Although they were once considered expensive luxuries to most users, USB thumb drives have become nearly as ubiquitous as the now defunct floppy disk. Thumb drives of all shapes and sizes are currently sold at corner drug stores, freely disseminated at trade shows, and even given out as digital business cards. Thumb drives are so commonplace now that it’s not unusual for PC users to have amassed huge collections of drives that, for the most part, do little else but sit around collecting dust. We speak from experience.
Though some of the drives you’ll have lying around are likely to be small in terms of their usable capacity, that doesn’t mean they’re useless. Even thumb drives with capacities of only a few megabytes can still come in handy for creating things like bootable DOS disks, which can be used to flash the BIOS on an older motherboard or graphics card, or even bootable disks with a full-blown HTPC operating system.
We’re going to cover a number of handy projects in this article that’ll help put those neglected thumb drives to good use. Before we continue, though, a word of caution: All of these projects will destroy the data stored on the drives. If there’s anything important on them, back it up before attempting any of the projects listed here. You’ll be happy you did—trust us on this one.
Speed up and minimize the hassle of installing Windows
Many of us have installed Windows more times than we can count. Whether it’s for building or testing a new system or repairing an older rig, installing Windows can be a regular occurrence. With more recent versions of Windows, the installation process has become more streamlined, but it can still be a chore, especially if you’re using optical media and have to manage multiple discs and product keys for all of the different versions that are available. Thankfully, there’s a faster and easier way to do it using a USB thumb drive.
There are a number of ways to create and customize a Windows installation disk. We’re going to outline one of the easiest methods here using Microsoft’s own Windows 7 USB/DVD download tool (the same process works with Windows 8, too) and a bit of simple file editing. When done, you’ll have yourself a customized Windows installation disk that can install any edition of Windows—like Home Premium and Ultimate or Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro—and it won’t require a product key during the installation process. There are much more involved methods for customizing a Windows installation disk, which can also give users the ability the incorporate applications and drivers and even pre-configure many settings, but for most enthusiasts, the method we’ll outline here should still come in quite handy.
Before you begin, you’ll need to have a USB thumb drive with a capacity of at least 4GB (larger is better if you want to store other files on the drive), ISO files for Windows 7 or 8 (a Google search will lead you to a legitimate source for the ISO you need, such as Digital River), a copy of Microsoft’s Windows 7 USB/DVD tool (download here: http://bit.ly/162L74X), and, of course, a PC running Windows to complete the process. Note that the Windows 7 USB/DVD tool requires the .NET Framework to be installed on your machine, so you may need to install that, as well.
Once you’ve got your ISO file(s) handy, connect the thumb drive to your system, note its drive letter, and then install and run the Windows 7 USB/DVD tool. On the initial screen, you’ll be prompted to browse for your Windows ISO file. Click the Browse button, navigate to wherever you saved the ISO, click the Open button, and then click Next. On the subsequent screen, you’ll be asked to choose your media type. The Windows 7 USB/DVD tool can create a bootable DVD or USB device. Since we’re focused on thumb drives here, click the USB Device button. On the next screen, choose your thumb drive from the drop-down menu and then click the Begin Copying button. The Windows 7 USB/DVD tool will format and prep the thumb drive and then copy over all the necessary installation files automatically.
Microsoft’s Windows 7 USB/DVD tool can prep a thumb drive and copy the installation files over in just a few simple steps.
When the Windows 7 USB/DVD tool is done doing its thing, close it, and you’re technically finished and ready to go. However, by default, the installer will only offer the option to install whichever version of Windows was designated by the ISO used to create the drive (Home Premium, Ultimate, etc.). Windows 7 and 8’s image-based installation method is capable of installing any edition of Windows (within the same family) with a bit of tweaking, though.
If you created a Windows 7 install drive, insert it into your PC and browse to the \sources\ directory. In that directory, delete the file named ei.cfg. With Windows 8 the process is a bit different. Create a simple text file named ei.cfg (or edit the one you have if it is already present) with the following contents:
Save the file and you’re done.
So, how much time can you save installing Windows from a USB thumb drive? When using a USB 2.0 flash drive, it took Windows 7 Ultimate x64 six minutes, 14 seconds to go from the “Windows is loading files” prompt to the “Completing installation” prompt on a Core i5 Dell laptop equipped with a 128GB SSD. Performing the same test with a USB 3.0 drive resulted in a time of only five minutes, 49 seconds. When timed using the Windows 7 installation DVD, however, the same process took 13 minutes, 51 seconds. That’s a big time savings, especially if you find yourself installing Windows often. Store all of your favorite applications and most commonly used drivers on the thumb drive as well, and you can have them all installed right away, too, without having to swap a single disc.
