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How to Create a Bootable USB Key/Thumb Drive

Original Article Date: 2006-12-13

We all hate them, don't we? We're all wondering why we still have them in our PCs. The accursed floppy drive. It's slow, it's capacity challenged, it's prone to errors, and it's just downright 1980s! I think I had just started high school when the 3.5" floppy disk was released, and you know, I'm not that young any more. So why do we still have them sitting in our computers?

Well once in every blue moon, they become our PC's lifeline. They're essential when you have to make a BIOS update to your mainboard or some other piece of firmware. And if you're running SATA drives with a Microsoft operating system (like most of us), then when you want to do a reinstall of the OS, you will need to have your SATA drivers on a floppy so that Windows can load them.

Well, I have some good news. You can now burn your floppy drive. And I don't mean burn in the sense of a CD/DVD-R backup, but in the sense of lighter fuel and matches. Because with the release of Microsoft Windows Vista next month, and the ability to create a bootable USB key/thumb-drive, you will be able to permanently [F]ail your floppy drive at the [A]bort, [R]etry, [F]ail prompt!

Vista, the Dawn of a New, Floppy-free Installation Age

Most of you have heard about Microsoft's upcoming new OS, Vista. I've seen many demos of this, and undoubtedly some of you have even played with the beta. I think it's a step forward, in terms of security, useability and functionality. Yes it will be buggy at first, and there will be a learning curve, but it's an improvement over XP in so many ways, and well, it's been over 5 years since XP was released, so we were really in need of something new.

Well you can read about Vista online, there are plenty of articles on it, and Vista isn't really the subject of this article. We were talking about organizing an pyro-execution ceremony for your little 3.5" drive, weren't we? So what does the Vista release have to do with burning your floppy drive? Well for the first time, Microsoft have woken up and realised that demanding you have your mass-storage device drivers on a floppy disk during Windows installation was not only incredibly poor and lazy programming, but awkward, time-consuming and just downright infuriating. What made matters even worse was that you couldn't use a USB key impersonating as a floppy disk in BIOS, or pretty much any USB floppy drive. It had to be a regular floppy drive or a specific IBM USB Floppy. Ridiculous!

The Vista installation DVD will come with pretty much all SATA, SCSI and SAS device drivers currently available up until launch, so most of you won't even need to provide an additional driver for Vista to recognize your HDD controller. But as new chipsets with onboard SATA controllers and new dedicated SAS and SATA controller cards are released, your Vista DVD will not have this information and so will require you to supply the drivers. Thankfully, Vista will accept your HDD controller's drivers from a CD/DVD or USB key. So most of the time, you will just need to insert the CD that came with the mainboard or controller card. Floppy support will still be provided, of course, so if you're really perverse, you can still provide Vista with your mass-storage device drivers via 3.5" disk.

So that takes care of one of the two remaining uses for floppy drives. What about the other one?

Bootable USB key/Thumb-drives

Every couple of years you scratch around in your draws or garage trying to find a floppy disk, and when you do, you just hope it hasn't suffered the inevitable "half-life decay" that seems to plague all floppies.

Why do we have to go through with this ritual? Well either we had to reinstall Windows and it wanted the SATA driver on a floppy (see above). Or you've just bought a new mainboard or you're having some issue with your existing one and so you need to flash the BIOS. But to flash the BIOS, you have to do it outside Windows, and so you need to boot the system from a floppy drive and run the BIOS update from it also.

The good news is that with the advent of newer mainboards that come with USB drive recognition, you can use a USB key or thumb-drive to load a boot-sector and your BIOS flash information.

It's not a completely straightforward procedure. So why go through all the trouble? Well USB keys have several advantages over floppy disks:

1. They're more robust and less prone to error than floppies.
2. You can store megabytes of information on them, instead of kilobytes. Many of the newer, more advanced server boards, such as those from Intel, now come with BIOS and firmware images that exceed the 1.44MB limit of a floppy disk, and so flashing from a floppy is no longer an option. Additionally, the large capacity of USB keys means that system administrators, and system integrators like myself can put all of their BIOS flash images for all the their different mainboard models on a single key, instead of having to carry around a dozen slow, and fragile floppy disks.
3. You can use the same key to boot the system AND flash the BIOS, instead of having to swap out the boot disk from the flash image disk.
4. They're a gahzillion times faster than floppy drives.
5. Last but not least, by using a bootable USB Key, you get to ritually burn your floppy drive!

