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Creating Bootable Windows XP, 7 & 8 Flash Drive Installers
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by Robert Tanner and Rob Williams on December 4, 2013 in Software

As time passes, more and more PCs are being built without an optical drive. When it comes time to conduct a format and reinstall Windows, then, an issue arises: Where does that setup DVD go? The answer: On a flash drive – well, the data at least. If that sounds complicated, don’t fret: It’s not. We have four solutions, and each one is a breeze.

It’s hard to believe that at this point in time, Microsoft still doesn’t sell Windows install media in the form of flash media. Instead, it prefers to stick to old-school DVD media, despite the fact that many notebooks today are too small to even include an optical drive, and many DIYers are building PCs which forego one on purpose.

While Microsoft would do well to clue in here, the upside to contrast this downside is that creating your own flash-based Windows install media is an absolute breeze. That assumes, at least, that you have a copy of the OS via disc, or in the form of an ISO ripped (or downloaded) to your PC.

Rob's Windows 8 Start Screen

Creating OS install media used to be a chore, but today, one solution can pretty-well suit most people. However, there are times when a flash drive has some quirk that prevents it from working with a particular solution, so for that reason, this article takes a look at four different ones.

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Benefits of USB Install Media

Even if the target desktop or notebook has an optical drive, there are a couple of reasons to consider first creating a USB-based installer. Admittedly, the time and effort of creating the drive might make it best-suited for system builders, but for someone like me, who juggles test machines, USB is a no-brainer.

To start, USB media is more durable than disc-based media. Discs can be easily scratched, while well-built USB flash drives can generally handle a bit of abuse. Then, there’s the convenience. Ever walk around with a disc in your pocket? It looks a bit odd.

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For us, performance and reliability are the key reasons why we’ve opted to use USB-based installers in lieu of discs. Even if a DVD has been burned at the highest commercial speeds, it won’t be able to compete with flash memory which offers far improved IOPS performance (operations per second) – it’s the same reason why SSDs are much faster for booting an OS and loading applications than a mechanical hard drive; the seek times are minuscule in comparison.

While it’s beyond the scope of this article, those who truly want a fast install experience can slipstream USB 3.0 support into the install media, which on current chipsets and an SSD target can allow you to install Windows 7 or 8 in under 4 minutes flat.

USB Installer Tools & Successes

Over the course of this article, we’re going to be looking at four different solutions that accomplish the exact same thing: Creating a USB-based Windows installer; if one doesn’t work, the next one should (at least, that’s the hope). To give an overview of what to expect from each solution, refer to this success table:

  Windows 8 Windows 7 Windows XP
Rufus Yes Yes Yes *
UNetbootin Yes Yes No
diskpart Yes Yes No
Microsoft USB Tool Yes Yes No
* Required Rufus 1.2.0 or older, and worked with 32-bit OS only.

Given the fact that Windows XP has almost reached end-of-life status, we’re including a mention of it here because we’re sure someone down the road will be able to make use of this information. There are a couple of things to bear in mind where that OS is concerned, though.

For starters, modern UEFI-equipped machines are not designed to support such an aged OS, so chances are good that it will not even install. If the motherboard in question happens to support a legacy BIOS mode, then you should be fine; otherwise, it’s not happening. Also, we could not successfully create the USB installer with the latest version of Rufus (1.4.0), but rather had to backtrack to 1.2.0. We suspect that this is due to changes in the codebase to support UEFI. It’s something to bear in mind, especially as Rufus was the only solution of the four that worked for XP.

What about Windows Vista? Like Windows 7 and 8, Vista too can be installed from USB media with these same methods, but due to that fact that most have moved on from it in favor of 7 or 8, it’s not a big focus.

We mentioned Rufus above, and that’s the tool we’re going to lead in here with, as we consider it to be the simplest to use, and the most effective. We discussed the same tool in an article from summer 2012 called ‘Creating a Bootable DOS Flash Drive the Easy Way‘, as it allows for simple creation of bootable MS-DOS flash drives, as the title suggests.

After the look at Rufus, we’ll continue on to UNetbootin, Microsoft’s diskpart (a tool built into Windows), and then a quick mention of another official Microsoft tool, but one the company no longer promotes. But first…

Acquiring a Disc Image (ISO)

Three of the four solutions listed on this page require a Windows disc image (.iso) to be present. The exception is ‘diskpart’, as the disc’s files will need to be transferred over manually (it doesn’t matter if they come from a mounted ISO or a drive in an actual DVD-ROM).

ISOs are available from a number of sources, but most people will acquire them after purchasing the OS online through Microsoft, or through some other related Microsoft service. If you don’t have an ISO, or a disc for that matter, you’ll need to acquire one from a friend or elsewhere on the Web.

There are multiple editions of any given Windows version, but we’re going to list the exact ISOs we used along with their MD5 checksums in case they prove useful.

MD5 Checksums

  • Windows XP Pro (Service Pack 3): F424A52153E6E5ED4C0D44235CF545D5
  • Windows 7 Ultimate (Service Pack 1): 56A26636EC667799F5A7F42F142C772D
  • Windows 8 Pro: 0E8F2199FAE18FE510C23426E68F675A

For those who have a Windows setup DVD, a free tool like CDBurnerXP can be used to rip it into an .iso file. Other tools exist that accomplish the same thing, but this is the only one we can personally recommend. For mounting an ISO image, we’d recommend Virtual CloneDrive, as it’s free, and not the “free but a total nag” kind of free.

NOTE: Some anti-virus applications might interfere with the USB creation process due to the autorun properties involved, so if issues are experienced, we’d recommend temporarily disabling the anti-virus until the process is complete.

Using Rufus

Both Rufus and UNetbootin are simple tools for this task, and outside of Rufus’ Windows XP support, both work just the same. However, we prefer Rufus because we find it loads a lot quicker, and feels a bit faster, too.

First, choose the appropriate drive under the “Device” menu, and make sure that the file system is NTFS (not FAT32). The other options shouldn’t matter too much, although if you’re planning to install Windows 8 as an official EFI OS, you may wish to peruse the options under the “Partition scheme and target system type” menu.

Using Rufus to Create a Windows 7 and 8 Bootable Flash Drive

To load the Windows .iso file, the small CD icon to the absolute right of “Create a bootable disk using:” option can be clicked. After perusing the file manager for the ISO and accepting it, the “Start” button can be clicked to have the tool work its magic. NOTE: As the program will state, doing this will erase all data off of the flash drive – so backup first.

Using UNetbootin

UNetbootin is a well-known tool as it’s become a de facto choice for turning a bootable Linux live CD into a bootable Linux live flash drive – for that purpose, it still excels. Little do most people realize, it can handle Windows ISOs as well (but as the table at the top of this page shows, it doesn’t support creating a bootable Windows XP drive).

Using UNetbootin to Create a Windows 7 and 8 Bootable Flash Drive

Like with Rufus, the appropriate drive should be selected from the “Drive:” menu at the bottom, and then the “…” button to the right of the largest text field can be clicked to search for and accept the required ISO. At this point, the “OK” can be clicked, and the process will get underway.

Unlike Rufus, UNetbootin doesn’t erase the flash drive first, so data remains intact – however, if you’re repeatedly writing new ISOs to the drive using the tool, it’s recommended you format after each one, so as to not leave unused scrap files around the drive. NOTE: We’d still recommend backing up personal data before writing an ISO to it just in case.

Using Microsoft diskpart

For those who don’t have an ISO, but rather a DVD, diskpart is the solution for you. It does require some command-line usage, but as you’ll see, it’s not too complicated. NOTE: This method will delete the entire flash drive, so be sure to back up personal data first.

