Installing and Booting Vista from a USB Flash Drive

My brother recently had to swap hard drives in his ThinkPad. Seeing as his fancy IBM doesn’t have a disc drive, he needed to figure out a different way of installing Vista on the machine after the swap. Now like most of us he had seen the many articles stating you can install Vista from a USB drive so he decided to give it a go. To start off with he found the instructions on Kurt Shintaku’s blog but it turned out they were not entirely applicable.

What the many people who cite this method don’t say is that you have to have a computer with Vista already installed to follow the procedure. Why? Because diskpart works differently in Vista and XP. For one thing you can’t use diskpart to format disks in XP.

He formated the disk to FAT32 as per the instructions but for what he describes as “an eternity” all he got was error messages: This is not a system disk, there is an error on the disk etc. So he tried to format it in NTFS. But that just resulted in new error messages such as “Can’t find NTLDR” (NTLDR being the start file for NTFS file systems).

Then, after what must have been years of experimenting (if we are to believe that it took a full eternity to figure out something was wrong) with different partitioning software, he found a working algorithm:

Before you begin,

  1. the USB drive main partition needs to be active
  2. you have to copy the contents of your vista install disk onto the USB drive
  3. you need to make sure the USB drive’s boot sector is the correct one this is how I did it:

OK. Here we go:

  1. Go into hardware properties of the usbdrive: My Computer -> right click the USB drive -> select Properties -> select Hardware -> select the correct drive -> select Properties again -> select Policies -> select Optimize for Performance.(This is to make it formatable with NTFS, so strictly speaking it’s not necessary, it’s just how I got it working. If you do this, you have to remember to always use Safe Eject on this drive. If you don’t you might corrupt some files.)
  2. Open Command Prompt and write the following (commands in bold italics):
    1. diskpart
    2. list disk
    3. find the drive you want and then type: select drive # (so if it’s disk 1, you type disk 1)
    4. clean
    5. create partition primary
    6. select partition 1
    7. active
    8. assign
    9. exit

    This should delete everything on the USB drive and then make a new partition without a file system on it.

  3. Find out what drive letter your USB drive has (you find out by looking for it in My Compuber). Still in Command Prompt, type: format f: /fs:ntfs
    It will ask you for confirmation and then a name.
  4. Now that you have a clean USB drive it’s time to fill it. Find your Vista Install Disk and find out what drive letter it has. in my example it’s d:so, still in Command Prompt type: xcopy d:\*.* /s/e/f/r/h/x f: (where f: is your drive letter for the USB drive). There are probably 3 slashes more than stricty necesary, but it’s nice to stay on the safe side. /s/e/f should copy all files and subfolders while /r/h/x should keep the ownerships and copy any hidden files.
  5. Here comes the fun part; Make the USB drive bootable into Vista Install.
    On the Vista Disk there is a folder called boot. Copy this folder to your hard drive (and remember where you put it). Using Command Prompt, find this folder and
    type: bootsect /nt60 f: It’s very important that you are carefull with this command since it can change the bootsector on all drives on the computer if you manage to screw it up. To be safe you can write just: bootsect or: bootsect /help the first time and get some understanding of what you are doing. If you are too lazy, here is the short explanation: Bootsect is a small program that changes the bootsector on a drive (or all drives or just the system drive) to either want to boot with ‘NTLDR’ or the new system that uses the file ‘bootmgr’. If you try to do this from the usbdrive it won’t work as it should since you are trying to edit the disk you are using the program on. I think it’s supposed to make it able to boot from FAT32 systems too, but i didn’t get that to work, so I say stick to NTFS.
  6. Now you should have an USB drive that you can use to install Vista from boot (provided your PC will let you boot from USB that is).

[Disclaimer: I do not take responsibility for any destroyed computers / lost data / marital break-ups resulting from trying this procedure. Although my brother usually knows what he’s doing he has also destroyed an impressive number of computers. Consider yourself warned!]

38 thoughts on “Installing and Booting Vista from a USB Flash Drive

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  2. Nice article. Thanks.
    Like your brother, I lacked an optical drive on the PC in qesiton and any other Vista machine.

