Q: Reinstalling Windows on a dying hard drive failed. So did installing it fresh on a loaner hard drive and again on the new replacement...

Share story

Q: Reinstalling Windows on a dying hard drive failed. So did installing it fresh on a loaner hard drive and again on the new replacement hard drive when it arrived. I’m wondering if there’s a better way. I have only one computer, a laptop. Is it possible to install Windows or another operating system on a high-capacity USB flash drive? If Windows CE can be installed on a chip, why not Windows XP on a flash drive?

— Eliot S.

A: There’s no reason you can’t put an operating system on a flash drive. In fact, there is a utility — Bart PE Builder — that helps you install a stripped-down version of Windows XP on a flash drive that has at least 256 megabytes of disk space. That version is sufficient for booting Windows if you have a failure that prevents you from doing so from your hard drive.

The downside of running your operating system from a flash drive? First, flash drives aren’t as fast as good hard drives, so you’re looking at some loss in performance. Second, flash drives are still very limited in capacity. Even if you’re able to fit your operating system on the flash drive, you may need to make other adjustments to your configuration, including moving your swap drive to another location.

Finally, not all computers are capable of booting from a USB device. You’d want to check whether yours can do so.

Q: With 300-gigabyte hard drives virtually a norm in personal computers these days, how can you possibly suggest that people keep their system-restore programs turned off to save space on their hard drives? There are many fine restore programs. (My current preference is Configsafe.) Stuff happens, whether meddling relatives are around or not, and your suggestion to reformat is unbelievable.

— Yvette Cardozo, Issaquah

A: Believe it or not, compared to the great majority of readers I hear from, you are on the cutting edge. Computers with 300 GB drives might be the norm at computer stores these days, but most readers I hear from are running Windows 98 (or even Windows 95) on a computer with a hard drive that is smaller than 20 gigabytes. For many users, in short, hard-drive space is at a premium and they may not want to use a lot of it for system-restore programs.

Now I’ll answer a question you didn’t ask. What do I do? I have a backup program perform a nightly backup of all my data. In the event of a major system problem, I reformat my drive, then reinstall my applications and restore my data.

Why don’t I use the system restore? It’s not for lack of disk space, but for two reasons. First, I don’t entirely trust it. The user has to select what date of system configuration to which to restore. You may think you’ve picked a safe date, but there may still be problems. Second, because I install many applications for testing and evaluation, I like to start fresh every so often. Uninstalling programs doesn’t always remove all files, particularly DLL files, that may affect the performance of other programs.

Note: In response to a reader question about publishing digital photographs to a CD with transitions, title pages and other special effects, I suggested the reader might try either using a slide-show program, such as Microsoft PowerPoint, or an HTML editor, such as Macromedia Dreamweaver. A number of readers wrote in to suggest their favorite solutions, two of which are designed specifically for publishing digital photographs: MemoriesOnTv ($44.95 at www.cube-creative.fr/site/html/nt/nt_lc/akoa_hd.html) and Microsoft PhotoStory (www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/digitalphotography/photostory/default.mspx).

Questions for Patrick Marshall may be sent by e-mail to pmarshall@seattletimes.com or pgmarshall@pgmarshall.net, or by mail at Q&A/Technology, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.