Checking for BIOS support of booting from a USB flash driveBy Greg Shultz
The ability to boot Windows XP from a USB Flash Drive (UFD) offers endless possibilities. For example, you might make an easy-to-use troubleshooting tool for booting and analyzing seemingly dead PCs. Or you could transport your favorite applications back and forth from home to work without having to install them on both PCs.
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However, before you can create a bootable UFD, you must clear a few hurdles. You saw that one coming didn't you? The first hurdle is having a PC in which the BIOS will allow you to configure the USB port to act as a bootable device. The second hurdle is having a UFD that that will work as a bootable device and that's large enough and fast enough to boot an operating system such as Windows XP. The third hurdle is finding a way to condense and install Windows XP on a UFD.
If you have a PC that was manufactured in the last several years, chances are that its BIOS will allow you to configure the USB port to act as a bootable device. If you have a good quality UFD that's at least 512 KB and that was manufactured in the last couple of years, you've probably cleared the second hurdle. And once you've cleared those first two hurdles, the third one is a piece of cake. All you have to do is download and run some free software to create the bootable UFD.
I'll start by showing you how to determine whether your PC's BIOS will support booting from USB and explain how to configure it to do so. Then, I'll show you how to download and use the free software to create a bootable UFD running Windows XP Professional.
The UFD hurdle
You probably noticed that I didn't mention how to determine if your UFD would support being configured as a bootable device, except that it must be a good quality unit of recent manufacture. Well, I've discovered that when it comes to the actual UFD, you'll just have to try it and see what happens. As long as you have a PC with a BIOS that will allow you to configure the USB port to act as a bootable device and you have configured the installation correctly, it should work. If it doesn't, you probably have a UFD that can't boot.
I tested three UFDs on two new computers and had mixed success. First, I attempted to use a 128 MB PNY Attache but received an error message that said "Invalid or damaged Bootable partition" on both PCs. Next, I tried a 1GB Gateway UFD and it worked on both PCs. Then, I tried a 256 MB Lexar JumpDrive Pro and it worked on only one of the PCs. You can find lists of UFD brands that others have had success with on the Internet.
Checking the BIOS
Not every new BIOS will allow you to configure the USB port to act as a bootable device. And some that do allow it don't make it easy. On one of my example systems, it was a no-brainer. On the other, the UFD had to be connected to the USB port before it was apparent that I could configure it as a bootable device. Let's take a closer look.
On the test system with a PhoenixBIOS version 62.04, I accessed the BIOS, went to the boot screen, and found that USB Storage Stick was one of the options. I then moved it to the top of the list thus making it the first device to check during the boot sequence. (This particular BIOS also allowed me to press the [F10] key during the boot sequence and select any one of the available bootable devices, so it really wasn't necessary to move it to the top.)
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Bill Detwiler is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop support specialist in the social research and energy industries. He has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Louisville, where he has also lectured on computer crime and crime prevention.