Installing Windows Operating System using USB / Flash / pen drive is not a new thing. Use of this method is seen mostly in emergency situations like optical drive failures or for Netbooks which comes without CD/DVD drives. It is a good idea to keep a Windows USB Setup as handy for any emergency situations.
There is much software available for this and to choose one which will work is tricky and time consuming as not all such software gives the same results every time. Here is a quick review of some USB Windows Setup builders to assist you better and save your time.
Due to growing popularity, WinToFlash was the first I tested. Interface is the easiest among all the tested software and avoids critical jargon. It supports wide variety of OS including XP, 2003 Server, Vista, 7 and even 8 for x86 and x64 both. WinToFlash also supports Recoveries, Norton Ghost images, OphCrack etc. It provides some additional features like Boot loader selector (GRUB or Standard), Disk checking, etc. Wizard is a 1-step and very fast. It lacks option for using an image file and supports only folder location (though this can be handled by mounting that image).
I found a small transparency bug which appears when you suddenly cancel everything.
Result: I was able to boot and run installation for Windows 7 and 8 using it. However, Windows XP failed to even initialize during boot. I tested with many sources but alas, nothing worked.
2. Win USB Maker Beta 2
Development of this seems to be stopped as I had to download it from other source. I really like this one due to it’s easy interface and some new options it provides while avoiding the jargon. Win USB Maker claims ‘No OS File Mods’ as some other software may do during transloads or for bootups. It not only supports OS like XP, 2000, 2003, Vista, 7 and 8 but also Norton ghost OS images and many recoveries. You can use OS folder and/or OS images as source – it supports both. The function I liked is USB backup/restore along with MBR which avoids creating OS Setup drive many times. Create once and safely store the file for future. There are two things which may upset you, one — it requires .Net Framework 4 Client installed and second – It is very slow during first step of boot.
Result: Worked flawlessly for XP, 2000, and 7. I did not test it with other OS. After booting, installation is 3 steps which mean you will need to boot into USB three times during Windows installation.
Yeah! This is really a name for software from Data. Interface is quite simple if you do not look at other options. It gives you a set of options to format your flash / USB drive and to make it bootable which works pretty nice. You need to provide location of the ‘i386’ folder and image option is not available. Setup preparation takes average times. Right now it only supports 2000, XP and 2003.
Result: I was able to boot 2003 and XP at the very first try. There are 2 steps to complete for installing OS which you will find it easy and automated.
YUMI not only gives you feel of Linux USB installers but also supports Linux along with Windows XP, Vista, Win 7 and 8. It also supports major recoveries and rescue tool images. It’s easy and fast with an option to auto download image of selected OS or tool from given list. There are not many options to configure the installation.
Result: Booted Win 7 and 8 flawlessly. However, I was unable to boot and start Win XP even after trying many sources.
It is not completely freeware. It comes with a limitation of 30 days to install OS from same drive and you can prepare OS installs for only 16 times on same drive. This restriction is nuts when you can get something for free. FlashBoot provides a very different feature which no one else provides. You can copy or create from CD >> USB, Floppy >> USB, USB >> USB, Mini OS, etc. You can even create image back to hard drive. It may look user friendly to you in preparing OS setup but it is much more technical later on. Upon booting from this drive you will be presented with old FDISK and partition options – all command prompt and DOS. I loved it and it was breeze for me but I cannot say the same for GUI lovers.
Result: Worked perfectly for every Windows version. However, it gave me a little trouble with Vista. Whatever! Who wants to install such a dumb OS?
6. Komku Sp USB
This is the least user friendly option you will find. Everything is nearly command prompt (after PEtoUSB Steps) and needs understanding of MS-DOS and OS basics. It comes with PEtoUSB which helps to create pre-environment for Windows. There is a steep learning curve but this thing works great. If you can just follow the given readme’s and online guide you can make it work for you.
Result: It worked every time and with nearly all OS (Didn’t test Vista and 8). However, it is a headache and takes time.
7. PE Builder
PE Builder is one of the oldest OS pre-environment makers. It supports folders and Images both. During tests I didn’t find anything which PE Builder can’t do.You can not only dump your installation to USB as with others but also you can burn CD/DVDs with it. There are many options which can be enhanced by variety of plugins available for PE Builder. You can also create Live CDs with PE Builder if you want.
Result: I not only tested it on USB but also created an XP Live CD which worked like charm.
8. Microsoft’s Windows 7 USB Tool
As name suggests, this is an official USB installation tool for Windows 7 from Microsoft. This can be downloaded from Microsoft’s site. However, you will need originally purchase Windows ISO as per MS terms. You will need .NET Framework 2 or above and Image Mastering API v2. This comes pre-installed in Windows 7 and later but not in XP.
Result: It worked as expected. Only useful for Windows 7 and I noticed some version check.
9. Windows 8 USB Install Maker
Windows 8 USB Install maker provides a good interface and fresh look near to actual Windows 8. However, per name it is not limited to Windows 8. You can also use it to create Windows 7 setup. It provides boot fixing options for the flash drive.
Result: Windows 7 and 8 booted and worked out nicely. I didn’t test it for Windows XP – so can’t say anything right now.
Final say: In most cases WinToFlash will work without any problem. If you encounter issues like as I did then you can go for Win USB Maker BETA 2. Next in recommendation, there are WinSetupFromUSB and FlashBoot. Prefer PE Builder if you want to make Live CDs and PEs.