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Booting XP From A USB Drive, Step By Step

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Booting XP From A USB Drive, Step By Step
First, if you haven't already, grab a free copy of BartPE. You'll find all the information you need on getting and using this tool in 'A Must-Have Repair And Recovery Tool.' and at Bart's site.

Next, you need new versions of two files from Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT): 'setupldr.bin' and 'ramdisk.sys'. These new files are part of the Windows Server 2003 SP1 pack, which you can download from Microsoft no matter what operating system you're running. So, if you're not running Server 2003, it's not a problem.




Here's what to do: Start with the page called 'How to obtain the latest service pack for Windows Server 2003' and follow the appropriate links under the subheading 'To obtain Windows Server 2003 SP1 from the Microsoft Download Center.' (As I write this, the standard 32-bit version is here, and you're free to try that link. But the name or location of the file may change, so going through the 'How to obtain the latest service pack for Windows Server 2003' page is the safest, surest route. When you get to the download page, click the 'Download' button to save the complete SP1 file to your PC. (It's a large file; 329-Mbytes.)

The SP1 File is an executable that will try to self-extract and install if you run it. If you're currently using Windows Server 2003 and wish to fully install SP1, it's fine to do just that -- click on the file and run it. But if you're using any other operating system, use the '-x' (for 'extract') switch instead. This will pull all the files from SP1, but won't try to install them.

Extracting The Files You Need
Here's how, using my system as an example:

Screen One shows the executable SP1 file -- currently named 'WindowsServer2003-KB889101-SP1-x86-ENU.exe' although the name could be different when you download it -- in an otherwise-empty folder I created as a temporary workspace.

Screen One
The Windows Server 2003 SP1 file is a self-extracting archive from which you can pull just the files you need, without having to install everything else.

(click image for larger view)

The Windows Server 2003 SP1 file is a self-extracting archive from which you can pull just the files you need, without having to install everything else.

I opened a command window in that folder, and then ran the SP1 executable file with the '-x' switch: In other words, I entered the command 'WindowsServer2003-KB889101-SP1-x86-ENU.exe -x' (without the quotes) as shown in Screen Two.

The -x switch unpacks the SP1 files without invoking the installer.

Screen Two
The -x switch unpacks the SP1 files without invoking the installer.

(click image for larger view)

Screen Three shows the extraction process beginning; asking for a destination for the unpacked files. You can accept the default location (that's what I did), or specify another.

Screen Three
The default unpack destination will usually work, but you can specify any convenient spot.

(click image for larger view)

The default unpack destination will usually work, but you can specify any convenient spot.

Once you accept or specify a destination, the actual unpacking of the files then begins, as shown in Screen Four.

Unpacking the files takes several minutes, but requires no further user input.

Screen Four
Unpacking the files takes several minutes, but requires no further user input.

(click image for larger view)

Screen Five shows both the final 'extraction complete' message, and the automatically-created 'i386' folder that contains all the newly extracted SP1 files.

Screen Five
By default, all the newly unpacked files are placed within an automatically created 'i386' subfolder.

(click image for larger view)

By default, all the newly unpacked files are placed within an automatically created ''i386'' subfolder.

Moving The Files To PEbuilder
The two files we need from SP1 are setupldr.bin and ramdisk.sys. Bart Lagerweij's boot-from-USB script will look for those files in a specific location; namely, a folder named 'srsp1' off the home directory of your PEbuilder installation.

In my example case, my PEbuilder folder is at E:pebuilder; so I created a new folder called E:pebuildersrsp1. I then simply copied and pasted the setupldr.bin file from the i386 folder (shown in Screen Six) to the E:pebuildersrsp1 folder.



Copy and paste setupldr.bin from the i386 folder to your PEbuilder folder.

Screen Six
Copy and paste setupldr.bin from the i386 folder to your PEbuilder folder.

(click image for larger view)

If you try to do the same copy and paste with ramdisk.sys, it won't work; instead you'll find a file called 'ramdisk.sy_' in the i386 folder. The trailing underscore is Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT)'s way of telling you it's a compressed version of the file, which must be expanded before use.

Screen Seven shows how: I opened a command window in the i386 folder, and used the command 'expand -r ramdisk.sy_ E:pebuilder313srsp1' (without the quotes) to decompress the ramdisk file, and write it to the E:pebuildersrsp1 folder.

Screen Seven
The 'expand -r' command lets you decompress ramdisk.sy_ into ramdisk.sys; and also to move it to the PEbuilder folder.

(click image for larger view)

The 'expand -r' command lets you decompress ramdisk.sy_ into ramdisk.sys; and also to move it to the PEbuilder folder.

The successful completion of the expand/move command is shown in Screen Eight.

If the decompress/move operation completes normally, you'll see results something like this.

Screen Eight
If the decompress/move operation completes normally, you'll see results something like this.

(click image for larger view)

Once you have the setupldr.bin and ramdisk.sys in your pebuildersrsp1 folder, you can then delete the other SP1 files, if you wish; including all the files in the i386 unpacking directory, and the original download file (e.g., 'WindowsServer2003-KB889101-SP1-x86-ENU.exe,' or whatever it was called when you downloaded it.)

