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Optical drives have been dying a slow death for years now, which means when it’s time to reinstall Windows you may find your computer has nowhere to put the disc. Like many people you may be wondering if you can install Windows from a USB drive. The good news is that you can and the better news is that it’s easy.
In order to do the job, you’ll need the following:
- An 8GB or larger USB drive
- A Windows ISO file
- Bootable USB creation software.
Cool as ISO
An ISO file is a digital file on a computer that represents data as it would appear on a CD or DVD. To install Windows from a USB drive, you need to have an ISO of the version of Windows that you want to install.
If you need to get your hands on a Windows ISO file there are a few ways to do it. The most straightforward way is to download it from Microsoft directly. At least, you can if your version of Windows is 10 or 8.1.
What you need to do is get the Windows Media Creation Tool. You can get the official Microsoft tools here for the three main versions of Windows.
If you have a Windows 8 key instead of a Windows 8.1 key you may be in a little trouble, since Microsoft doesn’t provide the ISO for it.
If you still have your original disc, you can use another computer as well as some ISO creation software to make the file yourself.
Media Creation Tool to Install Windows from a USB Drive
Using Microsoft’s own tool is pretty straightforward.
The first possible stumbling block is downloading the version of the creation tool for the product key that you have. Any media you create that’s for the wrong version will not work. That includes whether it’s a 64-bit or 32-bit version.
Remember that there is no solution currently for Windows 8 product keys. If your product key is for Windows 8, you can’t use the media creation tool.
After you download it and run it, you’ll be asked to either to upgrade the PC or create media for another PC. Obviously, we want the second option.
Pick your language, pick the correct version of Windows, and pick the right number of bits.
Next, you can choose if you want to directly create a flash drive or if you just want to save the ISO. In this case, we want to make the drive. So just pick that option.
Now pick the USB drive you want to use. It saves time to make sure that it’s empty and formatted beforehand.
Now all you do is wait for the download and the process will finish itself. Congratulations, you are ready to install Windows from a USB drive.
The media creation tool is very convenient, but I have had issues with it in the past not making bootable drives that work properly or just flat out failing to do anything.
In that case, you can just use the program to save an ISO file and use this next tool to actually create the drive.
Rufus is by far my favorite application for making bootable USB installation drives. It’s fast, easy and free. It also supports a whole bunch of operating systems beyond Windows.
Every PC geek should have it in their personal toolkit. You can download Rufus here.
There’s a “portable” version and one that uses a regular installer. I prefer to use the portable version since it is completely self-contained. It’s a good idea to keep a copy of Rufus on a utility flash drive with other portable software tools. It’s an invaluable habit if things go wrong and you have to troubleshoot problems.
Rufus us very simple to use. Under “device” you pick the drive that you want to turn into a USB boot disk.
This drive will be completely wiped! Don’t cry in the comments that you erased your prized BronyCon photos.
Don’t worry about the other settings that get autodetected when you choose the target drive. All you have to do is click the little CD drive icon and choose the ISO that you’ve prepared.
All that’s left to do is click “start”. You’ll get a final warning to make sure that you aren’t about to wipe out the wrong drive. If you’re still sure, go ahead and finish the job.
Rufus is very fast. In just a few minutes your USB drive will be ready for use. Rufus can also be used to create boot USBs for just about every PC operating system, so it’s worth keeping around.
Tip of the Iceberg
Either of these methods should leave you with a USB-based way of installing your operating system if the need ever arises. However, you aren’t quite done yet. We still need to make sure that the drive actually works before hiding it away in a safe place.
Since we don’t actually want to reinstall Windows right now, one clever way of testing whether the drive works or not is to use a virtual machine such as VirtualBox. HowtoGeek has a great guide on this that you can read here.
You can boot from a USB on these virtual machines and make sure that you can actually use the drive. Apart from this, there are some other tips that I’d like to suggest:
- If your computer has USB 3.0 ports, use a USB 3.0 drive – it makes everything faster
- Use a dedicated drive you can stow away somewhere
- Remember to set your computer to boot from USB and not CD/DVD when you do the reinstall
A Drive-less Future
Learning to Install Windows From a USB Drive is an essential skill nowadays, so it’s a good thing the process is so easy now. Were you able to create and test your drive? Have you actually used a USB drive to install Windows? Let me know in the comments, I’m always eager to hear your tech stories.
All Screenshots by Kees Friesland