Although the usual way to install Windows 7 is from a DVD, it’s possible to copy the contents of your installation DVD to a USB flash drive and install the operating system from there. This is particularly handy for optical-disc-less notebooks and for netbooks, which almost never include a DVD drive. An added attraction is that installing Windows from a flash drive is noticeably faster than installing from a DVD.

What you’ll need

To perform this feat, you’ll need to start with a computer running Vista which has both a DVD drive and a USB port. (If you only have access to a machine running XP and not Vista, instead of using DiskPart as described below, try Bwana’s instructions).

You’ll also need a flash drive with at least four gigabytes capacity. You’ll have to erase any data on the drive, so make sure you back up any data before you begin.

To prepare the flash drive, you’ll use a disk partitioning utility called DiskPart. DiskPart is built into Vista and Windows 7, and you can also download it.

Step-by-step

There are three main steps to the process: preparing the flash drive; setting up your netbook to boot from the USB drive; and installing Windows 7.

Step 1: Preparing the flash drive

  1. Place your Windows 7 installation DVD in the optical drive and insert the flash drive into a USB port. Close any windows and cancel any prompts that appear.
  2. Click Start, type diskpart and press Enter.
  3. At the diskpart prompt, type list disk and press Enter. Note the disk number listed beside your USB flash drive.
  4. Type select disk n and press Enter (where n is the number you noted in the previous step).
  5. Type clean and press Enter.
  6. Type create partition primary and press Enter to create a new primary partition on the drive.
  7. Type active and press Enter to make the partition active.
  8. Type format fs=fat32 quick and press Enter. This command performs a quick format of the drive and sets up the FAT32 file system.
  9. Type assign and press Enter to assign a drive letter to the drive.
  10. Type exit and press Enter to close Diskpart.
  11. Open My Computer to view your drives. Right-click the DVD drive, choose Open AutoPlay and then select Open Folder to View Files.
  12. Drag all the files from the DVD and drop them onto the flash drive.
  13. Eject your flash drive.

Step 2: Booting from the flash drive

The computer where you’re going to install Windows 7 needs to boot from your specially prepared flash drive. To do this, you’ll have to make a change in the computer’s BIOS (Basic Input/Output System). The process differs a little from computer to computer, so you may need to refer to your computer’s manual to discover how to enter BIOS setup and which option to change. Usually, though, you can enter the BIOS by hitting the F2 key or the Delete key before Windows loads.

  1. Insert your flash drive into a USB port.
  2. Start or reboot your computer.
  3. You should see a message flash by saying “Press F2 to enter BIOS setup” or something similar. That’s your cue to press the stated key. If you’re slow on the uptake and Windows starts loading, reboot and give it another try.
  4. Within the BIOS setup, look for a Boot Device Priority setting and follow the prompts to place your USB drive at the top of the list. Note that your mouse will not work within the BIOS setup—you’re need to use the arrow keys to move around the screens.
  5. Save your changes and exit the BIOS setup.

Your computer will reboot automatically and load the Windows 7 setup files from the flash drive.

Step 3: Installing Windows

Installing from a flash drive is almost the same as installing from a CD. Because your netbook almost certainly runs Windows XP (or Linux), you must perform a Custom install. That means either replacing your existing operating system or, if you have enough disk space, using a different partition and dual booting with your existing operating system. If you choose the former option, setup will copy your old Windows into a windows.old folder. Given that netbook disk space is often at a premium, you’ll probably want to delete this folder once you have successfully ensconced yourself in Windows 7 and restored your data from a backup.

There’s one crucial difference in the setup: when the setup routine reboots your computer for the first time, you’ll need to reset the boot device priority order so that it reboots from the disk drive instead of from the flash drive. That means keeping an eye on the installation and being ready to leap into the BIOS setup at the appropriate moment. If you miss your chance, just cancel out of the relaunch of the setup routine, and the system will reboot once more.