Build The Custom Version Of XP
Use PEbuilder normally, following the directions that came with the software; or the illustrated, step-by-step directions in 'A Must-Have Repair And Recovery Tool.'

Note that the PEbuilder 'output folder' should remain the default 'BartPE' called for in the PEbuilder instructions. But because these files will soon be copied to your USB drive, you don't need to create or burn an ISO image for now. Just leave those options unchecked, when they're offered to you.

Prepare The USB Drive
The USB installer script 'pe2usb' included in your PEbuilder folder is the key to formatting your USB drive and setting up the XP files there. It's easy to use -- you just need to know what drive letter your USB device is using. In my case, I had a USB drive installed as drive K: on my system, so, following Bart's instructions, I entered the command 'pe2usb -f K:' (without the quotes) from my PEbuilder folder, as shown in Screen Nine. (The '-f' ensures that the USB drive is formatted before the files are copied to the device.)

Screen Nine
Here, the USB installer script (pe2usb) is being used to format (-f) the USB drive as part of the installation process. The USB drive is K: in this setup, but may have a different letter on your system.

(click image for larger view)

Here, the USB installer script (pe2usb) is being used to format (-f) the USB drive as part of the installation process. The USB drive is K: in this setup, but may have a different letter on your system.

Once the USB installer is running, it checks to make sure you really want to reformat the USB drive (as shown in Screen Ten); if you concur, it runs to completion as shown in Screen Eleven.

The USB installer script (pe2usb) takes a few minutes to run, but communicates fairly well with you during the process, via on-screen text messages.

The USB installer script (pe2usb) takes a few minutes to run, but communicates fairly well with you during the process, via on-screen text messages.

Screens Ten and Eleven
The USB installer script (pe2usb) takes a few minutes to run, but communicates fairly well with you during the process, via on-screen text messages.

(click images for larger view)



Making Sure The PC Is Ready
Before trying to boot from the USB drive, take a moment to ensure that your PC will do its part by checking the BIOS. Different PCs use different nomenclatures, but the BIOS setup tool on my PC had three areas to check. The first and most obvious was to make sure that 'USB Boot' was set to 'Enable,' as shown in Screen Twelve.

Your PC's BIOS settings may differ but the key settings are usually named something like what you see here and in the next two screens.

Screen Twelve
Your PC's BIOS settings may differ but the key settings are usually named something like what you see here and in the next two screens.

(click image for larger view)

Next, under 'Removable devices' (Screen Thirteen), I set the USB drive as the first drive, with the standard floppy drive second.

Screen Thirteen
Not all PC's require that you specify Removable devices; but if yours offers such a setting, see if a USB device is listed within.

(click image for larger view)

Not all PC's require that you specify Removable devices; but if yours offers such a setting, see if a USB device is listed within.

Then, under 'Boot Device Priority' (Screen Fourteen), I set the USB drive as first. I saved the changes (Screen Fifteen) and I was ready to go!

The Boot Order is important; you want the USB device to be first in line. Once that's set, save your changes, and reboot.

The Boot Order is important; you want the USB device to be first in line. Once that's set, save your changes, and reboot.

Screens Fourteen and Fifteen
The Boot Order is important; you want the USB device to be first in line. Once that's set, save your changes, and reboot.

(click images for larger view)

Or so I thought. But it didn't work. My PC wouldn't boot from the USB drive.

One Final Detail
In the BIOS settings under 'Removable devices,' my PC had lumped the USB drive in with a standard floppy drive; and that was a clue I'd missed. The output of the USB installer, shown in Screen Eleven, showed that the software set up the USB drive as if it were a hard drive. That can be fine in many PCs, but mine -- only a couple years old, and hardly ancient -- wasn't able to handle the mismatch.

This is apparently an extremely common cause for USB boot failures, so much so that other software developers have produced fixes. For example, 'Flashboot,' a tool from Prime Expert, is able to make many types of bootable USB setups on its own, but also has a special feature for processing a BartPE bootable CD image to USB; and to do so in either hard drive emulation format or floppy drive emulation. Flashboot is a commercial tool costing 19.95Euros (about US$24 as I write this), but has a free trial so you can be sure it will work for you before you pay.

I tried it, and Flashboot did as it promised, getting around my PC's limitations, and letting me boot from the USB drive.

Lots Of Help Available
As with so many tech step-by-steps, spelling out all the details can make things seem harder than they really are. Of course, that's not our intent here -- we're trying to lay out the details to make the process as clear as possible.

But in the event things don't work for you, don't worry: There's lots of additional help available, including these excellent resources:

  • Bart's Preinstalled Environment (BartPE)
  • Installing BartPE To USB Flash Disk
  • Windows In Your Pocket
  • Powerful Tools For Customizing Windows
  • BartPE on USB (search)

    Other approaches:
  • Boot Windows xp/2k from USB 2.0 hdd
  • Boot from USB Flash drive
  • Bootable XP/USB (search)

Well Worth Doing
Having BartPE -- in fact, an entire, lightweight installation of XP -- on a self-contained, zero-footprint, USB drive is a wonderful thing that opens a whole world of easier, more-portable computing, troubleshooting, and maintenance. Sooner or later, you'll have a USB drive -- and now you have the means to take XP with you, in your pocket






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