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How (and why) to run portable versions of Windows



  A pair of Zune and Microsoft branded USB devices

If you frequently travel but do not want to throw a laptop or regularly work on computers that lack programs you need, consider portable Windows. With portable windows, you have less to carry, and all your preferences come with you.

Why You May Want Portable Windows

  Wheelbag on a Baggage Belt at the Airport Terminal
CatwalkPhotos / Shutterstock

Travel is a pain, especially when flying. You have limited means of transport, and your suitcases can add to the cost of flight. The more you take, the more you will regret traveling anyway, especially if you need to go far. Even if you do not regularly commute long distances if you consistently work with different computers as part of your career, you can often find yourself without the tools you need and sometimes unable to change settings that help your workflow.

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

Unfortunately, the official "Windows To Go" feature from Microsoft is for Windows Enterprise only and requires a certified USB flash drive (which is expensive). We have described a method around this, but it is complicated and involves command-line work. You can use Portable VirtualBox, but it requires you to install VM software and an operating system to run from.

If you want an alternative with lesser costs, Rufus and WinToUSB are free for most cases and easy to use with a catch. With WinToUSB you have to pay if you want to install Windows 10 1809-this is the update from October 2018. Rufus does not offer the possibility to install 1809 at all. Alternatively, you can download Windows 1803 using Microsoft Windows and the Office ISO Download Tool. Just download and run the program, select Windows 10 and then select the appropriate Windows 10 1803 option.

Of the two, Rufus edits out as the better option because you don't have to pay for compatibility with both modern UEFI and heritage computers. You want this to work with both and the WinToUSB fees for that feature.

What you need to get started

In order for the process to work, you need a few things:

Option 1: Install Windows on a USB device with Rufus

To start, you need to download Rufus and start it . Rufus is a portable app, so it doesn't have to be installed.

In Rufus, select the USB device you want to install Windows in the "Device" box. Click "Select" and point to Rufus on Windows ISO you install it from.

 The Rufus dialog with Device key and Select button dial

After selecting your ISO, click on the "Image Options" box and select "Windows To Go."

 Rufus Dialog with Image Options Dropdown changes to Windows To Go

Click on "Partition Scheme" and select "MBR." Finally, click on the "Target System" and select "BIOS or UEFI."

Click the "Start" button when done. Rufus will format your device and install Windows.

 Rufus dialogue with MBR, Bios or UEFI and start button shouted

Wait for the process to complete, remove the USB device safely from the computer, and you can now launch it on any computer you want .

When you are on a computer, you want to start your copy of Windows, you have to restart, go to the BIOS and select the option to boot USB devices.

RELATED: How to boot your computer from a disc or USB device

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 install Windows 10 version 1803 (the update in April 2018), you just need it. After installing it, start it (you will find the gene wall named "Hasleo WinToUSB" in your Start menu) and accept the UAC (User Account Control) prompt that appears.

When WinToUSB opens, you have two choices. You can clone your current system to USB (which gives you a copy of your settings, settings, and so on), or you can choose to create a new copy of Windows from an iso. To clone, you need a larger USB device (at least equal to your current computer space), so we focus on creating a new copy of Windows.

Click the icon that looks like an enlarged file

 WinToUSB program with arrow pointing to the scroll button

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

 WinToUSB dialog box, selects an operating system

Click on the down arrow to the right of the search box and select your USB device. If you don't see it, try clicking the update button to the right of the down arrow.

 The WinToUSB dialog box selects a USB device

A warning and formatting dialog will appear. Don't worry: WinToUSB's official documentation says you can ignore the slow speed warning if you see it. If you have a fast USB 3.0 device or a Windows-Go certified device, you can't even see the warning.

Select the "MBR for BIOS" option and click "Yes". If you have paid For the advanced features, you can use the "MBR for Bios and UEFI", which will be compatible with both modern UEFI and heritage systems.

WinToUSB will propose partitions based on your choices. Select the "Legacy" option and click "Next".

That's it. WinToUSB runs through the installation process and asks you when you are done. Remove the USB stick and take it with you.

When you are on a computer, you want to start your copy of Windows, you have to restart, go to the BIOS and select the option to boot USB

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Intel

Here's the drawback: You need a computer wherever you go, and that computer has to let you boot from USB devices, which is not always possible, if you know it's not an option but a TV or monitor with HDMI output and keyboard and mouse input are 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. USB ports and a power port. They use a weak processor (typically Atom or Core M3) and have again only 32 or 64 GB of onboard storage. They are limited, and you want to keep that in mind. But they are not much larger than a USB device, and all you need is the screen, keyboard and mouse to get started.

Whatever method you choose, plan accordingly. Make sure the hardware is available wherever you are. And be aware that Windows will ultimately not run as fast from a USB stick as it would from a regular internal drive. But at least you have the programs and settings you want.


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