Click the next page to read about how you can take your apps on the go with you.
Portable apps let you use any PC without leaving a trace
By far, one of the handiest things to do with a USB thumb drive is to create a mobile workspace, loaded up with portable apps. If you’re unfamiliar with portable apps, they’re essentially self-contained versions of programs that work entirely from their installation directory and don’t leave any trace on the host PC. Once configured, you can take your thumb drive loaded up with portable apps anywhere, plug it in, and all of your favorite applications and data will be right there waiting for you.
Portable versions of popular applications are freely available from many developers’ websites. Technically, all that’s required to use a portable app is to download and install/run it right from a thumb drive. If you’d like to have a wide assortment of portable apps available, however, managing them all can get a bit unruly, since you can’t simply create a directory of shortcuts—the shortcuts break if the thumb drive’s drive letter changes. But that’s where the PortableApps Platform comes in.
The PortableApps Platform is an easy-to-use launcher for managing and running portable apps. To use it, download the tool from www.portableapps.com and install it to your thumb drive. While on the site, you can download a wide array of portable apps too. Install the portable apps to the thumb drive as well, and when you run the PortableApps Platform (by double-clicking the Start application on the root of the drive), all of your apps will be listed in a Start-Menu-like launcher.
Some of our favorite portable apps are Firefox, FileZilla, 7-Zip, OpenOffice, and GIMP. For the most part, if there’s a popular open-source desktop application available, there’s a portable version of it out there, too.
The PortableApps launcher gives you easy access to all of your portable apps from a single interface.
Use OpenELEC on a thumb drive for media duties
There’s a lot of debate among home theater PC enthusiasts. Some prefer their HTPCs to be Jacks-of-all-trades that run Windows and are as adept at playing movies as they are at running desktop applications. Others prefer their HTPCs to be simple boxes that are strictly for multimedia playback.
Well, why not have both?
The Open Embedded Linux Entertainment Center, or OpenELEC, is a tiny Linux distro that leverages XBMC (formerly known as the Xbox Media Center) and can be run right from a bootable thumb drive (or any external drive, for that matter). With OpenELEC, your HTPC’s internal drive can boot whatever OS you like, but should you choose to go the streamlined route, you can boot from the OpenELEC- equipped thumb drive and quickly access your media.
If you’d like to give OpenELEC a try, point your browser to www.openelec.tv and download the distribution that best matches your hardware. There are versions for AMD APUs, Intel processors, and Nvidia Ion-based platforms—among many others—with file sizes of only 80–125MB. Once you’ve got the distro downloaded, decompress it into a folder, and connect the thumb drive you’d like to use to your PC—it can be as small as a few hundred megabytes.
In the folder where you’ve decompressed OpenELEC, you’ll find a file named create_livestick. Double-click it, and follow the onscreen prompts to prep the thumb drive and install OpenELEC. The process requires only four clicks: two to start the installation and accept the license agreement, a third to select the thumb drive (which should be automatically identified), and a fourth to finalize the installation.
When the OpenELEC installation is done, connect the thumb drive to your HTPC and boot from it. On the initial splash screen you’ll be asked to either install it to the PC or run the live edition right from the flash drive. Run the live edition and configure XBMC to your liking and you’re good to go.
OpenELEC includes a utility to prepare a bootable thumb drive containing the OS.
Arm yourself with the tools to meet any PC emergency
Every PC tech, amateur, or pro needs a boot disk in their arsenal jam-packed with various apps and utilities for recovering files and passwords, scanning for malware or disk defects, taking disk images, and myriad other essential tasks. There are a handful of excellent options to choose from, but few offer as extensive a line-up of applications as Hiren’s Boot CD.
Hiren’s Boot CD, available at www.hirensbootcd.org, started its life as a less-than-savory tool rife with pirated software. But the developers have since gone legit and replaced all of the pirated apps with excellent freeware alternatives. The Hiren’s Boot CD ISO is meant to be burned to a disc so it’s write protected and insulated from malware, but it can also be written to a thumb drive using a couple of freely available utilities.
