A pair of Zune and Microsoft branded USB drives

If you frequently travel but don’t want to lug a laptop, or regularly work with computers missing applications you need you should consider portable Windows. With portable Windows, you have less to carry, and all your preferences come with you.

Why You Might Want Portable Windows

Wheeled suitcase on a luggage belt at the airport terminal
CatwalkPhotos/Shutterstock

Traveling is a pain, especially when flying. You have limited carry-ons, and your suitcases can add to the cost of flying. The more you take, the more you’ll regret traveling at all, especially if you then need to walk far distances. Even if you don’t commute long distances regularly if you consistently work with different computers as part of your career, you may find yourself often without the tools you need and sometimes the inability to change preferences that help your workflow.

You can solve all of this by putting Windows on a USB flash drive. By creating a portable copy of Windows and then booting to that USB drive, you will have your personal computer with your applications, preferences, and passwords all in a device less than a pound and small enough to fit in your pocket.

Unfortunately, the official “Windows To Go” feature from Microsoft is only for Windows Enterprise and requires a certified USB flash drive (which are expensive). We’ve detailed a method around this, but it’s complicated and involves command line work. You can use Portable VirtualBox, but that requires installing VM software and an OS to run from.

If you want an alternative with less overhead, Rufus and WinToUSB are free for most cases and easy to use with one catch. With WinToUSB you’ll need to pay if you want to install Windows 10 1809—that’s the October 2018 Update. Rufus doesn’t offer the option to install 1809 at all. Alternatively, you can download Windows 1803 using the Microsoft Windows and Office ISO Download Tool. Just download and run the program, pick Windows 10 and then choose the appropriate Windows 10 1803 option.

Of the two, Rufus edges out as the better option since you don’t have to pay for compatibility with both modern UEFI and legacy computers. You’ll want this to work with both and WinToUSB charges for that feature.

What You’ll Need to Get Started

For this process to work, you’re going to need a few items:

Option 1: Install Windows on a USB Drive with Rufus

To start, you’ll need to download Rufus and launch it. Rufus is a portable app, so it doesn’t require installation.

In Rufus, select the USB device you want to install Windows on in the “Device” box. Click “Select” and point Rufus at the Windows ISO you’ll be installing it from.

Rufus dialog with Device drop down and Select button call out

After you’ve chosen your ISO, click on the “Image option” box and select “Windows To Go.”

Rufus Dialog with Image Option Dropdown changed to Windows To Go

Click “Partition Scheme” and select “MBR.” Finally, click “Target System” and select ‘BIOS or UEFI.”

Click the “Start” button when you’re done. Rufus will format your drive and install Windows.

Rufus dialog with MBR, Bios or UEFI and start button called out

Wait for the process to complete, safely remove the USB drive from your PC, and you can now boot it on any PC you like.

Once you’re at a computer you want to launch your copy of Windows from, you’ll need to reboot, get to the BIOS and choose the option to boot off USB devices.

RELATED: How to Boot Your Computer From a Disc or USB Drive

Option 2: Create a Windows Drive with WinToUSB

The first step is to download and install WinToUSB. It has a free version, and if you’re installing Windows 10 version 1803 (the April 2018 Update), that’s all you need. Once you have it installed, launch it (you’ll find its shortcut named “Hasleo WinToUSB” in your Start menu) and agree to the UAC (User Account Control) prompt that appears.

Once WinToUSB opens, you have two choices. You can clone your current system to USB (which will give you a copy of your settings, preferences, and so on as they are), or you can choose to create a new copy of Windows from an iso. To clone though, you’ll need a larger USB drive (at least equal to your current computer space), so we’ll focus on creating a new copy of Windows.

Click the icon that looks like a file with a magnifying glass in the upper right corner of the window, to the right of the Image File box.

WinToUSB program with arrow pointing to browse button

Browse to your Windows ISO file and open it. On the next screen, select the version of Windows you have a key for (likely Home or Pro) and click “Next.”

WinToUSB dialog, choosing an operating system

Click the down arrow to the right of the path box and select your USB drive. If you don’t see it, try clicking the refresh button to the right of the down arrow.

WinToUSB dialog selecting a USB drive

A warning and formatting dialog will pop up. Don’t worry: WinToUSB’s official documentation says you can ignore the warning about slow speeds if you see it. If you’re on a fast enough USB 3.0 drive, or a Windows To Go certified drive, you may not even see the warning.

Choose the “MBR for BIOS” option and click “Yes.” If you’ve paid for the advanced features, you could use “MBR for Bios and UEFI,” which will be compatible with both modern UEFI and legacy systems.

WinToUSB will suggest partitions based on your choices. Choose the “Legacy” option and click “Next.”

That’s it. WinToUSB will run through the install process and prompt you when finished. Safely remove the USB stick and take it with you.

Once you’re at a computer you want to launch your copy of Windows from, you’ll need to reboot, get to the BIOS and choose the option to boot off USB devices.

Use A Compute Stick When Only A Monitor Is Available

Intel Compute Stick
Intel

Here’s the downside: You’ll need a computer wherever you’re going. And that computer must let you boot from USB devices, which isn’t always possible. If you know that’s not an option, but a TV or monitor with HDMI input as well as keyboard and mouse input is available, you can use an Intel Compute Stick.

Intel’s Compute Stick plugs into an HDMI port and runs a full copy of 32-bit Windows. They feature USB ports and a port for power. They do use a weak processor (typically Atom or Core M3) and usually only have 32 or 64 GB of onboard storage. They are limited, and you’ll want to keep that in mind. But they’re not much bigger than a USB drive, and all you need is the monitor, keyboard, and mouse to get going.

Whatever method you choose, plan accordingly. Make sure the hardware is available wherever you’re going. And be aware that, ultimately, Windows won’t run quite as fast from a USB stick as it would from a normal internal drive. But at least you’ll have the programs and settings you want.

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smarthome enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code.
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