Thursday, January 24, 2013

Getting going with Windows to Go

I've been using Windows 8 in various forms since the early previews, through the release candidates and now have it as my Windows desktop of choice. Leaving aside the controversy of the new 'Start Screen', Windows 8 works well on old and new machines alike - even Windows XP era machines from the early 2000s.

After the launch of Windows 8, I got the opportunity to test out Windows 8 Enterprise in the 'To Go' form, installed on a Kingston Datatraveller Workspace 32GB USB stick.

What is Windows 8 to Go? The simple answer is it is a complete installation of Windows on a USB stick. The system boots and runs from the USB stick, bypassing the internal hard disks of the PC it is plugged into.

I'll be upfront about the usefulness of Windows 8 To Go. Firstly, for most people that have been provided with a notebook running Windows 8 it is unlikely to be of too much use. The notebook will likely have all the required personalisation and synchronisation already and with modern thin and light machines, portability is not that much of an issue. Where a secure work desktop is required, using desktop virtualisation may well be a better overall approach.

But there are a number of situations where Windows 8 To Go can help. A couple of examples include a contractor with their own PC being able to run a secure system provided by their client, or for travelling to a risky location with only a USB stick rather than an expensive notebook to damage or tempt thieves - so long as there is a PC to plug into at the destination.

My experience of Windows 8 To Go has been pretty uneventful - I plugged the stick into a number of PCs, and it booted easily. The only noticeable difference is the first time a particular PC is used, as it takes time to set up hardware, and driver installation can be fiddly with non-standard peripherals. Other than that, it is pretty straightforward.

When it came to trying this out on a 2010 Apple MacBook Pro though, Windows 8 was not able to complete the boot process via the Boot Camp boot selector. This might be solvable with some more time and effort, but for now is something to be aware of.

I used Windows 8 To Go across three different machines - a Lenovo X220T, a Fujitsu Lifebook and a Dell XPS 420. They had quite different specs and capabilities and all pretty much worked seamlessly. I also tried it on an Intel Atom based netbook, but the slow speed of intial configuration made me give up on it as I had limited time.

Overall, once setup and configured properly, Windows 8 To Go was simple to use and performed well. Despite the lack of USB 3, performance running Windows 8 from the Kingston Datatraveller USB stick was good and certainly as snappy or better than the internal notebook harddisks which were not SSDs.

In terms of size, the 32GB stick I used is about the minimum to have to work with Windows To Go, and I would recommend 64GB wherever possible. This would enable the USB stick to have the OS and all required data and applications available on the single stick. I found with 32GB, I was having to split my data, either into the Cloud which would then have to upload and download, or onto another device such as a USB HDD. This complicates the solution a lot and dulls the attractiveness of a simple and small but self contained solution that can be taken anywhere.

The biggest drawback I've found in day to day use has been the physical size of the stick. The 32GB stick is quite long and bulky. This is OK if you're booting it on a desktop machine, but it makes handling a notebook quite difficult with it sticking out. It would be good for the stick to have a short cable to enable the stick to move around a bit else it risks being dislodged or damaged with small or accidental movements of the notebook. The other aspect of the bulk is that it tends to block access to other USB ports located next to it.

The ease of use of Windows 8 To Go also brings home another point though, which is that many people who use it are also likely to have a main machine with applications, data and customisations they are used to. In day to day use, they will most likely use that machine and only if necessary use the Windows 8 To Go stick.

As it stands, the two are separate. If Microsoft could come up with a way to sync or update the Windows 8 To Go installation directly from the main PC rather than relying on the user to boot and sync up separately, it would be a lot more relevant and valuable to many PC users.

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