To create a bootable thumb drive with Hiren’s Boot CD files, you’ll need a drive with a capacity of at least 1GB, a copy of the Grub4DOS Installer (also available at HirensBootCD.org), the Hiren’s Boot CD ISO, and if you’re on Windows 7, a utility like WinRAR or 7-Zip to extract the necessary files from the ISO (Windows 8 can mount ISO files natively, so you won’t need a separate utility). Once you’ve got everything gathered up, connect your thumb drive and format it using the FAT file system (right-click the drive in File Explorer and choose Format from the menu), to ensure the drive is free of any data. Then run the Grub4DOS Installer utility as an administrator. In the program window that opens, click the Disk radio button and then select your thumb drive from the adjacent drop-down menu. Then, hit the Refresh button next to the Part list drop-down menu and select Whole disk (MBR) from the associated drop-down. Hit the Install button at the bottom of the interface to install the Grub4DOS universal bootloader to your thumb drive—it’ll only take a couple of seconds.
Once you’ve got the Grub4DOS bootloader installed, the next step is to copy all of the Hiren’s Boot CD files over to the thumb drive. Extract the files from the ISO (or mount it if you’re on Windows 8) and copy all of the files and folders to the thumb drive. When all of the files have been copied over, navigate to the HBCD folder on the drive and copy the grldr and menu.lst files within the HBCD folder to the root of the drive. Once the grldr and menu.lst files have been placed on the root of the drive, it’s ready to use.
To prep your drive, format it first to ensure it is clean and free of data.
You’ll need to install the Grub4DOS bootloader to your thumb drive before it’ll run Hiren’s Boot CD.
Click the next page to read about how to troubleshoot and boot from the USB.
All modern systems should offer the ability to boot from a USB drive, barring some corporate PCs that may have security measures in place to prevent it. Should you have problems booting from a USB drive on your personal system though, there are a few things that could be at play. First, check that your system is configured to boot from the USB drive. Connect the drive, restart the system, enter the BIOS (usually by hitting Del or F2 during the POST), and under the Boot menu make sure the USB drive is being recognized and that it is first in the boot order. On many systems, you can usually hit F11 or F12 during the POST to load a one-time boot menu as well, and select the USB drive there. You may also have to enable the option to boot from USB, depending on your motherboard manufacturer.
If none of that works, there’s also a chance there’s an incompatibility between your drive and a third-party USB controller. Plug your drive into a USB port that’s native to your motherboard’s chipset and then try booting again. Another possibility is some sort of corruption on the USB drive itself. As a last resort, copy all of the data from the drive to your PC and use Windows’ Diskpart utility to clean the USB drive of any partitions, then create a new primary partition, set it to active, and reformat/reconfigure the drive.
Your system won’t boot to the USB drive unless it’s selected in the BIOS or boot menu.
Try any version of Linux, without altering your current system
Experimenting with different versions of Linux is a great way to utilize those thumb drives cluttering up your junk drawer. There are a ton of utilities out there that can help ease the setup process, but one in particular, the Universal Netboot Installer, or UNetbootin for short, makes the entire process, from selecting and downloading a distro to prepping a thumb drive, about as easy as could be.
UNetbootin can be downloaded at http://unetbootin.sourceforge.net. It is a stand-alone utility that doesn’t need to be installed. Once downloaded, simply double-click the file to run UNetbootin and on the initial screen you’ll have two options: to either select a distribution to download and install (there are hundreds to choose from) or to create a bootable thumb drive using a pre-downloaded ISO. If you’d like to experiment with different Linux distros, UNetbootin will download and install them to your flash drive right from its main interface—there’s no need to scour the web on your own. If you’ve already got some ISOs downloaded and just haven’t gotten around to burning them, UNetbootin can use those, too. For the purposes of this project, we downloaded the popular Ubuntu Linux ISO, but just about any distro should work.
UNetbootin is a one-stop shop for downloading and creating Linux Live bootable thumb drives.
The UNetbootin boot menu gives you the ability to run Linux right from the thumb drive or to install it to the host PC.
To create a Linux Live USB drive, UNetbootin extracts the necessary files from an ISO, copies them to the thumb drive, generates an appropriate config file, and then makes the drive bootable. To use UNetbootin, connect your thumb drive to your PC, run the utility, and download a distro (or choose your pre-downloaded ISO) right on the initial screen. The thumb drive should be a few hundred megabytes at minimum, but larger (think 2GB-plus), faster drives are preferable. Once you’ve chosen the distro and selected the thumb drive from the menu, click the OK button and UNetbootin will download and/or extract the necessary files and automatically copy them to the thumb drive. The utility will then make the drive bootable, and when complete, UNetbootin will prompt you to exit or to restart the system, should you want to give the thumb drive a try right away.
