Tech Line

Bootable Flash Drive Freedom

Here’s how you can create a bootable USB flash drive.

Chris: I have an 8 GB USB thumb drive and I want to make it bootable. Do you know of any utility that I can use to do that?
-- Carlos

The primary factor in setting up USB booting is whether or not USB boot is supported in the BIOS of the system that you want to boot from a USB device. If the system BIOS supports USBHDD or USBZIP, then booting from a USB device is possible. USBHDD is the most common standard today, but USBZIP, which allows attached USB Iomega Zip disks to boot, is still around as well.

While enabling USB boot varies by system, the process was relatively straightforward on one of my personal systems. On my Dell Latitude D820, USB boot can be started by hitting the F12 key when the system starts to boot and selecting "USB Storage Device" from the boot option menu. You can also configure USB boot by hitting F2 to enter the CMOS setup program and then moving "USB Storage Device" to first in the Boot Sequence.

Enabling USB boot is actually only half the battle. The next part of the process is creating a bootable USB drive, which requires the creation of a boot sector on the drive. One of the most popular tools for creating bootable flash drives is the HP USB Disk Storage Format Tool. Once you download and install the tool, insert your USB drive and then click Start | All Programs | Hewlett-Packard Company | HP USB Disk Storage Format Tool. When the tool opens, follow these steps to create a bootable formatted USB drive:

  1. Select the device to format from the Device menu.
  2. Select the file system (FAT, FAT32, or NTFS) from the File System menu. Note that most boot operating systems support FAT and FAT32.
  3. Enter a volume label in the Volume Label field.
  4. If you’re short on time, click the Quick Format checkbox.
  5. Click Start to format the drive. Note that any files on the drive will be lost during the format, so if you want to keep other files on the drive, copy them to your hard disk prior to formatting the drive.

Once the drive is formatted, you will need to copy an operating system to it. Here are some popular bootable operating systems that are available:

Note that the executables will only write to a floppy drive, meaning that you will first have to create the boot floppy disk and then copy the files over to the bootable USB drive. If you don’t have a floppy drive on your system and need one (if required by a boot disk creation utility), you can create a virtual floppy drive by following the steps in my article, "Virtual Floppy Freedom."

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USB boot support opens plenty of opportunities for system maintenance and troubleshooting. In addition, being able to carry around a full OS on a pen drive has plenty of benefits too.

About the Author

Chris Wolf is a Microsoft MVP for Windows --Virtual Machine and is a MCSE, MCT, and CCNA. He's a Senior Analyst for Burton Group who specializes in the areas of virtualization solutions, high availability, storage and enterprise management. Chris is the author of Virtualization: From the Desktop to the Enterprise (Apress), Troubleshooting Microsoft Technologies (Addison Wesley), and a contributor to the Windows Server 2003 Deployment Kit (Microsoft Press).learningstore-20/">Troubleshooting Microsoft Technologies (Addison Wesley) and a contributor to the Windows Server 2003 Deployment Kit (Microsoft Press).

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