Microsoft’s Windows To Go feature installs Windows as a live system on a bootable USB drive. It’s officially only for Enterprise editions of Windows, but we’ve found a way to do it with any edition of Windows 8 or 8.1.
Note: This should work for Windows 10 as well but we haven’t yet tested it out. Once Microsoft releases the final version we’ll test and update this article. Of course, you’re also welcome to test it out and let us know.
This process allows you to create a live Windows USB drive that functions like a live Linux USB drive. You can boot it on any computer. The operating system’s files and programs stay on the external drive and follow you around.
What You’ll Need
Here’s what you’ll need:
- A USB Flash Drive or External Hard Drive With 16 GB of More of Space: For maximum speed, you’ll probably want a speedy USB 3.0 flash drive. However, you could also use an older external hard disk drive you have lying around. It won’t be as fast, but it will work all the same.
Microsoft offers “Windows To Go Certified Drives,” and they all start at 32 GB of storage space, so there’s enough space for the OS and extra for your files. These certified devices are tested so they have high speeds and good manufacturer warranties — a cheap USB drive might be slower and die sooner due to the higher volume of writes.
- A Windows 8 or 8.1 ISO File or Disc: You’ll need Windows 8 or 8.1 installation media for this. if you don’t have any lying around, there are ways to legally download Windows installation media from Microsoft — either with a CD key or by downloading a 90-day free trial of Windows 8.1 Enterprise. (You don’t need Windows Enterprise for this — the “core” or Professional editions of Windows 8 or 8.1 will also work.)
- The Free GImageX Tool: Download the free GImageX tool and install it on your system. This is a graphical front-end to the ImageX tool from Microsoft’s Windows Assessment and Deployment Kit. It will allow you to work with the WIM files from the Windows installation media and create a Windows To Go drive without Microsoft’s official Windows-To-Go-creator tool. (You don’t also need to download the full Windows ADK from Microsoft — just download the tiny GImageX utility.)
Locate the File
First, locate the Install.wim file, which is stored on the Windows installation media. If you have a physical disc, insert it into your computer. If you have an ISO file, you can “mount it” on Windows 8 by double-clicking it in File Explorer.
Open the disc drive in Windows Explorer and enter the “sources” directory. Locate the “install.wim” file — that’s at X:\sources\install.wim , where X is the drive letter of the disc.
Image the Install.wim FIle onto a USB Drive
Next, open the GImageX tool. Extract the downloaded archive and run the correct version of the program for your computer — the x64 one on a 64-bit version of Windows or the x86 one on a 32-bit version of Windows.
Click the Apply tab in GImageX. In the Source box, browse for the install.wim file you found earlier. In the Destination box, choose the external drive you’ll be installing Windows To Go on. Click the Apply button and GImageX will image the Install.wim file onto the USB drive.
Wait for the imaging process to complete before you continue. This is the longest part, although it shouldn’t take too long. The imaging process only took 12 minutes for us, even though we were putting our Windows To Go system onto an external mechanical drive over a slower USB 2.0 connection.
Make the Partition Active
You’ll now need to make the Windows To Go partition active so your computer will boot off that partition when you choose to boot from the external device.
First, open the Disk Management tool — right-click the Start button in the bottom-left corner of your Screen or press Windows Key + X and click Disk Management.
Locate the external drive in the list, right-click the partition you imaged the Windows To Go system onto, and select Mark Partition as Active. This will mark that partition as the “active,” bootable partition on that external drive.
Create Boot Entries on the USB Drive
Next, you’ll need to create the appropriate boot entries on the Windows To Go drive’s boot loader. First, open a Command Prompt window as Administrator — on Windows 8.1, right-click the Start button in the bottom-left corner of the screen or press Windows key + X and select Command Prompt (Admin).
Next, run the following two commands to switch to the Windows To Go external drive, using its drive letter in place of X. Open a File Explorer window to see the drive’s letter if you don’t know it:
Next, run the following command, replacing X with the drive letter of the external drive with Windows To Go on it.
bcdboot.exe X:\Windows /s X: /f ALL
(As Microsoft’s bcdboot documentation page explains, this command “creates boot entries on a USB flash drive… including boot files to support either a UEFI-based or a BIOS-based computer.”)
Boot Windows To Go
You now have a Windows To Go drive! Restart your computer and boot from it — you may need to configure the boot order in the BIOS or use use Windows 8’s boot options menu on UEFI-based systems to boot from an external drive.
The first time you boot the Windows installation on the drie, you’ll have to go through the same first-time setup process you’d see after installing Windows on a computer normally. This will only happen the first time you boot your Windows To Go drive. Windows To Go operates almost like a normal system, although Microsoft notes a few differences — for example, a Windows To Go system boots with internal disks offline by default. This is designed to prevent sensitive data from accidentally being saved onto an internal disk when using Windows To Go.
AOMEI’s paid Partition Assistant application includes a Windows To Go Creator function, but you don’t need to pay for it if you’re willing to use GImageX and do the little bit of extra work above by hand.
Thanks to ingramator on the Neowin forums for laying out this method in detail for Windows 8. We confirmed that it still works on Windows 8.1 and hope that more people will discover this process now. As it turns out, you don’t actually need the Enterprise version of Windows 8 to use Windows To Go!
Image Credit: bflshadow on Flickr