Most Linux distributions, like Ubuntu, which we used for this project, run very well from a USB thumb drive.
To use your Linux Live bootable thumb drive, simply boot to it, and at the UNetbootin menu select “Try Ubuntu without installing” (or whichever distro you chose). The OS will run right from the thumb drive as if it were installed locally on the host PC.
Linux Live bootable drives are particularly useful for not only learning your way around Linux, but also as pseudo-recovery discs, as well. If you’ve got a Windows PC that won’t boot and you need to recover files, booting to a Linux Live drive may allow you to access the system’s hard drive and copy whatever files you may need.
Click the next page to learn how to set up "Windows to go" using a USB thumb drive!
The perfect excuse for buying a new USB 3.0 thumb drive
One of the coolest new features of Windows 8 is its ability to run from a USB thumb drive. Microsoft calls the feature “Windows to Go.” With Windows to Go, you can install Windows 8 and all of your favorite applications and tools to a thumb drive, plug it into a PC, boot to the drive and your entire workspace will be available.
To create a Windows to Go portable environment, you need a USB 3.0 thumb drive with a capacity of at least 32GB, a Windows 7 or 8 PC to actually configure the thumb drive (Windows 8 is preferable because of its native ability to mount ISO files), Microsoft’s Automated Installation Kit, or AIK (available here: http://bit.ly/relfql), and a Windows 8 installation disc or ISO.
If you’ve got everything available and downloaded, install the Windows AIK first. It’ll create a \Program Files\Windows AIK directory with a number of other directories within. In the \Tools subdirectory, you’ll see a number of other subdirectories labeled with specific system architectures. If you’re creating the Windows to Go drive on a system running a 64-bit edition of Windows, open the \amd64 folder. If you’re running a 32-bit edition of Windows, open the \x86 folder. In those folders you’ll see a file named ImageX.exe. Copy ImageX.exe and place it into a new subdirectory of your choosing—we used C:\ToGo.
Once you’ve got the correct ImageX utility copied, you need to extract the Windows installation image from the Windows 8 ISO. Mount the ISO (or extract it to a folder) and in the \sources directory find the file labeled install.wim and copy it to the same directory in which you placed the ImageX utility.
The ImageX utility included in the Windows AIK is used to install the Windows image to the USB flash drive.
With ImageX and the Windows 8 install.wim file copied, it’s time to prep the flash drive. Connect the drive to your system, then open a command prompt as an administrator and run Diskpart. At the Diskpart prompt, first type list disk and hit Enter to see a numerated list of drives connected to your system—on our machine, the thumb drive we wanted to use was listed as Disk 4. When you know the number of your thumb drive, type select disk 4 (replace the 4 with the number of your drive) at the Diskpart prompt and then hit Enter again. Once the proper drive is selected, you’ve got to run a handful of commands to clean, re-partition, and reformat the drive in preparation for the Windows to Go installation. Type the following commands in succession, hitting Enter after each one: clean, then create partition primary, then format fs=ntfs quick, then active, then assign. Then exit the Diskpart utility and navigate to the directory where you placed the ImageX and Install.wim files. Since we used C:\ToGo, at the command prompt we typed cd\ToGo and hit Enter.
Use Windows’ built-in Diskpart utility to clean the flash drive, create an active primary partition, and format it with the NTFS file system.
The next step is to actually install Windows to the flash drive using ImageX. At the command prompt, type: imagex /apply install.wim 1 X: (where X is the drive letter of your flash drive). This command tells ImageX to apply the first image within the install.wim file to drive letter X. The installation process will take a good 15–20 minutes or so depending on the speed of your drive. Once the ImageX process is complete, the next step is to install the correct boot record. While still at the command prompt, type bcdboot.exe X:\windows /s X: /f ALL (again, replace the X with the drive letter of your thumb drive) and hit Enter. This command tells the bcdboot utility to install the boot record from X:\windows directory to the root of the drive.
Once the boot record is installed, your Windows to Go drive is ready to use. The first time you boot to it on a system, it’ll detect new hardware and configure the necessary devices, but it’ll eventually load the Modern UI and behave just like a local Windows installation. Activate the OS, install your applications and any necessary drivers, and you’re done.