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Mastering Windows 8 USB booting with Windows To Go

Follow simple rules to get better performance and reliable Windows 8 USB operation from Windows To Go devices.

Computing mobility has always been a challenge, obligating users to arrange multiple installations that are difficult to synchronize or carry a single system between locations. The introduction of Windows 8 Enterprise Edition offers a new option for employees and business users -- booting a full standardized image of Windows 8 from a USB flash drive or an external hard drive.

With this new Windows To Go paradigm, users can effectively boot a work desktop on any current computer, regardless of its location. This allows employees to work at home, at the office, at remote sites -- anywhere a computer is available. Let's examine several of the challenges that frequently arise with Windows To Go.

What is the preferred way to start or stop Windows To Go? Will my computer still work after removing the Windows To Go USB device?

Because Windows To Go is intended to serve as a boot alternative for a desktop or laptop's traditional internal hard drives, the best approach is to insert or remove the Windows To Go drive when the target computer is completely turned off. The PC should be completely shut down (powered off) before inserting the Windows To Go flash drive.

Once the system is powered on again, it should recognize and boot from the USB device, assuming that the PC is properly configured and capable of booting from a USB device. After the system has booted and run successfully, it's important to perform a complete shutdown (power off) again before removing the Windows To Go device from the device's USB port.

Never insert the Windows To Go drive into a machine once it has booted and started running a different operating system. Once the system is running with a Windows To Go drive, don't remove the USB device. If the Windows To Go drive is accidentally removed from a USB port, the system will halt for 60 seconds -- if the user doesn't reinsert the USB drive within that time into the same USB port, the system will turn off.

In addition, the Windows To Go image on the improperly inserted/removed USB drive might become damaged or corrupted.

Will my computer boot from a USB drive? How can I tell or configure the feature?

Boot options have evolved tremendously in recent years, growing beyond traditional magnetic floppy disks and hard drives to include optical media (CDs and DVDs), network devices and USB devices. However, the destination computer must provide adequate firmware support for alternative boot devices. The trick is to access the firmware to enable "boot from USB" as the first preferred boot option.

If the computer is already running Windows 8, users can adjust the boot device preference right through the OS. For example, press the Windows logo key and the W key together, and select the Windows To Go startup options entry. Then configure the computer to boot from USB, and be sure to save any changes.

Older PCs with previous versions of Windows will require users to manually configure boot options. This normally means rebooting the PC to the BIOS Setup, enabling the "boot from USB" option, and changing the boot order so that USB devices are booted first.

Remember that the actual step-by-step process used to access the BIOS Setup and the location of the USB boot options will depend on the firmware version, so you may need to review the documentation for your particular system. Older PCs may require a firmware upgrade to fully support a "boot from USB" option.

Remember that enabling a USB boot option will allow a system to boot from any USB device -- not just Windows To Go -- so be aware of the security risks posed by malicious USB devices. There is one last wrinkle with BitLocker -- users may need to suspend BitLocker before changing the system's boot options and then restore BitLocker operation after the boot changes are completed.

Should I use Windows To Go with a USB 3.0 port? Can I use Windows To Go on a USB hub? Am I limited to certain USB drivers or USB drive devices?

The proper USB support for Windows To Do drives can be a little tricky, so it's important to understand the hardware rules involved. First, Windows To Go is designed for the newer high-performance USB 3.0 drives that are properly certified for Windows To Go use. Vanilla USB 2.0 drives will typically not function properly.

However, Windows To Go drives should be fully readable in either USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 ports. You can distinguish USB 3.0 ports from older USB 2.0 ports because USB 3.0 ports are colored blue and include an "SS" marking.

More on running Windows 8 from
USB devices

Windows 8 BitLocker can secure data on Windows To Go USB drives

What are the best alternatives to Microsoft BitLocker?

Delivering Windows 8 corporate images via Windows To Go

How to use AppLocker and application sideloading in Windows 8

Pros and cons of using Windows To Go to deliver desktops

Looking at full-disk encryption in Windows 8 BitLocker

The principal difference here is in read performance. The venerable USB 2.0 standard dates back to April 2000 and offers a maximum theoretical data rate of 480 Mbps, though 280 Mbps is usually the top practical limit. These speeds are lower than those of SATA drives.

By comparison, the USB 3.0 standard of November 2008 provides theoretical speeds to 5 Gbps, with practical speeds to 4 Gbps. USB 3.0 supports dramatically higher data-transfer speeds, so a USB 3.0 drive in a USB 3.0 port should offer performance almost identical to running Windows 8 natively. This is why it's best to use Windows To Go on PCs with USB 3.0 ports.

Although Windows To Go will run on USB 2.0 ports (the USB 3.0 drives are backward-compatible), you'll certainly notice the reduced performance.

It's best to use the Microsoft-certified core USB drivers when imaging a Windows To Go drive. Non-Microsoft core drivers may cause reduced performance or system stability problems, so be sure to test performance and reliability of the USB subsystem anytime that USB drivers or firmware is changed.

One last note: USB devices often do not boot properly when connected to a USB hub. Hubs are notorious for introducing unacceptable latency to USB communications, and hubs often do not provide enough power for demanding USB devices. Always connect USB boot devices directly to the USB port on the system chassis, and avoid connecting the USB drive to any sort of hub.

Windows To Go offers enterprise users a unique approach to mobile work. Rather than attempting to create a single, ubiquitous device that meets an almost impossible balance of convenience, portability and performance, Windows To Go allows IT professionals to create desktop images onto USB 3.0 drives that can easily be transported among almost any systems capable of running Windows 7 or later.

Users get access to a standardized Windows 8 workspace wherever there is a suitable computer, yet businesses don't have to buy or service a proliferation of mobile systems. Getting the most from Windows To Go requires users to start or stop the platform properly, use USB 3.0 wherever possible and configure the destination system to boot USB devices.

Dig Deeper on Windows 8 and 8.1

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Do you use Windows To Go?
The employer has embraced the technology and it just works. Ok you can't plug it anywhere as there are a limited number of firmware boot up profiles the stick can remember but overall it's a revolution and I really love the fact that my little key is all I carry around while my colleagues still lug around their clunky laptops!! I love it!