Installing Windows XP Off of a USB Thumb Drive

… is an enormous pain in the ass.  The only installation mediums that Windows XP comes on that I know of are CDs and DVDs, from which you can of course rip images.  So if you don’t have a CD drive on your computer or your CD drive is broken, you have to jump through hoops.  Here are those hoops.  Jump through them at your own risk.

Hardware you will need:

  • A valid Windows XP CD or CD image compatible with your license key (eg. if you have an XP Home license that came with your computer, you should use an XP Home OEM disk)
  • A USB Key at least as large as the source installation media (1GB will do). Note that not all USB flash drives are bootable.  If this tutorial doesn’t work the first time, try again with a different USB flash drive.
  • A computer running Windows to set up the USB key with.
  • The computer you are trying to install Windows XP on.  Make sure it can boot from a USB device.

Software you will need:

  • usb_prep8
  • PeToUSB
  • bootsect

I have zipped all of these into a file available here.  When you unzip the archive you will only see two folders, bootsect and usb_prep8.  PeToUSB is inside of usb_prep_8.  Don’t even worry about it, just follow the instructions.

Making your bootable USB drive:

On the computer you are using for setup:

  1. Plug your USB key.
  2. Insert your installation media.  This means putting the CD into your CD drive, or if you have an image file mounting the image file using a tool like PowerISO.
  3. Unzip the archive.  Go into the usb_prep8 folder.  Run “usb_prep8.cmd” (double click it, highlight and hit enter, whatever).  This will pop up a command window.  Hit a key and it should start PeToUSB, which should detect your USB key.  It should look like this:p1
  4. Select your USB drive from the drop-down menu.  BE SUPER SURE THAT THIS IS THE RIGHT DRIVE, YOU WILL BE WIPING OFF ALL DATA.  Enter the path to your installation media.  For me that was the I: drive, where I had mounted the CD image.  Make the other settings look like mine.p2
  5. Hit the Start button.  Hit Yes on the prompt to continue.  Hit yes again when  it informs you that you are about to format your USB drive.  The format should only take a few seconds and end in a window that says “Operation Completed Successfully!”.  You may now close PeToUSB.  Hit the close button in the bottom right of its GUI. Do NOT close the command window from which it spawned.  This is your usb_prep8 window, leave it alone for a minute.  It should look like this:p3
  6. Now you have to run bootsect.  Go back to the folder where you unzipped USBBoot and go into the bootsect folder.  You need to navigate to this folder in a command prompt now.  If you know how to do this, do it.  If you don’t:  Start a new command prompt by hitting Start->Run, then type cmd into the window that comes up and press enter.  Type “cd “, then copy and paste the full path of the bootsect directory into the command prompt window.  Note that Ctrl-V doesn’t work, you have to right click and hit “paste” in the command window.  The whole command should look like “cd ‘C:Documents and SettingsUserdesktopUSBBootbootsect’ “.  Press enter.  Now type “bootsect.exe /nt52 <YOUR USB DRIVE LETTER>:” and press enter  Your command window should look like this:p4
  7. If the operation completed successfully, you can close the command prompt in which you ran bootsect and return to you usb_prep8 prompt, which should be displaying a text menu.
  8. Press 1, press enter, then input the path to your installation media and press enter.
  9. Press 3, press enter, then input the drive letter of your USB drive.
  10. Make sure that the Virtual TempDrive letter selected does not correspond to an actual drive.  If it does (it shouldn’t), press 2, enter, then enter an unused driveletter.
  11. Verify your settings and press 4, then enter.  This is what my setting look like:p5
  12. You will be asked if you want to format your temp drive and warned that all data on that drive will be lost.  Since the drive doesn’t actually exist, you’re not really losing any data, so go ahead and press y, enter.
  13. You will told that a temporary image is about to be created on the temp drive, go ahead and press any key.
  14. Scrolling list of files for a minute or two, be patient.  For me it took about a minute to get to the next prompt.
  15. You will reach another “press any key” where it tells you its about to copy files from the temp drive onto your usb key.  Press a key.  Then it will ask if you’re sure you want to copy files, hit yes.  Next step takes 10-15 minutes, so go make yourself a sandwich while the files scroll by in your command window.
  16. You will get a prompt asking if you want to USB stick to be the preferred boot drive.  Hit yes.
  17. You will be asked if you want to unmount the virtual drive.  Hit yes.
  18. Enjoy your Windows Setup On A Stick!

Installing Windows From Your USB Drive:

This should be exactly like installing Windows XP from a CD, but with a few caveats.  You can find instructions on how to install windows from a CD elsewhere, I will just list the caveats.  I say stage 1 and stage 2 of the installation, for reference stage 1 is the non-GUI stage where files are copied over to the hard disk.  Stage 2 is the part where you normally reboot of the new installation on the hard disk and setup continues in GUI mode.

  1. Booting off a windows XP installation CD will prompt you whether to boot from the CD or from your hard disk with a “press any key to boot from CD”.  This USB key will bring up a menu with two options, one of which takes you to stage 1 of the installation process and the other of which takes you to stage 2.  Stage 2 is NOT just booting from the hard drive like it is when installing from a CD, Windows is started with special parameters that allow it to accept the USB key as an installation media.
  2. After stage 1 of the installation ( the no-GUI stage ), DO NOT REMOVE THE USB KEY.  You need to boot into the key menu again to complete stage 2.
  3. Remove the USB key only after you complete stage 2 of the install.

In Conclusion:

If your BIOS allows booting from an external CD ROM drive and you have one available, just do that.  Seriously.  It’s way easier.

Let me know if you find anything wrong in this post and I will correct it and credit you.  I drew information from a lot of forum posts all over the internet.

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