a Computer.)

Creating a bootable USB flash drive used to be a tricky, tedious procedure; you had to use the DOS command line and perform several complex operations flawlessly. But now there's free software to create a bootable USB flash drive with just a few mouse clicks!

WinToFlash will make a USB flash drive bootable; copy all the files necessary for a clean boot and installation of Windows from original CD or DVD; and even create a LiveCD image on your USB drive. It's all wizard-driven, so you can simply answer a few prompts with mouse clicks. WinToFlash works with Windows XP, 2003, Vista, 2008, and Windows 7. The hardware and RAM requirements are minimal. You'll need a USB flash drive of at least 8 GB capacity.

Note that you cannot make a bootable USB flash drive from an installed copy of Windows using WinToFlash. You need the installation disk(s) for your version of Windows. If you have only an ISO disk image of Windows installation disk(s) stored on your hard drive, you can make it a "virtual optical disk drive" that WinToFlash can read; just use the free software, Virtual CloneDrive.

If you do make a bootable USB drive, consider sharing that little secret only with your best friends. You don't want the whole neighborhood calling YOU at all hours of the night when their computers won't start. :-)

Do you have something to say about bootable USB drives? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Bootable USB Flash Drive"

Posted by:

22 Apr 2010

I was always looking for an easier way to create a bootable UFD then you delivered!
Thanks a lot sir.

Posted by:

11 May 2010

come on to buy a new computer?...really?.im happy with my early 2000s Dell lappy...still works fine for me..why not tell us a work around the bios for a boot-able thumb that would be some real information

EDITOR'S NOTE: Hmmm, I didn't say anything in this article about buying a new computer. As for your boot question, sounds like you'll need a new BIOS. Or... maybe a new computer! :-)

Posted by:

11 May 2010

Do you need to have a clean USB drive to make it bootable or is it possible to use something already having data (and it won't lost)?
Thank you.

Posted by:

11 May 2010

wondering what the capacity of your USB flash drive needs to be... Is 2GB large enough?

Posted by:

12 May 2010

This is nothing new in Ubuntu Linux but I'm surprised you can do this in Windows. I'm surprised Microsoft hasn't sued the developers of the applications that allow you to install or boot Windows from a thumbdrive. I think you only need 750 MB thumbdrive to create a live boot/install disc for ubuntu because the ubuntu iso file can be burnt to a CD as well. Try booting Windows from a 750 MB thumbdrive. Actually don't because it won't work!

Posted by:

14 Dec 2010

Hi! Got an ASUS-EEE netbook Windows XP with slowly corrupting programs - latest drop was Windows Media Player. Looking to reload operating system. Got the OEM-CD but netbook has no optical drive. How do I make a bootable flash drive on another computer? Thanks.

Posted by:

25 Apr 2011

I have heard about dual-boot thumbdrives or even custom created bootable thumb drives. The latter allow you to cram anything you want onto your rescue thumb drive, but you will have to create boot menu also. This is what i want to learn how to do, because i want to have customized bootable rescue thumb drive.

If you can cover this topic it would be great.

Posted by:

Mike Kling
24 Sep 2012

Can you make this bootable drive on a computer using a different OS from the one you are trying to create? In other words, can it be done on computer A running XP when the OEM disk and computer B are Vista?

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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Bootable USB Flash Drive (Posted: 21 Apr 2010)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved