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 8Windows 7Windows XP
RufusYesYesYes *
Microsoft USB ToolYesYesNo
* 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
  • Windows 8.1 (MSDN; multi-version): CDADC5A76634651770A365F457702803

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 #
create partition primary
select partition 1
format fs=ntfs quick

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.