The Rufus USB tool may ease building bootable Windows flash drives

Find out about a quick, free alternative to the Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool -- the open source Reliable USB Formatting Utility.

The Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool lets you make a USB flash drive bootable for operating system installations....

It also enables you to run diagnostic tools and to work on a computer without an OS already installed.

The name is a bit misleading because this tool works just fine for Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 8.1. To run it on Windows XP, though, you need to install Microsoft .NET Framework v2 and the Microsoft Image Mastering v2 application programming interface before installing the tool.

A faster, easier alternative is Rufus, short for Reliable USB Formatting Utility, an open source offering created and maintained by Pete Batard. (Surprisingly, Batard doesn't solicit donations to keep the project going, but he does suggest donating to the Free Software Foundation.)

The Rufus USB tool is compatible with Windows XP and higher, including Windows 8.1, and 32- or 64-bit systems. The executable is just under 600 KB, compared with the Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool at 2.6 megabytes.

To get started (see Figure 1), download the Rufus executable (rufus-1.4.5.exe for this article) and run it. The file is saved to the Downloads folder by default, at least in Windows 7 and Windows 8.1.

Install and run the Reliable USB Formatting Utility.Figure 1. The open source Rufus tool can detect and configure
a variety of drives.

Rufus detects an attached universal serial bus flash drive automatically and displays it at the top of the Rufus dialog box. If you have multiple drives attached, just select the target drive in the dropdown list.

Available partition schemes include:

  • The Master Boot Record (MBR) partition scheme for BIOS or UEFI computers,
  • The MBR partition scheme for UEFI computers, and
  • The GUID Partition Table (GPT) scheme for UEFI computers.

The utility supports FAT32 (the default) as well as NTFS, UDF and exFAT. You can also select a cluster size -- 8,192 bytes, 16 KB (the default), 32 KB or 64 KB.

Under Format Options, you can check the "Check device for bad blocks" option and select the number of passes from the list on the right. Leave the "Quick format" and "Create extended label and icons" options checked, unless you have a specific need to disable them.

Select a target in the list to the right of the "Create a bootable disk using" option. Currently, you can choose from MS-DOS, FreeDOS, ISO Image or DD Image. If you select one of the image options, click the disc icon to the right, navigate to the target image, select it and click Open.

In our tests, our Dropbox cloud drive was available in the Open dialog box navigation pane in Windows 8.1, but it didn't appear in Windows 7. So, if you're running Windows 7 and store an ISO or disk drive image in the cloud, you might have to download the image to your local or network drive for Rufus to find it.

Before you click Start, be aware that Rufus will format the USB drive, overwriting the bootloader and MBR or GPT table, so all partitions on the drive will be deleted as well. Rufus documentation also notes that an ISO that can be dual-booted in UEFI or BIOS mode will lose the dual-boot ability on a USB drive in Windows 8.1.

Rufus help documentation is on the GitHub wiki. Developers can also find the source code on GitHub.

Similar open source utilities are UNetbootin, written by Geza Kovacs, and Universal USB Installer by USB Pen Drive Linux. UNetbootin lets you create a bootable live USB drive for one of many Linux distributions, and it runs under Windows, Linux and Mac OS X. It provides a simple, clean interface and gets the job done, but it doesn't have as many options as Rufus.

Universal USB Installer works similar to UNetbootin but provides a persistence option, which lets you save data changes to the USB drive rather than leaving it in RAM.

One handy thing about UNetbootin and Universal USB Installer is that they enable you to download one of several Linux ISOs, which can save a lot of time. For those with ample time or the need for a different flavor of Linux, you can also download a distribution from a trusted repository. With Rufus, you need to provide your own ISO and disk drive images, whether Linux, Windows or any others.

About the authors:
Kim Lindros
is a full-time writer, content developer and project manager who has worked around high technology and computing since the early 1990s. She co-authored MTA Microsoft Technology Associate Exam 98-349 Windows Operating System Fundamentals (Wiley, 2012) and PC Basics with Windows 7 and Office 2010 (Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2010), among other textbooks, and developed numerous college and corporate courses focused on IT security, Microsoft technologies, and Microsoft Office. She has also co-authored certification-related articles with Ed Tittel.

Ed Tittel is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry who has worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies including Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written and blogged for numerous publications and is the author of over 140 computing books with a special emphasis on information security, Web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.

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