Thursday, May 24, 2012

Windows 8 (To Go) bootable USB. “Putting it all together”

** Note / Disclaimer: I cannot guarantee any aspects of this post or damages you may do to your system from following any details, therein. These are simply my observations and what I have worked out to get Windows 8 running reasonably well off a USB drive in what i hope is a ‘similar’ way to the experience you will have with Windows 8 ‘to go’. If you want the ‘real’ experience, then you will need to wait for Windows 8 to ship and ensure that you purchase a supported USB drive!

On with the show..

Windows 8 has a great new feature called “Windows 8 To Go”. This allows you to install a fully functional copy of Windows 8 onto a USB drive and then boot it up on any x86 device. This is fantastic as it is not tied to running on a specific machine, is ‘bitlocked’ so the drive contents are secure and essentially, it allows you to run your personal or corporate Windows 8 image on any hardware you want. Whilst this sounds awesome to try out, there are quite a few gotchas currently.

  • The ‘Personal Workspace Creator’ utility (PWC.exe) for creating one of these USB bootable drives is not in the latest version of Windows 8 Consumer Preview. It was in a previous version (Developer preview) but has now, currently, been excluded from the Win8 CP image. (I did find the PWC.exe out in the wild and it does ‘seem’ to run on Windows 8 CP though)
  • The requirements for the USB stick that you can use are very strict. In fact, currently, there are only two USB drives available that are certified to work with Windows 8 To Go. *AND* The PWC.exe utility will check for these requirements and not run if these are not met. See my previous post on the two certified sticks available. The two USB bootable drives certified for Windows 8 to Go
  • There have been some articles about using the Windows AIK toolkit utility, ‘imagex.exe’, to create USB bootable images. Whilst these ‘seem’ to work ok, the resultant installed version of windows 8 is slightly crippled. This is because the ‘removable drive’ bit is set to being on on almost all USB drives. Windows 8 detects this and then locks out functionality around running Windows Update, The Windows Store and Setting up Windows to use a Live ID to logon. Not ideal!

So what can be done?

I found an excellent post by Bennett Adelson on how to get around this In summary, you create a ‘Virtual Disk’ of type ‘Fixed’ on the USB drive and then edit the boot info of the USB to load the VHD. You then install Windows 8, using the ‘imagex.exe’ process that others have used and the result is you have Windows 8 booting off a USB key and fully functional!

There are some very important points here:

  • Follow Bennett’s instructions to the letter!
  • Make sure you do this on a pre-installed copy of Windows 8 running on your machine or in a virtual machine.
  • This could take a couple of hours to complete, depending upon the size and speed of your USB.
  • The result of this process is not the ‘true’ Windows 8 To Go install. Things like having a ‘BitLocked’ USB drive are not present. I haven’t found anything else yet, however i wouldn’t be surprised if there were other missing features.
  • If you install Windows 8 on a non-certified USB drive, then the performance of Windows 8 is not what it should/could be. If you want to try Win8 out, then great, but don’t use the performance of a non-certified drive as a benchmark for how it is designed to run.
  • Running Windows 8, or any other operating system, off a USB will degrade the performance of your USB key. USB key performance degrades over time, based on the number of read/writes. Running an OS off of a USB key results in a lot of read/writes which will speed up this process. *Be warned!*
  • I am running this off a reasonably fast Patriot USB key and find performance to be reasonably good under the circumstances. If your USB is slower then it may not be as feasible to use.
  • Once you have created the VHD on the USB stick and done an ‘imagex’ of the ‘install.wim’ file, back it up to your pc. If you stuff up the install later on then it is much quicker to copy this back over than it is to recreate under diskpart and reinstall.

So then, you can now boot off the USB on a PC, but what if you want to try booting this USB on a virtual machine?

If, like me, you decide to try to boot the USB via a virtual machine, be warned that this may not work correctly or in a worst case, corrupt the USB installation of Windows.

I have only tried this out on two free products, being Oracle VirtualBox and VMWare Player, which both ‘natively’, do not support booting off a USB. (Note that other versions of VMWare support this and in fact a colleague of mine used the above process to create a USB drive and is now booting it off his MacBook with VMWare Fusion! Ahh the blasphemy of it! 8) (Let me know if you use a different virtualisation product and how it goes.)

Don’t Use Virtual Box For this! I love VirtualBox, however whilst it does not support booting off a USB, I have seen some articles that detail how to do this. Be warned, this is how I corrupted my USB installation. This may work for Linux or other OS’s, but if you do this with Win8 on a stick then be prepared to restore or recreate your *.VHD file!

It works using VMWare Player and PLOP! VMWare Player does not natively support booting off a USB, but if you mount the freeware PLOP boot loader image and boot off this, then this allows you to boot from a USB. Here are the instructions that I followed to get this working.

So, you now have a shiny new version of Windows 8 Consumer Preview that is bootable off of a USB stick, either directly off your PC or under VMWare Player! I have been using it now a fair bit and am really starting to dig it. If you need some help with keyboard or mouse shortcuts then have a look at my previous post which details some tips. Getting Around Windows 8 with a Keyboard and Mouse

I am very grateful for the work done by Bennett Adelson in coming up with the bootable VHD on a stick approach for Win 8 and of course Microsoft for releasing what i think is a pretty awesome product! I haven’t come up with anything really new myself here, however putting it all together in one post may save you some time and research.

Have fun and feel free to let me know how you go!


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