March 21, 2006
All it takes is a minor error in the Windows Registry or a virus infection, and your operating system can become unbootable. But with a properly configured USB flash drive on hand, you'll always have a compatible replacement no further away than your pocket or keychain. In addition, the flash drive can also provide a secure browser and virus scanner, and lets you take your favorite DVD burning and Office software with you wherever you may go.
All that's needed is a bootable USB Flash drive with at least 256 MB of storage capacity and a Windows Setup CD. Using the program Bart PE Builder (Freeware), you can install Windows XP on the flash drive, along with other software as needed (and as available space permits).
Bart Lagerweij's free utility, PE Builder, condenses the original setup data for Windows XP into a slender operating system that is ready to run from a CD or a USB flash drive. This compact, portable version of Windows includes all the important system tools for dealing with a PC emergency. You can even add other programs to this collection, such as the media writing tool Nero Burning ROM or an anti-spyware package such as Ad-Aware SE Personal, during the installation process.
Expanding The Role Of USB Flash Drives
Flash drives aren't always recognized during the PC boot process. The USB flash drive controller and the PC's BIOS must be properly introduced to one another. That said, nearly all flash drives and PC can be configured so that the PC can boot from the flash drive.
You Need This: XP On The USB Pen Drive
In most cases, any compatible USB flash drive makes a suitable target for Windows XP installation. But the following system requirements must also be met:
- A USB flash drive with at least 256 MB of storage is enough for the uses described in this article. Additional system tools or applications require more space. The upper bound limits for storage in this case is 2 GB - a byproduct of the tool's use of FAT16 for the local file system.
- Most new motherboards recognize USB flash drives as valid boot media. But conventional motherboards that are more than two years old aren't likely to boot from a USB flash drive. But in many cases, this omission can be remedied through a BIOS update for that board.
- 1.5 GB of unused disk space is the maximum needed for the tool to do its job, particularly if you want to pre-install Service Pack 2 and RAM disk capabilities. 190 MB of unused space is all that's needed to use PE Builder and the applications described in this article, however. Additional plug-ins will increase storage requirements, as will additional tools or software.
- 512 MB of USB flash drive storage space is needed only if boot-up works from a RAM disk. Otherwise, 256 MB is big enough.
- Access to a USB 2.0 port is not mandatory, though booting with a USB 1.1 port takes about five times longer.
- A Windows XP Setup CD works fine as a foundation for PE Builder to generate the USB flash drive's contents.
Installation requires the use of HP's freeware tool HP USB Disk Storage Format Tool instead. Once installed, you can run the program through this sequence of menu choices: Start, All Programs, HP Company. Select the USB flash drive you wish to format from the Device entry, then select FAT as the target file system for that device. Click Start to launch this process. Once complete, you must then copied the Windows XP boot files to the USB flash drive - namely,
%systemdrive%\boot.ini, %systemdrive%\ntldr, and %systemdrive%:\ntdetect (if you know the drive ID where these files live, use that instead - it's normally C). To make Windows Explorer display these files (they're ordinarily hidden), choose Folder Options... from the Tools menu, then click the View tab in the Folder Options window. Finally, in the Advanced Setting pick list, click the radio button underneath Hidden Files and folders that reads "Show hidden files and folders." Finally uncheck the box next to "Hide protected operating systems (Recommended)," so you can select and copy these all-important Windows XP files to the flash drive. The USB flash drive is now ready to boot your system. Next, you learn how to instruct your PC to boot from a USB flash drive.
Set The System's Boot Device Sequence
If your PC has a relatively new motherboard, its BIOS will already include the functions necessary to support USB-attached boot media. If so, you need only make the right selections in that BIOS menu to boot from a USB flash drive. Older PCs, on the other hand, won't accept USB drives as valid boot devices. This means a BIOS update that supports USB boot options is necessary. You can find information about where to obtain such updates from your PC's (or motherboard's) user manual, on the driver CD included with the PC (or motherboard) or on the vendor's Website.
Normally, the hard disk precedes the USB flash drive (which falls under the heading of USB-HDD in most BIOS menus) in the boot order. If the hard disk contains a viable boot sector, the PC will start up automatically using the information it contains. Only when the hard disk suffers from a boot sector defect or an operating system can't be found will the PC boot from the USB flash drive instead.
Change this boot order. Plug the flash drive in, boot the computer and enter the BIOS setup utility. Normally, this means holding down the DEL or F2 key just as the computer powers up and begins the boot process. If you read the initial startup screen on your PC carefully, it will tell you exactly what you must do to access and alter your BIOS settings.
If your PC uses AMI-BIOS from American Megatrends, there are two possible ways to alter the boot device sequence. Each varies depending on the version of AMI-BIOS that's installed.
For the first variant, there is no menu entry named "Boot." Navigate to the sub-menu named "Advanced BIOS Features." Navigate to the item named "Boot Device Select... " and designate the USB flash drive as the first device in the "Boot Device Priority" list by selecting "1st" as its value. Then, hit the Esc key and set both the "Quick Boot" and "Full Screen LOGO Show" items to "Disabled" (this lets you see the BIOS messages during startup on the monitor). Exit the BIOS Setup utility using the "Save and Exit Setup" item in the main menu.
For the second variant, use the "Boot" menu to select the USB flash drive. It will show up under one of the following headings: "Hard Disk Drive", "Removable Device" or "Removable Storage Device. " Next, select the USB flash drive as "1st Drive" in the first position, then hit the Esc key. That device should appear in the menu named "Boot Device Priority" which might also show up as "Boot Sequence". Inside that menu, designate the USB flash drive as the "1st Boot Device", hit the Esc key and save all changes in the "Exit" menu by selecting "Exit and Save Changes".
This goes on for 14 pages, but it's well worth the effort, especially if you're worried about the "No System Disk Detected" error. Another error message that I had the misfortune to encounter last Friday evening was this one: "Hard Drive Failure Imminent". Needless to say, being able to safely recover data can prove quite useful.
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