Creating Bootable SD Card/USB Flash Drive

Since my new netbook is bootable via SD card or USB flash drive, I wanted to use all of my old too-small-to-be-useful SD cards as bootable system recovery disks.  I bought a 16GB USB flash drive for doing a complete backup of the operating system (Windows XP Home) and program files, as all of my program files take about 12GB of space.

Telling the netbook to look for the SD card or USB drive upon booting is easy (for my netbook), as it’s just a setting in the BIOS.  The challenge has been making the removable media bootable.  I originally tried looking into making the card/drive bootable with Windows XP, but that proved to be more trouble (for me) than it was worth.  I decided to use a free bootable Linux system called SystemRescueCD, which has  Gnome Partition Editor partition management, Partimage drive imaging, and other miscellaneous tools.  They have easy to follow instructions for creating a bootable USB drive.  My older PNY 2GB USB flash drive wasn’t bootable after following those instructions, but all my other drives and SD cards booted OK.

I wanted to be able to both boot from and write to the same USB flash drive, but with the file compression the boot drive is set up to be read only.  So instead, I boot using an old 512MB SD card and write to the 16GB USB flash drive.

One trick to actually running the Partimage drive imaging is that you have to “mount” the USB drive in Linux so that Partimage can write to it, here’s what you type in the terminal window to do that.

  • fdisk -l (this is to see what “letter” has been assigned to the USB drive, let’s just say it’s “sdc1”)
  • mkdir /mnt/USB/
  • mount /dev/sdc1 /mnt/USB

(Note that if you’re writing to a NTFS-formatted drive, use “ntfs-3g” instead of “mount”.)

Then when you save the file in Partimage, you’d give a filename of “/mnt/USB/myfilename” (without the quotes).

Here are some other free utilities of interest that I found in my research:

  • Live USB Helper – Free program to format a flash drive and make it bootable.  (To run Live USB helper program on MS windows, you need a dll file “vb6stkit.dll”.  If Live USB helper complains about no vb6stkit.dll was found, you can download it on http://www.dll-files.com and read the FAQ to install it.)  Unfortunately, I didn’t have success with this – the formatting tool worked OK, but the “make the USB drive bootable” option rendered my SD cards unreadable.
  • HP USB Format Tool – Allows formatting of SD cards and USB drives with many different file system options, rather than just the one or two offered with the formatting tool in Windows.  I had success with this tool, although you then still need to make the drive bootable by another means.
  • Clonezilla – Another drive imaging program, the downside for me is that it copies the empty space in the partition.
  • JKDefrag v3.36 – A better (but arguably not as visually appealing) defragmenter than the standard Windows tool.  The thing I like about this one is that it moves all of the files to the beginning of the hard disk, making life easier for doing disk images and resizing partitions.

Here is a great tutorial on Clonezilla and Partimage.