How many times have you reloaded your system and wished there was an easier and faster way of doing it? How many times have you had troubles installing Windows because of a scratched CD or DVD, or had to reload your PC or Laptop only to find out that the DVD Drive was bad?
Are you a Netbook owner? Then keep reading because you do not need to spend $60 on an external DVD drive to install Windows.

All the worries & headaches end here, as I am about to show you how to install Windows XP and Windows Vista from a USB flash drive. Yes, that’s correct, you can put those CDs and DVDs away and use nothing more than a $7.00 4GB USB flash drive.

I have been using this method for some time now and it is a God send. I am always reloading my machines, either for myself or for a review, and it was a nightmare to have piles of CDs all over my desk. Not only that, but I no longer need to download or keep track of where drivers and certain applications are, as those get put into their own folder right on the same USB drive (if you have a large enough drive). Not only do I no longer need to have CDs scattered all over my desk, I do not even need a DVD drive installed in my PC. If I am in a rush, or running out of room on my test bench, or even building a mini system or HTPC, I can just leave the DVD drive in its box, grab my USB drive with XP or Vista on it and just install Windows that way.

The Hardware

The very first thing you need is a PC or laptop that is capable of booting from a USB device. If you have a machine that is 4 years old or older, there is a chance you may not be able to do this, as your BIOS may not be capable of booting from a USB device. I would consult your user manual or contact the hardware vendor’s technical support if you are unsure.

Most, if not all, newer hardware (motherboards and laptops) have no issues at all booting from a USB flash drive, but I have seen a few laptops and the rare motherboard that cannot.
Once you know that your hardware can boot from a USB flash device, let’s go find some flash drives!

Right now, many online websites have 4GB flash drives on sale for as low as $5.00! Most decent drives will run you around $7-10 though.

For my tests, I went with 3 different types of flash drives. An OCZ Rally2 8GB drive, a Super Talent 4GB drive, and an HP v100w 4GB drive. The Super Talent cost me $7/ea and the HP drives came as a 2-pack for $14. The OCZ 8GB Rally 2 was $20.99 and had a $10 mail-in rebate for an ending total of $10.99. All of the drives performed extremely similar, so similar that I am hard pressed to tell which one was faster.

USB Thumb Drives

Windows XP is small enough that you can do this with a 1GB drive. I recommend no less than a 2GB, simply because we will be loading it up with more than just Windows. Remember I mentioned the ability to add a folder with all your drivers and some favorite applications on it? All of that can easily add up to near 2GB.

Windows Vista, on the other hand, takes over 3GB just to store the data from the CD. 4GB is more than enough, but leaves you with less room to store drivers and applications. There would be no harm in purchasing an 8GB drive for Vista but I have mine on a 4GB drive without any issues.

USB Drive Preparation – Windows XP

Getting your USB Flash drive ready to install Windows XP on your PC is a pretty quick and painless process. It is not fool proof though, so just follow along with me and in the end you will have a fully functioning USB flash drive that can install Windows XP on nearly any PC.

Be aware that you can NOT use a flash drive larger than 4GB for the XP tutorial. PEToUSB.exe uses FAT16 which is limited to a max of only 4GB.

Please note that to complete this tutorial you must have a PC or laptop running a 32bit version of Windows XP or Vista.

The Programs needed to complete this procedure are:


Simply save that file to your hard drive. Open it and extract the folder inside your C: drive. Once done, you should have only a folder on your C: drive called usb_prep8 with a bunch of files in it.

For those who like to use nLite to slipstream drivers and updates into your XP cd, please note that I have had issues using nLite in conjunction with this method. You should keep your manual install files when using nLite, or this will not work.

Plug in your USB flash drive and write down what drive letter Windows assigned it. (mine was G)
Open the folder that you just created from the file you downloaded called usb_prep8.
Inside the usb_prep8 folder, double click the executable named usb_prep8.cmd.

The window that opens will look like this:

usb_prep8 cmd window

Once this screen pops up and you have read it, press any key to continue. A new window will pop open and look like this:

PeToUSB window

The settings in PeToUSB are preconfigured, please do not change any of this, all you have to do is press ‘Start’.

Once the format is complete, DO NOT close the window.

  1. Open a command prompt from your start menu (Start – Run and type cmd in the run box and hit enter. If you have Windows Vista, click Start and type cmd in the search bar, at the top of the results window, you should see ‘cmd.exe’, please click it to open the command prompt window.)
  2. Inside the command prompt window, go to the directory where you saved the bootsect.exe file. The bootsect.exe is in the folder you downloaded. Use the cd ‘directory name’ command to switch folders, e.g.; cd c:\usb_prep8. Put your usb_prep8 folder somewhere easy to get to, otherwise you will have to type a really long address and that just gets annoying. I used the root of my C drive as it was easy to get to. The command window should now show c:\usb_prep8 as the directory.
  3. Now type “bootsect.exe /nt52 G:” in the command window. NOTE – G: is the drive letter for my USB stick – if yours is different, please use the appropriate drive letter.

