Windows to Go / Windows on a USB drive with Windows 8.1 Pro or Enterprise

Here’s a much lighter post than other posts on this blog, but I wanted to share. This is so cool (if you have a geeky side to you)!

I travel a lot for work. I’ve been issued a fast company laptop, but you’re not to use it for personal use at all as it breaks the company communications policy. They are right about that, after all, you could be opening up the system to malware that slips past the antivirus that’s installed, etc. I am with them on that. I also assume, just like most major companies, that they spy on the usage anyway. I don’t care to have some IT person within the organization reading screen caps of my emails and such. So, what is one to do with this sort of situation? My company, like many, uses Bitlocker drive encryption on the entire internal hard drive. That means if I boot into some other OS, the data on that drive for all intents and purposes is protected.

I had been using Ubuntu on a thumb drive for personal surfing while wasting hours in the hotel rooms that I stay in for my job. The problem with that is that you can’t stream most video as Ubuntu is difficult at best, if not impossible to force the necessary plugins, codecs or other software needed to watch Netflix or iTunes movies. If only you could put Windows on an external drive…

After doing some digging around, I found that Windows 8.1 Professional and Windows 8.1 Enterprise can be loaded onto an external drive via Windows to Go. This process can be rather simple via free software that basically automated the process, or if you are someone who doesn’t trust third party products, you can do it via command line.

You need WinToUSB if you want to take the easy route. I’m not going to post redundant instructions on how to do this as they clearly outline them on the website for the product. It’s free.

You’ll also need an external hard drive. I’d highly suggest using a USB 3.0 drive if your system has a USB 3.0 port. You can check your system specs for that. You can pick up a 1TB external drive from Best Buy or whatever online retailer for about $75-$80. I went one step further and spent about $120 on an internal solid state (SSD) hard drive meant for laptops, then another $20 for an external USB 3.0 enclosure made for laptop hard drives. It’s the same physical size as one of the 1TB drives that I mentioned above and weighs about half as much. The performance is amazing. Once I had everything up and running with all of the Windows updates (dear god are there a ton of updates for Windows 8.1!), the system was basically just as fast as the internal hard drive, if not faster. I went into the disk manager and disabled the internal hard drive so that it’d quit asking me to enter the Bitlocker key. I shut down as I normally would, unplug the drive and turn the system back on. Since I had set up the BIOS to boot from USB first, then the internal hard drive, it simply boots from the internal company-issued hard drive as normal.

I’m sure I’m still breaking company policy by doing this, but not nearly so bad as using the internal drive with the OS they provided for doing personal stuff. Is it entirely safe? No, but I limit my activities on this drive to only legitimate sites and searches, only use actually purchased software and only do common sense things with it. The other nice part? It isn’t just bound to use on the company laptop. I can use it on pretty much any system that allows for booting from a USB. It saves me lugging around a second laptop and adding all of that bulk and weight to my luggage. I used Bitlocker on my portable drive, too with a strong password. If I lose it, no harm done aside from the cash that I’d be out for it.

It’s really worth a try!

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