To make proper use of diskpart, you’ll need to open a command prompt with administrator rights (head to “Start”, type in ‘cmd’, right-click it, and choose ‘Open as Administrator’). Once the prompt is opened, type in ‘diskpart’ to load the tool, and then ‘list disk’ to figure out which # relates to your flash drive.

Using diskpart to Prepare a Flash Drive for Booting

External storage should appear at the end of the list, and in our case, it did (we’re using a 32GB flash drive, which appears here as 29GB). Once the appropriate drive is figured-out, it can be chosen using the ‘select disk #’ command. Once selected, it needs to be wiped clean, have a partition created, and then be formatted. The entire command process is summed-up in this block:

list disk
select disk #
clean
create partition primary
select partition 1
active
format fs=ntfs quick
assign
exit

For those who might want to see this in action, we provide this screenshot:

Using diskpart to Prepare a Flash Drive for Booting Windows 7 and 8 Installer

Note that “quick” can be removed off of the format command to run a full format, but that might take minutes to tens of minutes depending on the drive (as it’s more thorough).

Copying Windows 8 Install Files to Flash Drive

At this point, the Windows setup DVD can be inserted into the drive, or the ISO mounted, and its files copied over to the root folder of the flash drive. After the process is done, opening up the flash drive in the file manager should mirror the contents of the Windows DVD/ISO.

Using Microsoft Windows 7 USB/DVD Tool

After the Windows 7 launch, Microsoft released its own USB creator tool that supported its official ISOs. While the company no longer promotes the tool, it supports both 7 and 8 just fine, so some might prefer to use it over the other solutions.

Once downloaded and opened, an ISO must be chosen. After that, the “USB Device” option needs to be clicked (this same tool can also burn straight to a DVD).

Windows 7 USB DVD Tool  - Choosing Windows 7 or 8 ISO

At the last screen, the appropriate flash dive needs to be selected from the menu, and after hitting “Begin copying”, the entire process will be complete after just a couple of minutes.

Windows 7 USB DVD Tool  - Choosing USB Flash Drive

Truthfully, Microsoft’s tool here might be the easiest of them all to use, but because the company isn’t promoting it in any way, shape, or form (note that it’s called the Windows 7 USB/DVD tool, and not Windows 7 & 8 USB/DVD tool), we feel that it’s right to quicker recommend the other (often updated) solutions first.


  • RainMotorsports

    Nice article. I will have to give one of these a try again soon. I didn’t have a dvd drive in the spare computer I ziptied together. I attempted several times to do a USB disk for 7 and failed. Ended up putting the tower next to another and borrowing a drive cable. I still have yet to plug the drive back into the host machine…

    • http://techgage.com/ Rob Williams

      Haha, moving a PC next to another to share an ODD, huh? That sounds like quite the challenge.

      • RainMotorsports

        Surely was a pain in my lazy butt. The real pain was I did not have a spare cable so I had to very carefully detach the one in the machine and pull it out of the bundle.

        • Tim Baehr

          I wanted to install Office on my netbook, w/o an optical drive. I have a laptop with an optical drive, so I used WiFi to network the two computers and had the netbook “see” the optical drive on the laptop. Easy install, a tiny bit slow, and one of the programs didn’t install (I think I remember it was Access). But Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Publisher were fine. No cables, no USB. Don’t know if it would have worked for installing 7.

          • http://techgage.com/ Rob Williams

            I’ve done something similar, though I believe it involved watching a Blu-ray movie (streaming from one PC to the one I actually wanted to watch it on (which didn’t have a BD-ROM).

            If you have an ODD on -any- machine, it’s generally easier today to just use a tool like CDBurnerXP to rip the disc to ISO and then install directly from that. That requires two apps be installed, but it’s a very convenient solution.

  • Happeh

    You didn’t say antivirus programs will interfere with the process.

    Rufus refused to work and the antivirus popped up saying something. Luckily I read it before it disappeared so I could correct the problem. The antivirus program was preventing “autorun” files from being accessed.

