Solving USB Boot Problems

In "What’s Behind The USB Drive Revolution" ( ) we began an exploration of the different types of compact, removable drives— sometimes called pen drives, thumb drives, jump drives, keychain drives, and so on— that attach to your PC via a USB port. Usually, these devices electronically disguise themselves so the PC they’re attached to treats them as a kind of floppy drive, but they add vastly more storage than any floppy can: USB pen drives typically add anywhere from 16 Mbyte to more than 4 Gbyte of portable storage to your system.

Almost any USB-equipped PC can read and write files to these devices, making them a nearly universal tool for moving larger files around without a network, or even serving as a backup medium for selected files. Most newer PCs also can boot directly from these devices, and that brings us to today’s topic.

In theory, making a USB drive bootable should be utterly simple: After all, a USB drive presents itself to the system as a kind of floppy-like medium, and every PC for the last 20 years has known how to boot from a floppy. But, naturally, it’s often not that simple: There can be problems on both the software and hardware side of making a USB device bootable.

On the software side, there can be issues with finding the correct, essential boot files in the first place. Some OSes— many Linux distributions, for example— lack a simple, obvious "make boot floppy" menu item; you may need to cobble together a boot floppy on your own, or download a preconfigured boot floppy image that may or may not contain the exact files you need and want.

Windows can have problems, too: For example, in newer versions of Windows, your main OS may use NTFS, but the OS’s "make boot/system floppy" function will produce a DOS-based boot disk that won’t give you access to your NTFS files. And there can be other software problems, too.

On the hardware side, some older PCs simply cannot boot from any USB device at all. And other older PCs that can recognize and handle a version 1.0 or 1.1 USB boot device may totally choke with faster USB 2.0 bootable hardware.

So you see: Booting from USB devices isn’t quite the walk in the park that some vendors might want you to think!

In a new, full-length (and free!) column posted at , I’ll walk you through the many factors affecting boot-from-USB. You’ll see how to access and modify the BIOS Setup program built into your PC; how to see just what (if any) boot-from-USB support your PC offers; how to activate it if it’s there; and how to add it if it’s not.

We’ll then look at making a USB Device itself bootable, and I’ll give you links to the best free tools I know for doing this the fast, easy, and automated way. But, as usual, we’ll also discuss manual ways you can use if or when the automated tools fail.

We’ll also touch on the two most common errors people make in setting up USB booting. Miss these steps, and things just won’t work, even if everything else is done perfectly.

Click on over to . See you there!

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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.