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Can You Run Your OS From a USB Drive?

USB flash drives are cheap ways of storing data in a convenient and portable manner. While they don’t offer the cost per capacity that something like a hard disk drive does, they’re great for moving data between devices in a physical manner.

One of the biggest problems with USB drives is that they don’t offer great speeds. They’re better at reading data than they are writing to it. For most people, and the average use of a USB drive, that’s perfectly fine. There’s a common computer phrase: “cheap, fast, good – pick two”. It applies here for USB drives.

A USB 2.0 drive is only going to be able to achieve 25MBps read and 10MBps write speeds. Compare that to a hard disk drive, which can go further than 100MBps for both, and it pales in comparison.

USB drives can reach the speeds of a HDD if they’re 3.0 USBs, but then you’re looking at extremely high price points for minimal storage. For example, you can get a 3TB external drive for the same cost as a 256GB flash drive. Unless the form factor convivence is really that important to you, the decision on which to get is obvious.

Speed is crucial to the usability of data storage devices. It’s why so many people are opting to use SSDs in their systems. Not only are the price of these more affordable nowadays, but they can also offer boot times within seconds if the operating system is stored on them.

The question might come up as to whether you can – or even should – run your operating system from a USB drive.

Enter Windows To Go. Although it’s only available for Windows 10 Enterprise and Education users, it allows you to create a workspace that can be booted via a USB. It doesn’t even matter if that system is running Windows.

The trouble is, this works great if the primary aim is to read data. It becomes problematic when it comes to writing data because of the slow speeds. It certainly shouldn’t be used as a primary replacement to running your operating system off a standard drive, but it can be used as an interim solution or for when you need to run a copy of Windows on the go.

It isn’t recommended to use your USB stick as a local drive either. They are designed to be removable devices, which means that Windows isn’t going to treat it the same as a normal drive. It might even assign it different drive letters. You can download utilities to turn a USB stick into a permanent drive, but again the speeds are going to hold you back.

If you’re looking for a use for your USB device, try turning it into a Windows recovery utility. This involves formatting your USB device, so all the data on is wiped, but means that you can restore your copy of Windows from it should your system go haywire. Search your system for ‘recovery USB stick’ to get started.


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