Vista on a stick: How to flash install your OS

This little trick can cut your work in half

In a world where there's too much to do -- and too little time to do it in -- we're always looking for shortcuts. So when we stumbled upon a blog entry by Kurt Shintaku over on Windows Live Spaces that promised to let us install Vista from a flash drive instead of an optical disc, there was certainly interest.

Why? Well, if we needed to install Vista on only one computer, it would be a case of "Who cares?" However, running down an aisle of 20 or 50 or 100 PCs with a flash drive in hand, pouring out data at 20MB/sec. – 25MB/sec. sure beats doing the same thing with a disc in hand and an optical drive pumping away at 16MB/sec. – 21MB/sec. Sure, it doesn't sound like much of a speed boost on paper, but when you start multiplying those small transfer rates by the length of each operation and then the number of repetitions, time can fly or it can crawl. The claim for the flash drive was that it soars, as much as 50% faster in some instances (assuming your PC's BIOS will let you boot from a USB device in the first place).

If that wasn't bait enough, fast 4GB flash drives aren't expensive, they can be recycled as Vista ReadyDrives when you're done, and best of all, the instructions for transferring our Vista disc to flash looked so easy a caveman could …, well you get the picture. There were only 10 steps:

select disk 1
create partition primary
select partition 1
format fs=fat32
xcopy d:\*.* /s/e/f e:\

All right, you've just had a panic attack. What the heck are those? They're command-line instructions. You need to start things off by clicking your way through Start/All Programs/Accessories/Command Prompt. It sets up a DOS (remember that?) command screen. "Diskpart" starts a scripting subroutine that lets you enter line commands (which are the next  eight things in the list), after which you exit the subroutine and use xcopy to transfer the contents of the disc to flash. See? Simple.

All right, it would be if it worked, but try as we might -- and we did for hours and hours and hours of iterations -- it didn't. We could manually start the install from the flash drive from a computer that was already up and running, but it wouldn't boot -- and that's important when you're beginning with a blank PC.

The situation was very surprising because Ken Shintaku "works for Microsoft as a Principal Technology Specialist in Southern California." Then we noticed that Ken had stripped some of the front-end stuff from a colleague's blog and, in that way that technicians can often be careless with simple things, he forgot to mention something his colleague did: You need to do this from a Vista PC.

Again there's a why? Under XP, diskpart doesn't seem to recognize the flash device as a drive. It will display the device as a volume, but the remaining diskpart commands couldn't care less about that. Vista, on the other hand, recognizes the flash device as a drive. That's why we could transfer the contents of the Vista disc under XP, but we couldn't use the diskpart commands to make it a boot device. Needless to say, our first Vista install was from disc.

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