How to Create a Windows 7 Installation USB Drive

Let’s face it — optical media is slowly dying. Chalk it up to robust internet connections or the innate unreliableness of the medium itself but the fact remains that an increasing number of users are slowly shying away from putting optical readers in their computers.

While you can just download most of the software you need, installing your operating system itself requires the use of a DVD drive. I, for one, find it tedious to install an optical drive for the sole purpose of installation. Surely, there must be a better way!

Today, I’d like to walk you through the process of creating a USB drive through which you can install the latest version of Windows. All this in under 5 minutes.

Word to the Wise

Before we get to the walkthrough, here are a couple of things to keep in mind.

First up, we’re going to take the slightly more involved, hands-on route today. If getting up and running is your primary objective, you should just grab the Windows USB download tool here. Creating a bootable USB drive from here is just a point and click affair, nothing complicated.

You’re probably wondering as to why we’re taking another path today. Good question! While simple wizards are excellent for getting something done, sometimes you’d probably want to know how things work in the background — the voodoo that happens under the hood.

This is after all what separates us from our fruit flavored brethren. We tweak the registry because we’re bored, we manually overclock our CPUs to improve our SuperPI scores, we spend hours tweaking INI files to eke out a few more FPS. We’re PC users gosh darnit and we like customizing and tuning everything! With those imperious thoughts in our heads, let’s get started!

Step 0: Requirements

Instead of rushing into things half bummed, let’s collect our thoughts for a moment and quickly make a list of what we need.

  • A USB drive. Any run of the mill USB drive will do – flash memory, hard drive based, it doesn’t matter. Just make sure its size is 4gb or above and you’re good to go.
  • A computer running Windows 7. As I mentioned earlier, we’ll be making some tools bundled with Windows 7.
  • A Windows 7 installation disc for the obvious reasons.

Step 1: Back up and Glean Information

The first step when you’re dealing with data is always this — back up your data. I can’t quite repeat this enough. You may have important data in the drive that you may need at a later date. Don’t worry about wasting space, storage is dirt cheap now-a-days. Copy it over and stow it somewhere safe!

With the data taken care of, let’s find out some information about the USB drive that we’ll need later. With the drive plugged in, open up the start menu and type in diskmgmt.msc.

This graphical tool outlines all the storage devices that are attached to your machine. On my computer, this is what it reports:

Report from the disk management tool

Report from the disk management tool

The information you need is the disk number — 1 in my case. Make a note of it, you’ll need it later.

Step 2: Format and Make it Bootable

On to the meat of this walkthrough. Pay close attention to the steps below since there’s a very real chance of screwing up things here. We’ll be working with quite low level tools and there’s no undo here!

First up, open up the tool we’ll be using today. You can search for diskpart on the start menu or use Windows + R to bring up the Run window and then go from there. Either way, remember that the utility has to be run with admin privileges to function properly.

If you feel squeamish around command lines, you can dive into the system32 folder on your PC and launch the executable directly. Keep in mind though that everything below requires you to dive into the command line.

From here, follow the sequence below carefully. I’ll outline what the purpose of each of these commands.

  • select disk ## — Selects the disk designated by the passed in number for all subsequent commands. 1 in our case.
  • clean — Wipes the device by removing all partitions and the data it contains. Note: Proceed with caution. Make sure that you specify the correct drive. There’s no undo!
  • create partition primary — Creates a new primary partition.
  • select partition 1 — Let’s go ahead and select the partition we created above for all further manipulations. We’re passing in 1 because the drive contains a single partition — the one we created just moments ago.
  • active — Marks the current partition as containing a valid system partition.
  • format fs=fat32 — Formats the drive using the fat32 file system. While NTFS is the modern alternative, it requires a few more needless steps. Let’s take the simpler route for once. Depending on the size of the drive, this may take a while since the utility performs a complete format instead of a quick runthrough. For some context, it took me around 6 minutes on a 8gig drive. Yeah, I lied about the 5 minutes part earlier.
  • assign — Unsurprisingly, this command instructs the utility to assign a Windows volume to the drive. To put it simply, it assigns the next available letter.

Whew! That wasn’t as complicated as I lead on, was it? At this juncture, this is how your command line should look.

Diskpart doing its thing!

Diskpart doing its thing!

Step 3: Copy the Setup Files

We’re pretty much done here. All that’s left is to copy over the files from the installation disc. While the inbuilt copy and xcopy are the usual commands you’d use, I’m going to take a turn into the cutting edge to use another extremely useful tool that was introduced in Windows Vista — Robocopy.

Go ahead and enter the following into a command prompt: Robocopy ‘1’ 2 /E

Substitute 1 with your destination drive’s drive letter and 2 with the path of the installation DVD. The e parameter specifices that even empty directories should be copied. Make sure to leave the quotes intact.

If you’ve already copied the files from the DVD to another location, that’ll work perfectly too. And will probably end up making the transfer process faster.

If you wish to stop messing around with the command line at this point, you can merely copy all the files from the installation DVD and just copy them over through the Explorer interface.

Step 4: Configure your BIOS

This is the home run section. Your computer has a specific search order during which it looks for operating systems to boot into. Most computers look at USB drives before the main hard drive but your configuration maybe different due to which you may not be able to boot into the USB drive.

Every BIOS is different but they follow the same basic screens and ideas. For example, in my BIOS, the relevant settings are under the Advanced BIOS settings. Just move your USB drive to the top most position and you’re done.

Navigating the BIOS options

Navigating the BIOS options

Choosing to boot from the USB drive

Choosing to boot from the USB drive

Alternatively, almost every BIOS provides a hotkey to modify the booting device during boot. It’s F11 on my BIOS which leads to a screen as shown below:

Working with the quick boot menu

Working with the quick boot menu


And that’s about it. At this point, you should have a fully functioning, bootable USB drive through which you can install Windows 7 on any USB equipped computer.

Not only does the USB drive provide you with an option that’s DVD free for all future installs but also provides you with seriously shorter install times!

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