What’s In My Bag? Windows To Go: Windows on USB

When I’m travelling for work there are a number of items that I make sure are in my travel bag.  These include a USB-C charger (almost all of my electronics can charge over USB-C now); a copy of any recent projects I’ve worked on (sometimes I need to hop in to help a team member); and a computer.

The operating system on that computer may vary.  Sometimes I travel with a Windows machine, sometimes a Linux machine, and other times a Mac.  Regardless of the operating system, I usually always have a Windows To Go drive.

The last item is something that is probably a little more obscure.  Since Windows 8, there have been a special type of USB drives that are different in one aspect: they appear as a fixed drive to the computer, even though they are connected to a USB port.  These drives were specifically made for making a portable Windows experience on a USB drive.

It is possible to make bootable Windows environments on other USB drive, but there are some differences.  If you have a Windows ISO you can make a bootable Windows USB drive with a number of tools.  I recommend using Rufus to make the drive.  Though there are other options (including one that is a part of Windows Enterprise Edition), Rufus doesn’t care much about the drive properties.  It will just write the data to the drive in a bootable format.

With any type of USB drive you’ll be able to boot up with little to no trouble and do initial setup on the drive.  The difference will show up when you start installing programs.  Some programs will only install to a fixed drive.  Visual Studio is one such program.  If you have a USB drive that isn’t Windows To Go certified, then chances are that it will appear as a removable drive to the computer.  Visual Studio will not install to a removable drive.

With a non-certified drive it will generally refuse to install.  If you know that the programs of interest to you don’t care about the drive type, there’s a couple of other reasons why you still may want to consider a Windows To Go certified drive.  One is performance. There was a minimum performance requirement that these drives had to achieve as a part of their certification.  However, now there are other solid state drives available that are much faster than the available Windows To Go drive (such as the Thunderbolt 3 only Samsung X5 drives).  Another consideration is security.  Some of the Windows To Go drives have hardware implemented encryption and include the option of voiding the contents of the drive under some conditions that you can define (such as the wrong password being entered at bootup too many times).

The best practice, if you plan to work with any sensitive data, is to not store it on a portable drive, if possible. But if you must, then encryption is an uncompromising need. Whether or not a Windows To Go drive is necessary for you may only be known after you review your needs.

One significant drawback of Windows To Go drives is you cannot perform a major Windows Update on it. The installation can receive Windows security updates though.  When there is a major Windows Update if you want to install it, it’s necessary to format the entire drive and start from scratch.

For my needs, I have a Super Talent 128 GB USB 3.0 drive (for speed) and a Western Digital 500 GB mechanical drive (much slower, but I can work with larger projects using it).  If you choose to do this with a certified drive, make sure you read the drive’s instructions, before you begin writing your Windows Image to it.  Some drives come with their own software that must be used for making the image and if you start off formatting the drive then you’ve already destroyed the software that you need (and it may not be readily available for download from the company’s website).

If your project needs call for a Windows To Go certified drive, I’ve found 4 available on Amazon.  Here are the links to them (affiliate links).

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