How to Install Windows 8 from a USB Key

David Murphy

Forget the CD and install Windows 8 with your flash drive

A guide? To install Windows? Slapping a new operating system on your desktop or laptop PC should be old hat by now, right? This is Windows 8 , after all: Odds are pretty good that you, an astute and well-travelled Maximum PC reader, have been around the ol’ Windows installation block a few times before.

And unlike previous versions of the operating system , Windows 8 doesn’t even need that much babysitting. Once you’ve set the installer application running, it’s off to the races: You can sit back, enjoy a nice beverage or a fun sitcom, and let Microsoft’s fantastically efficient OS installation routine do all the work. By the time your Windows 8 OS needs your input, you’re practically finished – but a few short steps, if not minutes, away from the tiled joy that is Windows 8 proper.

So, er, what does that leave us to talk about?

Plenty. Ditch your discs; we’re going to show you how to install Windows 8 from a USB key.

Installing Windows 8 from a USB key

If you shun DVDs, love speedier installations, have a digital download of Windows 8, or just plain don’t have an optical drive – or are too lazy to hook one up – then it’s going to be a USB-based installation for you. And that’s just fine; it’s a great, quick way to get an operating system onto your hard drive and extremely useful if you, say, keep your Windows installation disc tucked away as an .iso on your network drive instead of thrown in one of your desk drawers.

The easiest way to accomplish this process is to already have your hands on a copy of Windows 8’s downloadable .iso file – acquirable by purchasing it from Microsoft itself . If you have a flash drive of the appropriate size (at least four gigabytes or greater, depending on whatever file Microsoft lets you grab), you’re golden. Insert your flash drive into a USB slot on your system, and then go grab Microsoft’s Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool – don’t let the name dissuade you.

Install the app and run it. It’ll ask you to select an .iso file to be “burnt” onto your USB key. Go ahead and select your Windows 8 .iso file – the fact that it’s not the right operating system as the tool’s name has absolutely no bearing on what you’re doing.

Yes, we know, it says "Windows 7" download tool, but you can just ignore that part.

On the next screen, you’ll be asked whether you’d like to create a “Windows 7 backup” – again, ignore the name – on a USB device or DVD. Pick the obvious answer, select your USB key from the drop-down menu.

Select your USB device

When you're ready to let 'er rip, click on " Begin copying !"  If the tool needs to format your USB key first, it'll let you know.

Couldn’t be easier, right?

Sometimes, however, the Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool mucks up – it might tell you that the .iso file you’re looking to “burn” isn’t actually a recognizable .iso file. You know it is; the Windows tool disagrees. Problem.

While some have been able to get around this issue by changing the actual filesystem of the .iso file itself – to UDF, for example – you’re going to need a tool like PowerISO to do so. And that’s not freeware. The last thing you should have to do is pay for the right to get a working, bootable Windows 8 installation on your flash drive.

Our solution? Do what the Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool is doing… by yourself.

Manually Installing Windows 8 from a USB key

Start by using a freeware app like Virtual CloneDrive to mount your downloaded Windows 8 installation .iso to a virtual drive within your current Windows OS. You can also use the technique we’re about to describe to create a USB-based Windows 8 installation flash drive from a Windows 8 DVD – just pop it in your actual optical drive.

Insert your USB key. Fire up a Command Prompt as an Administrator. Within the Command Prompt , load Windows’ built-in Disk Partition utility by typing in “ diskpart ” and hitting Enter .

Within the Disk Partition utility, you’ll want to start out by typing in “ list disk ” and hitting Enter . From there, note the drive number that corresponds to your flash drive – you’ll be able to tell, as the capacity of the listed drive should match the capacity of your USB key. It’s that easy.

Next, type in “ select disk # ,” where the pound sign is the drive number of your USB key that you just took note of. Hit Enter ; DiskPart will select the aforementioned drive. Now, type in “ clean ” and hit Enter to remove any existing partitions that might already be on your flash drive. Once the cleaning process is done, type in “ create partition primary ” and hit Enter to do just that. Type in “ select partition 1 ” and hit Enter to select your new partition, type in “ active ” and hit Enter , and then then type in “ format FS=NTFS quick ” to quickly reformat your partition with the NTFS filesystem. Type “ assign ” and hit Enter , and you’ll have finished making your USB key bootable!

Now, it’s time to copy your Windows 8 installation files from their drive – virtual or real – to your USB key. Close diskpart by typing in “ exit ” and hitting Enter . From the Command Prompt , type this in (minus the quotes and the final period): “ xcopy x:\*.* y:\ /e /f /h .” In our example, however, the “x:\” designation should actually represent the drive letter of your mounted Windows 8 installation .iso file or physical DVD. The “y:\” should be the actual drive letter of your USB key. Once you’ve made those subtle alterations, hit Enter and let ‘er rip — all of the Windows 8 files will start transferring over to your USB key.

Installing Windows 8 — Upgrade or Clean?

Once you’re ready to install Windows 8 from your USB key, you’ll want to restart your computer and either boot into your motherboard’s BIOS or hit the associated hotkey that allows you to access the “Boot Menu” during POST. Regardless of which way you go about it, you’ll want to make sure that your system is set to first boot off of your USB key instead of your existing hard drive. To note: If you’re ever thinking of installing Windows 8 from its DVD, you’ll also go about this process to select your optical drive as the primary boot device.

Be on the lookout if your motherboard requires you to actually hit a key – any key on your keyboard – to confirm that you want to boot to your USB drive. From there, the actual Windows 8 installation process should look a lot like that which you’re already used to, if you’ve previously had to install Windows 7 or Windows Vista.

And now’s as good a time as any to talk about upgrading versus starting from scratch, since you’re likely to be presented with both of these options at the very beginning of the Windows 8 installation process.

Simply put, upgrading will allow you to keep a large chunk of your existing Windows 7 settings, files, and applications — or for Windows XP or Windows Vista users, just your files. If you’re coming from Windows 7, you can even select whether you want the entire process previously described, or if you’d rather Windows 8 just keep your personal files intact during the upgrade (essentially, anything in your Windows 7 user folder).

The Windows 8 installation process will alert you to any compatibility issues between existing programs or drivers you might have installed within your current operating system and Windows 8 – like additional USB 3.0 drivers, for example, since Microsoft’s already baked these into Windows 8 proper. Once the Windows 8 installation finishes, you’ll be treated to a Start Screen that should be full of the programs you were used to seeing on (for example) good ol’ Windows 7. The drivers? Migrated. Most of your settings? Still set.

Still, resist the urge to do it .

By that, we mean – a clean install of an operating system is always the best way to go for a very specific reason. Right now, your computer is likely full of crap. Applications you once installed and left behind, an old driver version or two that you’ve forgotten about, and just general OS bloat that can hit a variety of points around your operating system (from your start menu to your registry). Consider the installation of a new operating system to be kind of like the equivalent of spring cleaning in the real world. It gives you, and your poor PC, a chance to start anew.

Just think of the space you’ll have saved on your hard drive! The speeds you’ll achieve with a clutter-free operating system! You might lose a little sanity with your driver installations and application reinstallations — which, really, isn’t all that bad of a process if you make use of a little tool called Ninite — but you’ll be able to experience Microsoft’s brand-new OS completely unblemished. At least, unblemished until you start filling it up with all kinds of apps.

Goodbye, pretty Start Screen. We hardly knew thee.

David Murphy has played around with Windows 8 more than he’s played with his cat, Colbert, over the last month or so. Poor guy.

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