There are only two requirements that must be met in order to do this:

1. Your mainboard must support booting to USB devices. Most mainboards built after 2003 support this feature. You can quickly verify this by going into your BIOS with your USB key plugged in, and looking for it on the "Removeable" or "Hard Drive" boot order. If the BIOS can see it in this way, it means the system can attempt to boot from it.

2. Your USB key or thumb drive must be capable of having a boot sector placed on it. On this one, it seemed I got lucky. I had two thumb drives sitting around, one 64MB and one 256MB, and they both worked. My guess is that most keys will be bootable, but some might not be.  Unfortunately, you're only really going to find out until the end of this procedure whether your key will boot or not.

Creating your Bootable USB Key in Twelve Steps

Here is how you create your bootable USB Key. Note that this is just one way to do it. I chose this method as it seemed the most straightforward, and the result was to boot to a DOS prompt (instead of a Linux or other shell) which is usually what is needed to run a BIOS flash utility. You are welcome to do your own research into creating other types of USB boot keys.

1. Create a driver-free boot floppy using one of the utilities from bootdisk.com. I recommend the "Driver Free Disk For BIOS Flashing" utility on the second line of the home page. Yes, I know, you will require a floppy drive to do this, but once you've created your bootable USB key, you won't need to use your floppy ever again!

2. Download and install HP's HP Drive Key Boot Utility utility. No, you don't need an HP system or HP USB key. The only hardware requirements are listed above.

3. Run the HP Drive Key Utility from Windows with your USB Key plugged in.

4. After clicking "Next" on the welcome screen, select your USB Key's Drive Letter currently being used by Windows (usually anything between E:\ and J:\ ), then hit "Next".

5. At the next screen, entitled "Task", select the first option "Create New or Replace Existing Configuration". If you need to back up the existing contents on the key, click that option, otherwise leave it blank. Note that any information stored on the key previously will be wiped.

6. At the next screen, "Role", select the "Hard Drive" emulation option. This will enable you to run BIOS flash and other programs from the B:\ or C:\ prompt once the key boots.

7. At the next "Filesystem" screen, select the "Create New Filesystem" option. The utility will then format the USB key. This is usually very fast.

8. At the final "Configuration" prompt, select the second option "Floppy Image", and ensure that your floppy drive is selected (usually "A:") and that the boot disk you created in Step 1 is in the floppy drive. You will also need to provide a name for the image file ("Short name") and a description, which can be anything you like. When you're ready, hitt "Next". The utility will then copy the boot image from your boot floppy disk to the boot sector of the USB key - this might take up to a minute.

9. You now have a bootable USB key! You can now add the directories and files that you need to the the key, up to the limit of the thumb drive's capacity.

10. Once you have added your files and folders to the thumb drive, restart your system, and if necessary go into the BIOS and promote your USB drive to the first boot device.

11. If all has gone well, your USB key will then boot, and you will be presented with an A:\ prompt. If you type DIR at this point you will be shocked to find that your files aren't there! The first time I saw this I was disappointed also and thought the process had failed. On a whim, I then tried typing B:\ at the prompt, and found that there WAS a B:\ drive, and that this is where all my BIOS flash files were! If you have floppy drive still in the system, however, your floppy drive will occupy B:\ and therefore you will need to select the C:\ drive.

12. With your BIOS files now visible at the B:\ or C:\ prompt you can proceed to flash away as if you were running things from your floppy!

If this is not the case, either your key is not bootable (simply try another, and chances are it will be), your BIOS does not allow USB boot, or you selected an incorrect option in the steps above. But if it did work, then you have a boot disk for life. Just keep it safe and don't reformat it!

Ben Ranson
Chief Systems Engineer