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Install Windows 7 with a USB Memory Key

There doesn't appear to be a supported way to integrate Windows 7 with Service Pack 1 (SP1), though of course various third party tools will no doubt step in to fill that gap. While I ensure this is the case with Microsoft, I thought I'd touch on a related topic I've been thinking about lately: New Windows 7 installs. I'll be migrating my home server to Windows Home Server 2011 when the final version of that product becomes available, and will be documenting that process when it happens. But I've also been looking at my various desktop and portable PCs and have begun the process of wiping them out and reinstalling a fresh copy of Windows 7 with SP1.

There are many reasons for this. I tend to wipe out my own PCs on a fairly regular basis because of all the software I test. But I'm also beginning the process of migrating existing PCs--and perhaps servers, we'll see--to SSD (solid state drive) devices which, while still expensive, offer dramatic performance improvements over standard hard drives (HDDs). On my desktops, I'll be experimenting with SSD boot devices and normal HDDs for data, and on my notebooks I'm moving from HDDs to SSDs or hybrid disks (which combine solid state storage with traditional hard drive hardware).

Another part of this process involves removing optical disk technology from as many PCs as possible. These drives take up space in computers and are becoming superfluous, so I'm eliminating where I can and trying to purchase optical drive-less PCs going forward. This is particularly important for portable devices, where the saved space can be used for additional battery, increasing portability. Or it can simply result in a smaller PC, which also enhances portability.

With regards to the integrated versions of Windows 7 and SP1 I need to install, I've obtained the appropriate Setup ISOs (disk images) from my MSDN subscription, and of course those with TechNet subscriptions and other sources of obtaining such files can do similarly. But rather than burn the ISOs to DVDs, as I have typically done in the past, this time around I'm using a handier and more easily reusable media type to install Windows 7: The lowly USB memory key. And as it turns out, there are a couple of ways to make this happen.

Method #1: Use Microsoft's Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool

In the past, Microsoft offered a tool called the Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool that automated the process of converting a Windows 7 Setup ISO file and copy its contents to a bootable USB storage device or to DVD. I documented using this tool to install Windows 7 on a netbook computer--because such machines typically don't include optical drives--in my article Upgrade A Netbook From Windows XP To Windows 7, part of the Windows 7 Upgrade Scenarios series from October 2009.

Those instructions should work fine with an integrated Windows 7 and SP1 ISO image. But there's just one problem: While this tool is in fact still available from third parties, Microsoft's original download and documentation links for the tool are currently MIA. So I'm not necessarily comfortable recommending this going forward, especially if Microsoft isn't committed to updating and support the tool. (Update: Not sure how Google/Bing failed me so badly, but Microsoft does still offer this tool on this web page.)

But that's OK, because the alternative way to using a USB memory key to install Windows is still pretty simple...

Method #2: Use Tools Built Into Windows

Automation is always wonderful, but Windows 7 includes all almost the tools you need to copy the contents of a Windows 7 Setup ISO file (or a Windows 7 Setup DVD) to a bootable USB memory key. All you'll need is:

-          A Windows 7-based PC of some kind.

-          A USB memory key. This device will need to have enough storage to hold the contents of Windows 7 Setup, so you're looking for a device with 4 GB of storage or more. (The smallest mainstream 32-bit version of Windows 7 still takes up more than 2 GB of space on disk, so 4 GB is the minimum.)

-          WinRAR or a similar utility that can extract the contents of an ISO file.

Here's how you do it.

1. Insert the USB key into your PC. (Note that this process will wipe out its contents.)

2. Open the Start Menu, type diskpart in Start Menu Search and then tap Enter. Click Yes on the User Account Control dialog that appears. A command line window will open with the diskpart command line utility running.

3. Type list disk and then tap Enter. You will see a listing of the various disks attached to your PC, including the USB key.

You will need to find the USB key in the list. In my case, the USB key is identified as Disk 6 (3700 MB), but this can (and likely will) be different on your own PC.

4. Type select disk # where "#" is the number of disk representing the USB key (In my case, 6.) and then tap Enter. Disk part will report, "Disk 6 is now the selected disk." (Or whatever number is correct for you.)

5. Type clean and then tap Enter. Diskpart will run for a second and then report, "Diskpart succeeded in cleaning the disk."

6. Type create partition primary and tap Enter. Diskpart will run for a second and then report, "Diskpart succeeded in creating the specified partition."

7. Type active and then tap Enter. Diskpart will run for (less than) a second and then report, "Diskpart marked the current partition as active."

8. Type format fs=fat32 quick (or, if the USB key is over 4GB, format fs=ntfs quick) and then tap Enter. Diskpart will provide a percentage progress indicator while it formats the device. Eventually, diskpart will report that the process is "100 percent completed" and note that "Diskpart successfully formatted the volume."

9. Type assign and then tap Enter. This assigns the next available drive letter to the USB key. Diskpart will report, "Diskpart successfully assigned the drive letter or mount point," and an AutoPlay dialog will most likely appear. Dismiss the dialog.

10. Type exit and tap Enter to close diskpart (and the command line window).

11. Now you need to extract the contents of the Setup ISO to your hard drive. If you're using a Windows 7 Setup DVD instead of an ISO file, of course, you can skip this step. There are various utilities that can extract the contents of an ISO file, but I happen to like and use WinRAR, which is available in a trial version online. (I pay for WinRAR, by the way, because it's so useful and such a regular part of my workflow.) To extract the ISO with WinRAR, right-click it and choose Extract Files (an option that WinRAR adds to the Windows 7 context menu.)

Ensure that the path is what you want in WinRAR (I usually just create a folder on the desktop, something like "Win7") and then click OK. WinRAR will extract the contents of the ISO file to the selected folder.

12. When the extraction is complete, you'll want to open two Explorer windows: One for the folder to which you extracted the Windows 7 Setup files (the source) and one for the USB key (the destination). Select all of the files in the source folder and drag and drop them (copy them) to the USB key.

The file copy phase could take a while.

13. When that's done, you're good to go. You should now be able to boot the appropriate PC using the USB key and install Windows 7. Note, however, that most PCs will require you to interrupt the normal boot process and manually select the USB key as the boot disk. How you do this varies from PC to PC. On the ThinkPad notebooks I prefer, you typically hit the blue ThinkVantage button to perform this and other pre-boot tasks, but on some PCs you will need to tap F2, F11, F12, or some other key. Consult your PC's documentation for the details.

However you do it, once the PC is booting from the USB key, Setup will work just like it does via a normal Setup DVD.


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