Seven steps to a bootable Windows 7 thumb drive

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I’ve been playing with Windows 7 Beta for a the past week or so and after loading it up on multiple machines I’ve learned a few things:

1. I hate waiting for DVDs to burn ISO images.

2. Half of my computers don’t have optical drives and I don’t want to buy an external one.

3. Creating a bootable USB thumb drive with Windows 7 loaded onto it is more complicated than it needs to be, but once it’s done it’s a great tool to have.

There are plenty of great tutorials out there that basically contain the same information as this one, but I thought I’d try to put together a how-to guide that made everything as simple as possible for people who might like the idea of Windows on a thumb drive but aren’t necessarily super comfortable with the actual process.

The only tangible thing you’ll need is a USB thumb drive with at least 4GB of capacity. I found a SanDisk Cruzer Contour worked best, while a Kingston DataTraveler was a bit fidgety at first but worked after a couple of tries.

It’s all pretty easy once you get going, so let’s begin.

Step One: Download Windows 7 Beta

download

Head over to http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windows-7/beta-download.aspx and jump through all the hoops to begin your download. For the sake of this exercise, we’ll assume that you’ll download the ISO file to your desktop. The download might take a while depending on your connection speed – set aside an hour to be on the safe side. Meanwhile, take a break. You’ve earned it!

Step Two: Download and install WinRAR

winrar

I hate guides that make me go download a bunch of software just to accomplish a task, so I apologize for making you do the same thing. I promise this will be the only third-party software that you’ll have to download and install, though, and it’s a great program to have on your computer anyway if you don’t already.

Head over to http://rarsoft.com/download.htm and click on the WinRAR 3.80 link to download the software. Once downloaded, install it.

Step Three: Extract the Windows 7 ISO file

extract

Once Windows 7 Beta has finished downloading, you should see a file on your desktop with a bunch of gobbledygook in the name like “7000.0.081212-1400_client_en-us_Ultimate-GB1CULFRE_EN_DVD” or something cryptic like that. Right-click on that file and choose “Extract to [gobbledygook]” as shown in the above picture. When the smoke has cleared, you’ll have a gobbledygook folder on your desktop. I’ll continue to refer to this folder as “the gobbledygook folder” for the rest of this guide.

Step Four: Format a 4GB USB thumb drive

formatusb

Head into “Computer” or “My Computer” and locate your USB thumb drive. In this instance, we’re dealing with the F: drive. Right click on the drive and choose “Format…” Then, we want to format the drive using the NTFS file system with the default allocation size, so make sure those two things are selected from the dropdown menus. You can check the Quick Format box, too, if it’s not already checked.

Step Five: The tricky BootSect.exe part

bootsectmove

Now we’re going to go back to our extracted “7000.0.081212-1400_client_en-us_Ultimate-GB1CULFRE_EN_DVD” gobbledygook folder and open the “boot” folder, inside which we’ll find a file called “bootsect.exe” that we’ll need to use.

If you’re comfortable navigating folders in DOS, then you can skip this particular step. If you don’t like DOS or haven’t used it much, we’re going to copy this bootsect.exe file into an easy-to-access location. Copy the file (CTRL-C) and then open up “Computer” or “My Computer” and double-click your C: drive.

copytoc

We’re going to paste (CTRL-V) that “bootsect.exe” file right into C: so we can easily access it in a moment. See it there? Fifth file from the bottom, all safe and sound?

Step Six: Do some Ninja-like stuff in DOS

cmd

Now we’re going to open the Command Prompt. If you’re using Vista or Windows 7, you’ll have to do the “Run as administrator” thing or we won’t be able to deploy our sweet flanking maneuvers that are coming up. So go into Programs > Accessories and then right-click on Command Prompt and choose “Run as administrator.”

cmd2

Once we’ve got the Command Prompt up, we’re going to switch to our top-level C: folder by simply typing “cd\” without the quotes and hitting Enter (If you skipped Step Five above, then navigate yourself to the “boot” folder inside the extracted ISO folder on your desktop).

cmd3

We should then have a straight-up C:> prompt. At this point, we’ll type the following (without the quotes):

“bootsect /nt60 f:”

We’re assuming the drive letter of your USB thumb drive is F:, so replace “f:” in the above phrase with whichever letter is assigned to your particular thumb drive. Hit enter and you should see:

cmd4

Blah, blah, blah your bootcode is something something. This just means that the thumb drive is now ripe to auto-load when you boot up your computer.

Step Seven: Copy the Windows 7 files to the thumb drive

copyfiles

This is it! The final step! Open up your extracted Windows 7 gobbledygook folder and copy the files over to your thumb drive. You should be copying five folders and three files to the thumb drive. That is, don’t drag the gobbledygook folder over; open it up first and drag the stuff inside of it over instead.

copyfiles2

It’ll take maybe about ten minutes for everything to copy over. Take another break! You’ve earned it!

When all is said and done, reboot your computer with the thumb drive in place and you should be greeted with the Windows 7 installation menu. If you’re not, you might have to tweak your BIOS settings to allow your c
omputer to recognize a thumb drive as a bootable device.

Questions? Comments? Rage?

I hope this little guide helps. I’ll try to answer any questions left in the comments section.

Also, if any of you out there are programmers, this whole setup is itching for some sort of automation process – something where a user could load up a program, select their thumb drive and Windows 7 ISO file and have the rest done automatically.

You’d be doing the world a great service.

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