    The antivirus settings have to be changed to allow “autorun”, or the antivirus program has to be turned off to get Rufus to work. And it might get stuck or go really slow too even if it is copying to a flash drive. If the process stops for 30 seconds or a minute, just wait and it should keep going.

    There. It finished. Now for testing to see if it really installs. ;)

    • http://techgage.com/ Rob Williams

      Thanks a ton for pointing that out; it’s not an issue we thought to note in the article (but I’ll add something in a minute). To be honest, I haven’t run a proper anti-virus in about a decade, but I have known others who’ve created these drives just fine with their anti-virus solutions, so I am led to believe that an AV interfering is going to be on a per-person basis. Either way, a note in the article sure isn’t going to hurt.

      Thanks again!

  • Alex Worku

    hii

  • foohydude5

    If you can’t install it, Check out USB Software Solutions. Our website is http://www.USBSoftwareSolutions.webs.com.

  • santosh
  • A. Movsesjan

    I really thank you for such a useful guide to install Windows XP through USB on my rather outdated netbook (which actually had it before I migrated to Ubuntu, 7 and even 8). I don’t even care about its EOL, it worked like a charm before and even now thanks to its LG drivers.

    Most of the guides I’ve come across around a year-and-a-half ago on Google were incredibly irrelevant for their time and usually got incoherent results whilst booting (or lack thereof), which made me lose hope to the point of either considering to buy a USB-CDROM (that I was skeptical about), or giving up this little “project”. Now if it wasn’t for this guide, I would never have come across Rufus to make that possible and put the nostalgia back to its proper place once again.

    I’d like to say thanks again!

    • http://techgage.com/ Rob Williams

      Frustrations like that are exactly what led me to write this article… I knew I wasn’t alone. Getting XP involved was definitely its own little challenge. I reached a point where I figured it just wasn’t possible, but then Rufus came along. It’s such a great tool… it’s my go-to.

      I’m glad we could help!

  • Sandy

    Hi Robert / Rob,

    I too tried making USB bootable using Rufus it created. But when I try to boot from it, failed to boot from it.

    I m using Win XP professional with sp3 and a 16GB flash drive.

    iso image file(of above).

    copied to as per instruction using Rufus. ….. But it failed.
    my pc is P4 1.7GHz 2GB RAM intel 845G controller

    Am I doing something wrong? please guide me.

    Thanks

    Sandy

    • http://techgage.com/ Rob Williams

      What failed, exactly? If Rufus itself caused an error, I’d try formatting the flash drive (backing up whatever data might be on it), and trying again. Alternatively, you can try it in a different PC.

      When booting up with the flash drive, you might need to access a boot menu, hitting F8, F12, or Escape during the boot sequence.

  • Shams Shaon

    I tried the RUFUS. My backup ISO is XP (Black) V6.0. I made ISO image file with Masic ISO. The ISO image file is 705 MB. But when I burn it into my USB device it turns out as about 7.2 GB. And it didn’t work too. I mean I couldn’t set up my PC with that USBdevice. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong? I don’t have the CD anymore to make the ISO image file again. What should I do?

    • http://techgage.com/ Rob Williams

      It could be that the ISO creator didn’t capture the boot-loader information, and I’m not sure how to fix that. It might be as easy as acquiring an RTM XP ISO, using Rufus to copy it to a freshly-formatted thumb drive, and then replacing all of its files with your copy (mount the ISO using something like Virtual CloneDrive, go into the virtual DVD-ROM and drop / drop all of the files from it over to your thumb drive).

      • Shams Shaon

        Thanks a lot pal.. I’ll try..♥

  • Nanda Linn Aung

    nice solutions.

  • xtender

    Hi! Thanks for the guide! Is there a way to have both windows 7 and windows 8 installations on the same USB stick?

    • http://techgage.com/ Rob Williams

      I’m sure there’s a way to do it, but unfortunately I’m not familiar with it. You’d have to get into creating a boot loader on the device, as well as partitioning it.