What step 3 does is write the correct boot sector to your USB stick, this allows your PC to boot from the USB stick. If you do not do this, your flash drive will not be bootable.
When running the bootsect.exe command, you cannot have any windows open showing the content of your USB stick. If you do, close them and redo step 3.

If you have followed each step exactly as I mentioned, then you should see a message saying “Bootcode was successfully updated on all targeted volumes.”
Now you can close this command prompt (don’t close the usb_prep8 one by mistake) and the petousb window.

The window you see now should look like this: (If it doesn’t try pressing enter)

PeToUSB window

Now you need to enter the correct information for numbers 1-3.

Press 1 and then enter. A browsing window will open. Here you need to tell it where your Windows XP setup files are located. Choose your CD-ROM that has the XP disk in it.
Press 2 and enter a letter not being used by any other drive on your system.
Press 3 and enter the drive letter of your USB flash drive.
Press 4 to start the process.

The script will ask you if it’s ok to format drive T:. Press Y (yes).
The T: drive is nothing more than a temporary drive the program creates to cache the Windows installation files.

Once it’s done formatting, press enter to continue again, you can now see the program copying files to the temp drive it created. Once this is done, press enter to continue again.

Next, you will see a box pop up asking you to copy the files to USB drive. Choose Yes.

Once the script has completed copying files, a window will popup asking if you would like the USB drive to be preferred boot drive U:. Select YES on this window.

Now select yes to unmount the virtual drive.

Ok, we are done! That wasn’t hard was it?
Go ahead and close the usb_prep8 window at this time.

Installing Windows XP


Before proceeding to this next section, please be aware that you are now going to format your hard drive and load Windows. If you only have one hard drive and it has Windows XP already on it, please do not complete this next section, as it will destroy all the data on your drive.
Please have your new hard drive installed in the PC and ready to go.
If you are reloading your system with your existing hard drive then please proceed.

Now it’s time to test out our newly created XP Installation USB drive.
With the USB drive still plugged in, reboot your computer. As I mentioned earlier, this is the point where you need to either set your BIOS boot device priority to boot to the USB device first, or you can hit a particular F key to bring up the boot device menu and choose your USB drive and hit enter. Again, each motherboard is different, some use F9 some F11 and some F12, while a particular board of mine uses the Esc key to show the boot device menu. So please research your hardware before proceeding.

PeToUSB window

When the USB drive boots, you should see a DOS-like black screen with 2 options. If it looks different or says anything other than the following, then you will need to reboot using ctrl-alt-del and try again, or boot back into Windows and completely redo the tutorial.

PeToUSB window

The two options are:

1. GUI Mode Setup Windows XP, Continue Setup + Start XP
2. TXT Mode Setup Windows XP, Never Unplug USB-Drive Until After Logon.

Select option number 2 for text mode setup.
This is the initial stage of Windows XP installation (just like using your CD-Rom) where you choose the hard drive you want to install Windows on and create/format the partition. Afterwards XP installs the files to your hard drive.

Once the text mode portion of setup is complete, it will boot into the GUI mode by choosing the ‘GUI Mode’ option from the menu. You can press enter at the boot up screen after the reboot if you’re too excited to wait the 30 seconds. You will notice that the options have changed postiion from the initial bootup. Option 2 is now in the first spot and option 1 is 2nd. They are still listed the same (1. and 2.) but have swapped locations. The reason for that is, by default on a bare drive, the first boot is done via text mode and the 2nd booting is done via GUI mode, so the program automatically defaults to what you need. If, by chance, you are reloading an existing operating system, the options will be swapped by default because it sees Windows is already installed. You still need to choose 1. TXT Mode to setup your hard drive so be sure to choose option 1 and not let the installer boot to option 2. GUI Mode automatically.

Once the GUI portion of setup is complete (this is where you enter your cd key, location, time, username and password), you will again have to boot into ‘GUI Mode.’ This will complete the XP installation and you will end up at your XP desktop. It is very important that you DO NOT REMOVE THE USB STICK before this point. Once you can see your start menu, it is safe to remove the USB stick and reboot your PC to make sure everything worked.

That’s it friends, that’s all there was to it.

Did you notice XP installing faster? You should have. If you did not, it may be because you have a slower flash drive or have a motherboard that uses the ATI SB600 southbridge chipset which is known to have poor USB performance.

Everything from loading the TXT Mode to the actual installation of the GUI mode is faster. Why? Because, depending on your USB drive and your PC or Laptop, the USB drive is actually able to give the system the files it needs much faster than the CD-ROM can. You will shave off several minutes of your time by using this method.

Final Thoughts – XP

The USB install method was never one that was designed to be for speed, although that is a benefit. It was designed to be one of convenience. It’s a lot easier to deal with a USB drive than a bunch of CDs (as I mentioned in the beginning of the article) and the flash drive has the potential to last longer, too.

As mentioned earlier, you can also create a folder on the flash drive that will hold all the drivers for your newly installed operating system.