    With this article and a bit of fiddling myself I was able to make active the inactive bootable Vista partition on my HDD.

    One clarification I would like to make to your article is that I had to boot a XP machine with the Vista installation disk, in order to get to a Vista command prompt and run diskpart in there. Apart from that, I did everything else as described above.

  3. Hi 🙂 I’m just new to these stuff and i was interested in this article but there is something that i don’t get .. every time i do list disk it just gets me the disk 0 which is m HDD .. can u help me with that please 🙂 .

      1. No, you don’t need a computer with vista on it. that was the whole reason i had a problem in the first place. I didn’t have a computer with vista.

        As for why your usb stick isn’t showing up in diskpart, that might be because of the brand of usb stick. from what i’ve seen different usb sticks are partitioned in different ways. some of them have hidden partitions that make them invisible to diskpart. if you want to use them you first have to do a hard-partitioning of the stick. that can be done with a 3rd party partitioning program. partition magic used to be a good one, haven’t tried it in a while. gparted is free and you can find it on a live cd from ubuntu. once you’ve completely removed all partitions and made a new primary one it should show up in diskpart, but then you might not need to use diskpart.
        I wouldn’t recomend trying to do a hard-partitioning on your usb stick unless you know what you are doing.

        1. you neither need vista nor a particular usb drive, the thing is it must be in ntfs then only it will show up in diskpart

  4. @VoldEMorT
    may be after step open cmd and type diskpart, you can type disk list to see which is your usb drive.. if you have 2 HDD, then the usb drive must be disk 2..
    hope this can solve your problem..

  5. @VoldEMorT
    may be after step open cmd and type diskpart, you can type list disk to see which is your usb drive.. if you have 2 HDD, then the usb drive must be disk 2..
    hope this can solve your problem..

  6. VoldEMorT;
    I’ve seen that sometimes the USB drive won’t show up in diskpart. I don’t remember exactly why, but it might help trying a different USB drive. I think I saw the same thing the first couple of times I tried to make a USB HDD bootable, and I think I solved it by doing a complete reformat of the drive in partition commander or something like that.
    I wouldn’t recommend trying that seeing as when trying to figure out how to do all this I actually spent 18 hours fiddleing with 2 USB drives and a USB HDD in 3 or 4 different partitioning programs. (would have been alot easier to just find my USB DVD drive, but where’s the fun in that)

    I have seen that some USB drives are harder to find in diskpart. My expirience is that it’s usually easier to find the high end USB drives like Corsair.

    If I remember correctly (was a while ago I did this) what I did was to go into some partitioning program and remove all the partitions on the USB drive and then add a new one that was active and format it to NTFS.

    Some USB drives won’t show up in most partitioning programs, one of my first ones I lost all the data I had on it when I accidentaly managed to crash a format of the drive, it wouldn’t show up as a drive anymore. I had to go to the manufactorers website and download a program from them to be able to reformat it so that it was usable again.

    Also to Andrew;
    When I was figuring this out I couldn’t use the vista version of diskpart, that was actually my main problem since al the guides i found all required vista in the first place. So it should be completely possible to follow this guide without having to get into the vista version of diskpart.
    But if you can use it, the vista version has a few more posibilities that could make the process a bit quicker

  7. Only thing I might comment on is that it isn’t necessary to format the flash drive to ntfs. Fat32 will work just fine. In fact, it isn’t a good idea to “ntfs” your flash drive at all, because you may not be able to get it back to original again.

  8. I only had some trouble getting Bootsect to fix the bootsector of a fat32 drive to be able to use bootmgr to boot with. It should be possible to get it working, but i didn’t.

    The only flash drives i’ve had trouble with getting back to original state have been some really cheap drives that windows refused to find in diskpart and a drive that crashed during a format. with newer drives it shouldn’t be a problem.

    a simple way of doing it should just be to reverse step 1 of the guide, redo step 2 and do step 3 with /fs:fat32 instead of /fs:ntfs.
    Haven’t tried it though so i’m not a 100% sure.

    If you only use the usb drive on windows computers it can actaully be smarter to have it in ntfs because of native disk compression and being able to save larger files.

