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Hands on with Windows To Go: The good, the bad, the USB bootable

Sandro Villinger | Aug. 10, 2012
When I attended TechEd 2012 in Amsterdam at the end of June, the Windows To Go session was likely the most attended session all day. And it's easy to see why.

I encountered some weird issues on one of my desktop systems (an Alienware gaming rig) in which Windows To Go would run for a few seconds and then just freeze up. I assume this is a beta bug but it was a good reminder to save all my files before I tried unplugging.

I also found that Windows To Go is extremely sensitive to improper shutdowns. Each and every time I forced the PC to shut down, I was presented with a "chkdsk" dialog that sat there for many minutes scanning the thumb drive for errors.

Physical hard disks: Hidden?

Microsoft hides the internal hard disk on any machine by default so that Windows To Go can't be used as a hacking device to get quick access to data on a physical disk:

However, using "diskmgmt.msc" makes getting around this all too simple: Just select the physical partition and mark it as "Online" and you'll get instant access. Of course, the local user folder will still be protected but all other files are easily accessible.

You could do this with any bootable Linux and Windows environment so Windows To Go isn't any more of a security risk, but it isn't any less either.

Working with the Windows 8/Office 2013 cloud

Having signed into my Microsoft Account (what used to be called Windows Live ID), all my language settings, keyboard preferences, wallpaper, themes and various other settings got applied almost instantly. I felt at home. Once I set up all my applications, I couldn't really tell whether I was working with the physical machine or the USB thumb drive.

Next up: I launched Office 2013 on the Windows To Go drive. Since I already signed up for the Microsoft Account, Office 2013 recognized my ID and immediately applied all my Office preferences and connected me to my SkyDrive folder. Within seconds I had access to all my files in the cloud.

Performance

I was afraid that, even on a USB 3.0 machine, I would encounter performance problems -- especially during heavy multitasking. But that didn't happen. I had about 30 tabs open in Internet Explorer, basically all Office applications, Photoshop, iTunes, etc. and did not see a massive difference in responsiveness when compared to the physical Windows installation on the same machine.

What I did notice, however, was an occasional brief freeze. It happened mainly when opening the context menu, switching between browser tabs or even when typing. But overall responsiveness and multitasking was almost on par with the physical machine.

Boot performance

Obviously, another area where performance matters is boot up. First, I tested Windows To Go on my dedicated work machine at the office of one of my clients: A desktop PC equipped with a Core 2 Duo 3 GHz, 4 GB RAM and a 7200 RPM drive. While Windows 7 Enterprise took nearly 47 seconds to boot, the Windows To Go drive just needed 32 seconds (and that's via USB 2.0, mind you).

 

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