Easiest way to install Windows with a USB flash drive

WinToFlash

This article shows you how to install Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, or Windows 8 on a computer using a USB flash drive. This lets you install Windows on a netbook or another computer that may not have a disc drive. You’ll still need a computer with an optical disc drive and a Windows XP installation disc in order to prepare the flash drive though.

A few years ago I wrote a long, complicated tutorial explaining how to install Windows XP on a netbook without a CD-ROM drive. It’s still a pretty good resource if you want to understand the process. But it turns out there are now easier ways. Much easier ways.

If you’re trying to install Windows 7 or Windows 8, the simplest method is to use Microsoft’s official Windows 7 USB/DVD tool to transfer the Windows installation files to an 8GB or larger flash drive. You can check out our guide for installing Windows 8 on a netbook for step-by-step instructions.

Installing Windows XP using a USB flash drive is a bit trickier, since Microsoft doesn’t offer an official tool. That’s where a free app called WinToFlash comes in. You can use it to transfer the Windows XP installation files to a USB flash drive and then use that stick to install Windows. The latest versions of WinToFlash also support Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8, but it’s the Windows XP feature that really stands out.

Here’s how to use WinToFlash to install Windows XP on a netbook or any computer without a disc drive. You’ll need a Windows installation disc, a 2GB or larger USB flash drive, and a separate computer that does have a disc drive so that you can copy the installation files to your flash drive. (Alternately, if you have a Windows XP ISO file instead of a disc, you can mount it as a virtual drive using SlySoft CloneDrive or a similar app).

Preparing the USB flash drive

1. Download WinToFlash from the developer website or from SoftPedia.

2. Unzip the file to a folder on your computer.

3. Navigate to that folder and double-click on WinToFlash.exe

WinToFlash_1

4. The first time you run WintoFlash you’ll go through a startup wizard.

  • Click “next” on the Welcome menu to continue
  • Check the box that says you agree to the EULA and then click “next” to continue.

  • If you’ve paid for a license you can enter it now — but you don’t need a license to install Windows XP. Just click “next” if you don’t have one.
  • Keep clicking “next” until you finish the wizard.
  • This should take you to the main menu, where you can either follow the setup wizard or click the “Advanced” tab if you want to customize your options. We’ll be sticking with the wizard for now.
5. Click the big check box to start the Wizard. 

WinToFlash

6. Select “next.”

7. Make sure you’ve inserted your Windows installation disc into the disc drive and a USB flash drive into the USB port. 

8. Select the appropriate drive letters for your Windows disc and USB flash drive and then click “next.”

WinToFlash

9. Accept the license agreement and click “Continue.

10. WinToFlash will now copy all the files from your Windows disc to your flash drive and prepare it so that you can boot from the flash drive. 

11. When the progress bar reaches the end and the word “Finished” appears, you can click the “next” and then “exit” buttons to end the program. 

Booting from the USB flash drive. 

Now you should be able to use the USB flash drive instead of a CD or DVD to install Windows. But you’ll need to make sure your computer can boot from a flash drive. Unfortunately there’s no one-size-fits-all way to do this.

In general, what you’ll need to do is:

  • Turn off your computer.
  • Plug in the USB flash drive.
  • Turn on the computer by pressing the power button.
  • When you see the splash screen or BIOS menu (and before Windows starts to load), hit a special function key (this is often Esc, F1, F10, or Del).

This will typically either get you into a boot device menu or the BIOS settings where you should be able to select the device you want to boot from or adjust the boot order. In other words, your computer may normally try to boot first from a hard disk, then from a USB flash drive. You want to reverse the order, save the changes, and then boot your computer again — this time without hitting Esc, F1, or what have you.

If all goes according to plan, you should soon see a “Windows loading” message on your screen and you can follow the on-screen instructions to install Windows on your computer.

Thanks to Lee at Download Squad for introducing me to WinToFlash.

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