  9. NTFS is the best part of this method. A fully updated All-In-One Vista installer has a file that is over 4GB (files over 4GB will not copy to a FAT32 drive). With this method, you can have 11 fully updated vistas & a fully updated Office installer on a microSDHC card the size of a fingernail…if we can do this, WHERE ARE THE FLYING CARS?

  10. hello ive tried to install vista onto my usb using the cmd lines but when i type in list disk it cant see my usb and i dont know who to fix it i have tried formatting it with NTFS and FAT and FAT32 but nothing seems to be working.

    please help

  11. @Alex

    Some USB drives are set up with different partitions than others when you buy them. I’ve seen that windows won’t find some drives in diskpart sometimes, mostly on cheaper ones though (i’ve commented on that above). it can sometimes help to use a different program to format the drive totaly (not really recomended but if you know what you are doing it might work) one such program is usbprep mentioned in http://www.digwin.com/view/installing-windows-xp-from-usb-flash-drive (William found that one) or you can find a different partitioning tool and try that (I think i’ve tried http://www.partition-manager.com/ or something similar once. that made it possible for me to find it in diskpart.)

    If you use a partitioning tool you might not need to do anything in diskpart at all.

    it might work, and it might not. what i can say is that the way it’s described here worked for me on my Corsair Voyager GT http://www.corsair.com/products/voyager/default.aspx

  12. Hi. FINALLY the proper instructions to do this. Wow. I was stuck without step #5 for far too long. I kept thinking “uh, those instructions don’t set any kind of boot record, this thing will not boot”. Lo and behold, when i try to boot off of it, it failed. Bootsect is EXACTLY the step that was missing from that first article that fixed everything.

    THANK YOU.

  13. Is this method still applicable only in Vista systems? Or can I do it in an XP system? I’m confused because that’s what you said your main problem was and found a method for it, but it seems to be applicable only on Vista.

    1. This solution is about how to install vista from a usb flash drive and how you can set the drive up when you don’t have a vista system to set it up with. the whole lack of bootsect in windows xp.
      This solution can be used for vista, windows server 2008 and windows 7. It doesn’t work for windows xp.

      If you want to install windows xp from a usb flash drive you should have a look at http://www.eeeguides.com/2007/11/installing-windows-xp-from-usb-thumb.html
      I’ve used that method once. What you should know about that method is that it doesn’t like usb flash drives that are too large. So I had to find an old 1gb drive to get it working.

  14. Wow, thanks so much for posting this. The best step by step process for installing Vista on a USB for installation. Mine is working as we speak. I just wanted to comment and say thanks!

  15. Damn, this sounds legit. Thanks for the post. Knew this could be done. Only a matter of finding the right resources. Gonna give it a bash. Will report later. That being said, to anyone attempting anything like this etc. etc. PLEASE PLEASE, FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS TO THE TEE. People who post with detail like are trying to help and expect u to do so, SO DO IT!! @kloper, respect for your intel.

  16. If you want a easy way (no need using command prompt, also avoid the problem of not seeing your usb drive when using the ‘list disk’ command) for creating a bootable usb drive for installing windows 7, download and use the tool from here.
    http://download.cnet.com/Windows-7-USB-DVD-Download-Tool/3000-18513_4-10972600.html
    You can find the instructions here
    http://www.intowindows.com/how-to-create-bootable-windows-7-usb-to-install-windows-7-from-usb-flash-drive-using-windows-7-dvdusb-tool/

  17. i have a problem, my drive is operable, i ca
    n write to ad read from this 8 gig flash, but whe
    n i hit “list disk” it does
    n ot show up. im stuck. does this mea
    n my drive is simply
    n ot bootable?

  18. i should also add that ive tried a million other tutorials on how to do this and yours is the only one that actually worked

  19. Great instructions and finally worked a treat. Got stuck at one stage and found you had to run the command prompt as administrator, otherwise you couldn’t copy the Vista files. Hope this helps anyone who gets stuck at this stage (Stage 4; see above). Also had to remove USB when laptop restarts during installation and change boot order, otherwise installation starts again from scratch.

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