Doesn't matter if we like the new Windows 8 Metro look and feel or we argue about the missing Start button, Windows 8 is Microsoft's future of Windows for all kind of PCs, laptops, tablets and well - even USB sticks! While it's clear that a Windows OS will for sure work on PCs and laptops, the support for ARM based, so called SoC (System on Chip) tablets, is something new but Windows 8 comes with another feature which hasn't caught too much attention yet, something Microsoft simply calls "Windows To Go". Windows To Go allows to install a full version of Windows 8 on a USB stick which then can be booted on any PC. In my humble opinion, this is idea is big and ground breaking.
Running apps and programs from a USB stick isn't anything new. One of the best known and most likely widest used apps is "Portable Firefox" which is a fully functional package of Firefox but optimized for use on a USB key drive. It has some specially-selected optimizations to make it perform faster as well as a specialized launcher that will allow most of extensions to work as computers are switched. Theoretically, Windows To Go isn't anything different but rather than just being a program, it's a full bootable Windows 8 installation. While there are a lot of discussions and thoughts, how powerful today's smartphones and tablets are and if they might replace the PC anytime soon by connecting them to a big screen, network and keyboard, Windows To Go goes a different way by keeping the PC hardware alive but just making the OS mobile, or in this case portable.
Windows To Go comes with Windows 8 itself, all drivers, all apps and programs, the Windows 8's Metro design and so on. And if a driver isn't available, it simply downloads it via Windows Update because most common LAN and W-LAN drivers are aboard. After Windows 8 was installed on a USB stick, it behaves like a regular Windows installation. If used for the first time, the user has to set it up which includes to enter the Windows 8 serial number, creating an account, selecting the design and so on; like turning on a PC the first time which comes with a preinstalled version of Windows 7.
After, all these settings and account data are stored on the USB stick but not on the used PC. As a matter of fact, the USB stick itself becomes the C:\ drive and therefore it even allows to install apps and programs. Doesn't matter if these apps are Metro apps which come from the Windows 8 Store or third party installations from CD-ROMs or DVDs. The only limit is USB stick memory but if you think about a 64 GB USB 3.0 stick, it's virtually enough memory to install the most important apps and programs, making the USB drive a kind of SSD. A typical 32 Bit installation of Windows 8 takes roughly 9 GB of storage memory, leaving enough space for personal stuff.
However, since Windows 8 comes with inbuilt support for Microsoft's SkyDrive, documents and files can be stored in the cloud and even if Windows To Go allows to install programs and apps on the USB stick, for some programs like Microsoft Office 2010 or today's announced Office 365 aka Office 15, it's not necessary at all since SkyDrive features the so called "Web Apps" which are browser-based versions of Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint and even Microsoft OneNote. Other programs like a mail client, address book and calendar are already part of Metro anyway which means it's even not necessary to install Outlook on the USB stick. For sure are the full versions of Office offering more features but it's not necessary for a "to go" installation. But then again, if you have any company related programs you need to install to make such a portable Windows 8 installation useful, you can easily do it. The stick's storage capacity is the only limit!
Unfortunately, Windows To Go has one flaw: It's not designed for the average user but was designed for corporate customers and system administrators. It was designed to be deployed by administrators and handed out after to the employees. And while Windows 8 unfortunately lacks an automated wizard, which helps the consumer to create a Windows To Go installation, prosumers with some knowledge of the command prompt (you know, this old thing which looks like DOS) can easily create their own Windows To Go installation; there are plenty of great how to's available on the web. All it needs is a legit copy of Windows 8, some tools and a large enough sized USB stick. The creation of a Windows To Go stick doesn't take longer than an hour or so. But after, you can put Windows 8 on your key ring and have it with you - wherever you are; doesn't matter if it is at a friend's home, an Internet Café or the hotel's lobby PC. All data are safely stored on on the stick and aren't copied to any of these computers.
A Windows To Go installation is best used with a USB 3.0 stick and PC since USB 3.0 has transmission speeds of up to 5 Gbps, which is 10 times faster than USB 2.0 which only came with 480 Mbps. However, since USB 3.0 is backwards compatible to USB 2.0, a USB 3.0 Windows To Go stick can also be used with PCs only featuring USB 2.0 ports. For sure is such a combination not a hardcore gaming machine, nor is a USB 3.0 powered Windows To Go PC a gaming machine, but for regular Office use, web surfing, E-Mail, Facebook and Twitter it's way enough.
For my tests, I've used a Kingston UFD3 DataTraveler Ultimate G2 32 GB USB-Stick USB 3.0 (Amazon.de affiliate link/Amazon.com affiliate link) which worked quite well on all my tested home and office PCs, Notebooks and Netbooks which all have USB 2.0 ports only. It even worked fine on an Apple MacBook Air. Depending on the PC, booting from the Windows To Go stick takes around 1 minute or so, a typical Windows 7 or Windows Vista PC isn't that much faster, and the system was operational instantly. Windows 8 is even pausing the entire system if the USB drive is removed but Windows 8 resumes operation immediately when the drive is inserted within 60 seconds of removal. If the drive is not inserted in that time-frame, the computer shuts down after those 60 seconds to prevent possible confidential or sensitive information being displayed on the screen or stored in RAM. This worked well on some of the tested systems but not on all. However, all PCs weren't accessible anymore after the stick was removed, adding an extra security feature for fast system-lock. Furthermore, Windows 8 supports Microsoft's BitLocker technology which allows to to encrypt a Windows To Go drive.
Windows To Go is plain simple and straight forward! It brings your Windows 8 installation, your apps and programs, your settings and your files to a PC, laptop or tablet around you. For sure it's not 100 % hassle free, for instance I was unable to get any of my inbuilt 3G modems working but that's not the point. Windows To Go isn't made to replace a standard Windows 8 installation or made as a kind of fallback dual-boot for Windows 7 but it's the portable version of Windows. I can really see scenarios where such a installation becomes handy. Doesn't matter if it is for personal or business use. Imagine to go into your summer holidays, only taking your smartphone, and maybe an iPad or Kindle with you but if your manager calls you, or you get the greatest job offer ever, you can immediately start to work on your CV or documents.
When I was last year in Uzbekistan, I left all my Netbooks and Notebooks at home, for security reasons because I traveled around and because I wanted to travel around light weighted. With such a USB installation of Windows, I could have done some necessary work easily from one of the business centers in the hotels, which I've used for web browsing and web-based E-Mail. Or another example: When I worked in Angola last year, my colleagues got robbed their laptops on the street which was a real problem after since they brought them from Europe. As a matter of fact they had to leave earlier to get replacements in Europe. With such a USB drive in your pocket, your laptop would be still stolen but all you need is one of the spare PCs in the office and your are ready to continue your work. Excellent!
Unfortunately, as I said, is Windows To Go not designed for the average users but during a Windows 8 workshop three weeks ago, Microsoft told me its for corporate use and system administrators. Therefore it's not part of retail packages but end users have to do it on their own. Nevertheless, with the help of the Internet, this process is straight forward and the required USB thumb drive isn't too expensive at all. As far as I know, it will be also possible to create Windows To Go installations with the commercial version of Windows 8, which will be available later this summer. For this article I only used the publically available "Windows 8 Consumer Preview" which nevertheless shouldn't differentiate too much from the release version.
All together, Windows To Go is - in my eyes - on of the best features Windows 8 will bring. Unfortunately not many of us will hear about it or use it but the few which will have it in their pockets will love it, I'm sure!
Cheers ~ Arne