I created a folder called drivers and have video, sound, network and various other drivers along with XP Service Pack 3, Office 2007 install files and Office Service Pack 1 along with a few other programs. This is where a larger USB drive shows its usefulness. “Why do you, and how do you, have Office 2007 on your flash drive?,” you might ask. Simple; I no longer need my Office CDs to download the Office Service Pack 1 file, all I do is open the Office 2007 folder and start the setup.exe file and it installs Office perfectly fine.

Other programs you can add are Futuremark benchmarks, Sandra, Everest, Prime95, SuperPi, Cinebench, basically any program you want installed into your OS, you can throw on the USB drive, the larger the drive, the more programs you can store on it, and typically the larger drives are faster also! Just a few last minute tips that I felt needed to be shared.

Now that we are done with the XP portion of this tutorial, let’s move on to Windows Vista.

USB Drive Preparation – Windows Vista

Windows Vista puts us in the same tried and true position of using disk drives for installation as XP, ME, 98, and 95. Don’t you think it’s about time to move into the 21st Century? I do!

The Windows Vista USB process is extremely simple as everything is handled with the command prompt (DOS). No extra programs are needed, as was the case with Windows XP. It’s a fairly quick process and, aside from copying the files from the CD, it only takes a minute or 2.

For this procedure, unless you have used vLite to completely strip your Vista installation files, you will need nothing less than a 4GB flash drive.

Unlike the XP tutorial you CAN use a flash drive larger than 4GB because the Vista tutorial uses FAT32 to format the flash drive.

Run CMD.EXE and type the following, in order:

Note: This set of commands assumes that the USB flash drive is addressed as “disk 1”. You should double check that by doing a list of the disks (type “list disk” once you’re in the ‘diskpart’ portion) before cleaning it. If you have multiple hard drives, like an SDFlash drive or a Multibay drive, you could end up wiping your second drive using this command.

Type these exactly as I show them:

  1. diskpart
  2. select disk 1
  3. clean
  4. create partition primary
  5. select partition 1
  6. active
  7. format fs=fat32
  8. assign
  9. exit

Use the following command to start copying all the content from the Windows Vista DVD ROM to your newly formatted flash drive:

xcopy d:\*.* /s/e/f e:\

E was the letter of my flash drive. Use the letter appropriate for yours.

This process can take a while, so feel free to go do something else. Once it is done though, that’s all there is. Nothing more needs to be done.

Installing Vista To Your Hard Drive

Reboot your PC just like we did with the XP portion and choose your USB drive as the boot drive. The bootup portion for Vista is different than XP, in that there is no menu where you choose an option. The system will boot directly into the Vista installation.

Once you’re done and on the Windows Vista desktop, you may remove the flash drive if you do not have drivers to install or if they are located on a different drive.

***Please note that on several occasions, I have had the latter part of the Vista installation ask for the Vista disk. Simply tell it to retry or ignore and it will continue on. The only place I have had this happen is when Vista is trying to calculate the power of your PC during the final step of installation. Skipping this by telling the error message to ‘Ignore’ will not hurt your Vista install one little bit, so do not worry if ‘Retry’ does not work.


For as long as personal computers have been around, we have been bound to one type of media for installing the operating system. First, it was the original 8″ floppy, then the 5 1/4″ floppy, then the 3 1/2″ floppy, then, in the mid 80s, the CD ROM came onto the scene, and in the late 90s, the DVD ROM. In late 2000, IBM (who would have guessed) came out with the “ThumbDrive” and the portable storage media revolution began. Today, flash drives and their technology are used in everything from portable 1/4″ MicroSD drives all the way up to the latest innovation, the SSD Hard Drive. The flash drive is used by home PC users and industrial equipment all with the same goal in mind, to use a media storage device that is quick, easy, versatile and portable. Flash drives have come a long way in a very short period of time from 8mb CF Cards all the way to 256GB SSD drives. Anything and everything can be stored on them and Windows XP and Linux can even be installed TO them, instead of using a standard hard drive.

The downside to a flash drive is that they are volatile, meaning the data can be lost, the chipset can be damaged or destroyed by electric shock or by simply inserting or removing them from your PC without following proper procedure. I, personally, have never had one die but I have heard of it happening. One saving grace to the data corruption and/or deletion is to buy a flash drive with a write lock switch on it. They are easily found and this prevents anything from writing data or changing data on the drive. The only thing that can be done is reading data from the drive and this is a perfect example of the type of drive to use for this tutorial. Simply unlock the drive with the little switch, do the procedure and when done, flip the switch back to write lock the drive. Now this won’t prevent electric shock or a hardware failure, but it can greatly improve your chances of having that drive around for a longer period of time.

While I mentioned that this procedure was brought about out of convenience, with a minor perk being speed, that is not entirely true – if you spend a little extra money on a faster ‘turbo’ style drive, then you will indeed see installation time greatly decrease by as much as 10-15 minutes.

I have not mentioned this yet, but ANY flash drive can be used; SD, MicroSD, CF, Sony ProStickDuo, Thumb Drive, and so on. If you have a computer that has a built in flash card reader, you can use any one of those types of drives.