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How to Run Windows from a USB Drive?

written by: •edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 6/22/2009

A live USB can be useful in various situations like repairing a system. A live CD is easy to create just by downloading and burning the files onto a CD, however creating a live USB, although not too complex, requires a few extra steps. Let’s discuss how to create a Windows XP live USB.

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    Running windows live from a USB stick can be useful in certain situations. Diagnosing your system with system diagnosing and repairing tools included in the live installation is perhaps the most common usage. Here’s how you can create a live Windows XP USB from your Windows XP setup.

    First a few quick facts; the minimum size of the USB drive should be 256MB and the maximum 2GB (owing to the fact that it has to be formatted with a FAT16 file system). Also, to boot onto a live USB your motherboard should be a relatively new one and should support booting into a USB drive.

    The main tool we will be using to create our live USB is a free utility called PE Builder. PE Builder condenses the Windows setup files so that it can be used from a CD or USB drive. It also allows for third party applications to be added to your live Windows installation as plugins.

    After downloading PE Builder, extract the zip file and name the unzipped folder as, let's say, PE Builder. Open the plugin folder inside PE Builder. You can see a list of folders under plugins. There are many applications that are available as BartPE plugins. You can find a long list of them in the BartPE plugin repository. If you want to install additional applications into your live USB installation like a browser, a CD burner, or may some other utility you can just go through the plugin repository, download the plugin and put it in the plugin folder. To get more out of your live installation you may need to use some plugins for extra features and support like network capabilities, device drivers, etc. It all depends on what functionality and tools you need in your live installation. Just browse through the repository and install those plugins.

    Now start PE Builder by clicking on the pebuilder.exe on the PE Builder folder. If it’s the first time you are starting the program it will display a license agreement which you have to agree. Once you accept the license agreement it will prompt you whether you want it to search for your Windows setup files. Click No. In the window that appears select the path to your Windows installation in the Source box. You can either point it to your Windows CD or to a folder on your hard drive where you have copied the contents of Windows CD to make things faster.

    Next we enable or disable plugins you want. Click on the plugins button on the bottom of the PE Builder screen and it will display a list of plugins. From the list select any plugin and click on Enable/Disable to enable or disable it. Once you are done with plugin selection, close the plugin selection window and navigate to the main PE Builder screen. Make sure that you uncheck “Create ISO Image” and “burn to CD/DVD” and leave the output folder as “BartPE“and hit the Build button. Accept the Windows license agreement to start building.

    Once the build is complete, we are almost ready to run Windows live from the USB stick. First we need to get those files onto your USB stick. But don’t just copy and paste the files as it won’t work. Instead, we need to use a command line tool to do this. Locate the file named peinst.cmd in the \PE Builder\plugin\peinst folder and start it. Make sure that there are no files on the USB drive and you have formatted it with the FAT 16 filesystem.

    Now, in the command line type 1 when asked to enter your choice, and supply the path of the windows files you generated (the BartPE folder in this case). Next enter 2 as your choice and supply the drive letter of the USB drive. Next enter 5 and then 1 as your choice and it will start the process of installing the files on your USB drive.

    Once this process is complete your USB is ready for use.

    Related Links:

    PE Builder: Builder/.

    PE Builder plugin repository: