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Operating systems software Reviews
15,670 Reviews

Windows To Go review

FREE as part of Windows 8 Enterprise Edition

Manufacturer: Microsoft

Our Rating: We rate this 4 out of 5

Windows To Go is a sand-boxed bootable version of Windows 8 that runs direct from a USB stick. Here's our Windows To Go review.

Windows To Go allows enterprise users to deploy a bootable Windows 8 environment on to a USB flash drive. It's a full-blown copy of Windows 8 including all the features you need. It is sealed off from the physical machine and can be protected using BitLocker. So you can take your Windows 8 PC wherever you go, and use it securely in any PC. We spent several weeks using Windows To Go, and here's our Windows To Go review. See all: Windows app reviews.

Creating a Windows To Go drive

In Windows 8 Enterprise, Microsoft will include an easy-to-use Windows To Go workspace creator. According to what I've been told by team members of the Windows To Go group at Microsoft, this wizard will apparently also allow you to pre-install some applications (they didn't say what kind) and preload it with data. However, if you desperately want to try it out, these instructions should help. Just make sure your thumb drive is fast enough in the random 4k read/write department and has enough space (32 GB+). External hard disks should also work but they rarely deliver the performance you need for a Live OS. (See also: Windows 8: the complete guide.) For more on the changes in Windows 8 and how to use them visit Windows 8 Advisor. For detailed advice on installing Windows 8 Release Preview, read our article: How to install Windows 8.

Windows To Go: Working across several machines

I almost exclusively worked off of the USB thumb drive and Windows To Go over the course of a week. Guess what: It worked on every single device -- no matter if I plugged it into a 5 year old Core 2 Duo with 2.66 GHz and an old BIOS (that barely supports USB boot) or into my high-end gaming rig. It adapted to every single hardware configuration I threw it at and, aside from the initial configuration dialogue and driver installations that occur during the first boot on a new machine, it worked in each and every instance.

Windows To Go saves the driver configuration so you won't see the initial driver installation/update process on a machine twice. However, I soon discovered one very real problem: Booting into Windows To Go might not always be so easy since fiddling around with BIOS/UEFI of various PCS (at corporations, friends' homes, internet cafés, etc.) may not be possible at all.

Windows To Go

Windows To Go: Unplugging the drive

The first thing I did (and I imagine anyone with a Windows To Go drive will do) is unplug the drive to see what will happen. Fortunately, Microsoft made changes to its file system stack and kernel drivers that allow this specific scenario. Once the drive is removed, Windows 8 just freezes. When you plug the drive back in, it continues to work as if nothing ever happened. However, after 60 seconds of non use, Windows 8 assumes that you're gone and shuts down the machine.

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.

Windows To Go: are 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.

Windows To Go

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.

NEXT PAGE: Windows To Go performance, installations, and disk space >>

Windows To Go Expert Verdict »

USB drive
Windows compatible hardware
  • Overall: We give this item 8 of 10 overall

Overall, I came away impressed: Windows To Go offers the entire Windows 8 functionality on a handy USB thumb drive. This should make things easier for any IT pro who would rather carry a USB stick than a laptop. What I don't understand is why Microsoft hasn't talked licensing yet and why this feature is strictly enterprise. I assume Microsoft will open up Windows To Go for a broader audience sometime in the future. Until then I can only advise admins to take a look and evaluate how Windows To Go could ease some of their BYOD (bring your own device) pains.

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