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Langa Letter: Solving USB Boot Problems

Sometimes, getting a PC to boot from a USB device can seem like black magic. Here's help!
(By the way, if you don't know your motherboard or BIOS vendor, you may find the Belarc Advisor, SISOFT SANDRA, and similar tools very helpful in identifying what's inside your PC without even having to open the case.)

Making The USB Device Itself Bootable
If your current operating system recognizes and can access (read/write) your USB drive; try right-clicking on the USB device in your operating systems' file manager, and see if a "format" option is offered. If one is, check further in the format menus to see if a "make bootable" or "copy system files" option is available. If one is, you're in luck. You may be able to use your existing operating system to format your USB device and make it bootable.

But, alas, odds are the above won't work due to common hardware or software limitations. In many cases, you'll need to try something else.

The simplest automated tool I've found for making almost any USB device bootable is the free "Windows-based Format Utility for HP Drive Key or DiskOnKey USB Device." It actually works with a much wider range of hardware than the name implies, and can add basic DOS-bootability to many, many brands and types of USB devices. You can download the software here. The instructions are simple, and the software takes only a few moments to format a USB device and copy over the necessary DOS boot files.

The purely manual method involves several steps, but is similar to that of partitioning and formatting any other drive type: You create a primary partition on the USB device, make the partition Active, format the USB drive and copy the necessary boot files (e.g. via "format/s" or with separate format and sys commands); and then ensure the Master Boot Record is written with a FDISK/MBR command. You can find these steps more fully detailed in many locations on the Web, including here.

Previous InformationWeek.com articles may also prove very helpful as you set up your USB boot device. For example, check out "The Perfect Rescue Tool, Part I" and "Part II".

See also two articles on command-line DOS tools, "Make A Custom Boot Disk"," and "A Bevy Of Boot Disks."

If you're needs are narrower, you also can find numerous special-purpose, dedicated tools that can assist you in creating very specific boot environments. For example, the "Linux bootable USB key HOWTO" contains a wealth of information for Linux systems.

And at the far end of the spectrum, there are very advanced boot tools such as "MKBT, Make Bootable," which can be used to make almost any medium bootable, but which require more user knowledge to make work.

But, with a little luck, one of the simpler solutions will work for you, and your foray into bootable USB devices will be easy, fast, and painless!

What's worked--or not worked--for you? Please share your USB-booting experiences so we all can learn what combinations of hardware and software make for smooth sailing, and which generate undue difficulty. Which brands or versions of USB devices have you found to be worthwhile, reliable, and cost effective? Which have been disappointments? Join in the discussion!