Configure USB device to boot WindowsPE

It’s been a while since my last post but now I found some time to write a complimentary article to my “make your PE boot disk series”. While the make your PE disk series showed you how to make a bootable ISO, it is possible however to write the contents of the ISO to a USB stick and by following this guide to boot Windows PE from USB. The advantage of having a WinPE on USB is great flexibility, with a CD you always have to rebuild the ISO and burn it/mount it whenever you feel like adding new applications/scripts to it. With a flash drive you can just copy the data alongside the booting OS.

Here’s what you need:

  • USB stick of choice (portable USB HDD works aswell)
  • A PC running at least a Windows Vista kernel (Windows 7, 2008 – WinPE versions of these also work)
  • Administrator privileges on the machine.

With the introduction of Vista and later kernels making USB storage bootable for windows became so much easier. Before (win Xp/2003 days there were specialized tools that major hardware vendors had, as far as I know). Why this is was not working in XP/2003?

The reason is that 5.x Versions of Windows did not mark a USB device as hard disk storage device, and you could not use “diskpart” command line utility, to mark partitions as active, what you need to get WinPE to boot.

Diskpart is a pretty powerful disk partitioning utility that comes free with Windows, can be used to manage hard disks when you lack a GUI or are a scripthead like me :). What is great about it is that it’s also included in WindowsPE which can make WinPE a one stop shop for disk management up to a certain point.

The steps we will go through are:

  1. Use Diskpart to list all system disks and select our USB stick
  2. Partition USB stick as desired and mark a specific partition as active
  3. Copy WindowsPE files to the USB stick

Select system drive for WinPE boot

First step is open up your command prompt running it as Administrator. Type diskpart at the prompt and hit enter. After a few seconds you get a command prompt headed by “DISKPART>”.

At the prompt type list disk – this will list all available physical drives. This next step is CRUCIAL. Pay extremely good attention to the information shown. The command will list the disks on your system. Identify which on the disks listed there is your USB stick, use the “Size” parameter to figure it out. If you are still not sure what type of disk you have selected do following:

select disk [enter #] <<enter a disk number from the listing you did>>
detail disk

The output should say your select disk is TYPE:USB. If you get TYPE:ATA, list the disks again and select another number!

DISKPART> detail disk

Disk ID: 2EA32EA2
Type   : USB
Status : Online
Path   : 0
Target : 0
LUN ID : 0
Location Path : UNAVAILABLE
Current Read-only State : No
Read-only  : No
Boot Disk  : No
Pagefile Disk  : No
Hibernation File Disk  : No
Crashdump Disk  : No
Clustered Disk  : No

 Volume ###  Ltr  Label        Fs     Type        Size     Status     Info
 ----------  ---  -----------  -----  ----------  -------  ---------  --------
 Volume 6     G                NTFS   Removable   7679 MB  Healthy

Repeat the “select disk #” and “detail disk” until you find your USB device that you wish to make bootable. To see which disk you selected run:

DISKPART> list disk

 Disk ###  Status         Size     Free     Dyn  Gpt
 --------  -------------  -------  -------  ---  ---
 Disk 0    Online          186 GB      0 B
* Disk 1    Online         7680 MB      0 B

Up to this point we’ve done nothing to the usb device, but I hope you have a backup /don’t care about the data on, because it will be gone in the next step…

Prepare disk and mark as active

With the proper selected disk we will wipe all partitioning data from it, create a single partition, format it as NTFS, give it a drive letter, and mark the partition as active.

!WARNING!: The following will wipe your device, so make sure the selected disk it is the correct one. (use list disk and look for the “*” to see which disk is selected)

create partition primary
format fs=NTFS quick
assign letter=U

All of these commands will echo a response that they ran successfully, once done type exit to leave the diskpart context and let’s copy the WinPE files to disk.

Copy Windows PE Files

Ok, time for a little linking to my previous posts (post1 and post2). In these posts I discussed how to make a Windows PE boot Disk. IF you followed that tutorial (or similar ones on the internet) you will probably be stuck with a folder called ISO in the <PATH>\WinPE_x86\ folder. Also you should left with the ISO file. BOTH of them are good for this next step which is “Copy all the files from either the ISO folder or the ISO IMAGE you built to the root of the USB partition” (make sure you copy all files and folders including hidden ones). Yep, It’s that easy 🙂

Once you are done safely remove the USB device from the PC and attempt to boot from it. It should plain and simple work (provided your bios can boot from USB disk and you configured it to boot from USB disk properly). If your ISO image was working your USB stick should also be working.

I hope this was helpful and if you have feedback it is always welcome.