How To Make and Use a Bootable WinPE Drive

Vista has crashed and your PC will no longer even boot up into the operating system—what to do? It turns out that your USB thumb drive can save the day. You can use what Microsoft calls UFD (for a USB flash drive) with a Windows image file (.wim) for Windows Preinstallation Environment that offers a quick-start way to access the System Recovery Options. But besides saving your skin when your PC will not boot up, this bootable drive can also do lots of other interesting things. In the pages that follow, we describe exactly how to build such a device and explore some of the useful tasks that it can accomplish.

Every copy of Windows Vista comes with installation disks or files that include a special pared-down version of the operating system, which Microsoft calls Windows Preinstallation Environment 2.0, but it is more often known as Windows PE or even WinPE.

You may not think you’ve used WinPE before, but you probably have. When you install Windows Vista, for example, the code that enables you to load a command-line environment, as well as the Windows Recovery Environment (also known as Windows RE or WinRE), comes straight from WinPE. While Microsoft won't admit it publicly, it is the Windows Preinstallation Environment, aka WinPE, that allows one to create a bootable UFD–instead of using the more time-consuming Windows Recovery Environment, also known as WinRE.

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  • masterwhitman
    What, no mention of BartPE or UBCD4Win (Ultimate Boot CD for Windows)? These are two projects that are vastly superior to Microsoft's method (both are built on WinPE but have expanded capabilities) and are far easier to use.
  • richwag
    Nice guide. Never knew about it. Thanks.
  • Anonymous
    when I saw this I thought it was going to be a review of Bart's PEBuilder... It's saved my a$$ many times. Far superior to WinPE...

    How about a comparison/companion article? or an article on tools gearheads & techies find indespensible?
  • average joe
    Vista's PE is far more advanced than XP's. The BartPE project is based of XP's PE. Barts is amazingly useful and I can't wait till they move to from PE 1.1 to PE 2.0.

    Some "fairly new" systems will not boot from usb so always carry a cd version as a backup.
  • Anonymous
    "I usually grab Imagex.exe and the Package Manager using the commands shown in the next screen capture."

    Hmmm... I don't see a 'next screen capture' showing the commands used to get imagex and Package Manager.
  • LightWeightX
    Good start to the guide until you get to the WinRE. In section 5, step 2, you describe using imagex and the secret is the number 2 argument however you do not give an example of the command. In the WinPE you use a 240 MB partition, then in WinRE you state you need at least 512 MB.
  • sdybas
    Show us howto "use imagex to grab the Windows RE image from the Vista-installation media." Thanks.
  • jfutima
    Yes please follow up on the last few comments, I am stuck in that spot.
  • Anonymous
    Good article, but it makes a few omissions and goofs here and there.
    1. For using imagex to grab the WinRE image, check out this link:
    2. "x64" won't work when you're using copype.cmd - it has to be "AMD64". Just replace all instances of x64 with AMD64 in this procedure, and it'll work.
    3. For the image showing how to grab imagex and the package manager, click on the picture above the text to open up the gallery, then click one pic forward.
  • jfutima
    thanks suigi!
  • Anonymous
    There's another option I've found to be a lifesaver for disaster recovery. I can't afford to lose access to my business laptop, but I also am lazy and tend not to back things up, so I do 3 things:

    1. I synchronize two laptops using Microsoft's free Windows Live Sync. This synchronizes specified folders, even through firewalls. I used to use FolderMatch or Syncback SE manually, but Live Sync is completely automated and works over the internet or home network. This makes sure I always have two copies of my data. It also protects against laptop hardware failures to some extent, although since I don't have all the exact applications on both computers, it's not a complete solution.

    2. To protect against outright disk failures and boot problems, I always clone my laptop drive. It's cheap insurance for $50 for a 120GB drive. Use DriveClone (drive must be the same size) or Acronis (can size partitions down or up) and make a clone of your "golden" image. Typically, this is a "virgin" install of all my apps, with updates. I keep the clone in a safe place, and if I ever have a disaster, I just pop the virgin drive in, and recover my data from my backup laptop.

    3. For email, which contains a lot of my critical data, I use our corporate Exchange server which automatically gets backed up. Because we have size limits, I keep my own archive instead of relying on Exchange. At the end of the year on New Years Eve, I take my entire Inbox, Sent Items, Calendar, and Contacts for the year and store them to a shared Live Sync folder. This keeps my .OST file down to a manageable size, and keeps my infrequently accessed archives in a safe place.
  • Anonymous
    I may have to try this, just to see how it compares to the product I just purchased... Active@Boot Disk. It's basically the same idea, but a lot easier and it comes with some tools that look very handy, including a password changer, disk-clone, etc. I'm not advertising for them, I only just installed it yesterday. Typical Murphy's-law kind of thing, right after I buy something, I find a free version. I suspect the free version wouldn't eventually have given me what I wanted, but I'm wondering after reading some of your comments, how would I install an application to the PE version? I tried on one app and since there's no registry to change, I get an error. I recall reading somewhere about how to get around that, but don't remember where.

    Great article, can't wait to try it out. Always nice having multiple ways of doing a similar task. Often one tool won't work for some reason, where another one does just what you need it to.
  • Anonymous
    Stupid people, Bart's is WinPE