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Windows 7: Portable OS - Carry your OS on an External Drive

Portable OS - Carry your OS on an External Drive

How to Create a Portable OS on an External Drive
Published by whs
31 Jan 2013
Published by
whs's Avatar

How to Create a Portable OS on an External Drive


The objective is to create an OS installation on an external USB attached media with which you can carry your OS to any system. I have tested the procedure with Windows 8 and Zorin, an Ubuntu based Linux distro.

In such a configuration the OS becomes independent of the hardware it runs on. The VMware Player becomes the base system.

Besides the portability, it also allows you to run another OS side by side with your current system and switch back and forth with 1 click. It is completely independent of your installed OS.


  • A USB port - preferably a USB3 port (Note: eSata is not supported by WMware Player)
  • An external device - SSD or 7200 RPM HDD
  • An external enclosure for the disk
  • VMware Player installed on the system where you want to run (I suggest to carry the VMware Player installation .exe on the external device for easy and quick installation)
For obvious reasons, the SSD works the best. Operations on the HDD will be slower. I have also tried a fast USB3 stick. But that was too slow. See performance section for details.

I found a $55 'value pack' - a SSD and a USB3 enclosure including cable. The 30GB SSD is large enough to accommodate Windows 8 or any Linux distro with room to spare.

Installation on the VMware Player

After the installation of the VMplayer on your host system, I highly recommend you do the initial installation of the guest OS on your host system. It will create a folder called 'Virtual Machines' (or whatever name you gave it) in your Documents folder which is the virtual system. When the installation is completed, copy or move that folder to your external device.

Here is an excellent tutorial by Shawn that will help you to make this first step. The tutorial describes the installation of Windows 8 but should also give you sufficient guidance for other operating systems.

Starting your virtual system

Since you have displaced the original installation, you have to point VMware Player to the new location. Open VMware Player and you will see this window.
Portable OS - Carry your OS on an External Drive-2013-01-28_2203.png
After you clicked on "Open a Virtual Machine", an Explorer window opens where you have to navigate to the virtual machine folder on your device. There you drill down until you find the file with the .vmx extension. Highlight and open that file.
Portable OS - Carry your OS on an External Drive-2013-01-28_2206.png
Now the virtual system on your external device is recognized. You will be back on the VMware Player window where you highlight the system you want to play on the top left and then click on "Play Virtual Machine".
Portable OS - Carry your OS on an External Drive-2013-01-28_2219.png
You will be asked whether you have copied or moved the folder - click on 'Copied'. The system will take a little while to start this first time. Both VMware Player and the OS seem to make some adjustments.

Note, there will also be adjustments made when you shutdown the OS in the virtual system. The shutdown of the OS will take only a few seconds, but VMware Player may elaborate for a minute or two. Just minimize VMware Player to the taskbar and go on with work in your host system.

Operational aspects

Make sure you install the VMware Tools. This will be an option during the installation. If you miss that, you can get the tools from this site.

The tools give you full integration of the guest OS with the host OS. You will e.g. share the clipboard between the guest and the host which makes file copy back and forth extremely easy. The cursor will automatically respond to whether it is in the guest system or the host system. That way you can operate on both systems simultaneously.

For the host system, you have full access to the taskbar and to e.g. your hidden Rocket Dock (if any) whilst the guest system is up. The keyboard buttons (e.g. the Start button) will trigger action on the host or the guest depending where the cursor is located - on the guest window or the host taskbar. The same goes for keyboard shortcuts.
Portable OS - Carry your OS on an External Drive-2013-01-28_2310.png
You can also maximize the guest window. Then you have no access to the host system. This is practical when you work for a longer period of time on the guest system. It avoids trying to close the virtual system whenever you go to the red X on the top right and confuse the red X of the guest window with that of the VMware Player.

Sometimes the cursor seems to disappear completely - e.g. during shutdown. Press CTL+ALT and the host system cursor will be activated.

An important operational aspect is the fact that you can take your external installation and run it on another system where VMware Player is installed. I had no difficulty moving the systems from my desktop to my laptop. The systems will make some automatic adjustments at that time.

If you move frequently to other systems, it may be useful to carry the VMware Player installation .exe (72MB) on the external device. Then you can quickly install the VMware Player and do not have to download it again.

System backup

If you want to backup the system, you just copy the VMware Player folder to another disk. That beats any imaging in speed. And to recover - if anything should ever happen - you just replace the folder of the defunct system with the backup folder.

Performance considerations

I have installed and tested Windows 8 and Zorin on different media and attached it via USB2 and USB3. Note that eSata is not supported by the VMware Player. Those were the tests.
  • Windows 8 on internal M4 SSD
  • Windows 8 on external Mushkin SSD attached via USB3
  • Windows 8 on external Mushkin SSD attached via USB2
  • Windows 8 on 5400 RPM external HDD attached via USB3
  • Zorin on internal M4 SSD
  • Zorin on external Mushkin SSD attached via USB3
  • Zorin on a fast USB3 stick
All those were run on my Dell XPS 8300 desktop. In addition I ran a couple of configurations on my Toshiba laptop with USB3.

The SSD configurations ran great. There is little difference between internal and external SSD. The boot times for Windows 8 ranged between 25 sec to 41 sec (Event 100 in Event viewer). What amazed me is that there was also little difference between USB2 and USB3 attachments. Both were very fluent with a slight advantage for the USB3. Here is a video conversion example that I ran on the host and in VMware:

I converted a 100MB video clip with Format Factory from .wmv to .avi.

The host system ran Win7 with 4GB of RAM from the internal disk.
The VMware system ran Windows 8 with 4GB of RAM from a USB attached disk.
CPU usage was 30% +/- in both cases.

It took 3 minutes 10 seconds on the host system and 3 minutes 40 seconds in the VMware system. Really not a big difference.

The 5400 RPM HDD was workable on USB3. I would call it borderline. But I am sure that a 7200 RPM HDD would be quite acceptable.

The USB3 stick was a big disappointment. After my good experience with my Windows 8 to go project, I had expected a reasonable result. But unfortunately it did not work out that way. The system was too slow for comfort. Considering that I paid more money for this 32GB USB3 stick than for my 60GB Mushkin SSD, I had expected a better result with the stick.

Have a look how it works

Note: If the audio of this video is too low, do the following:
Right click on the speaker icon in the task tray (bottom right) > Playback devices > double click on your output device > Enhancement tab > check the 'Loudness Equalizer' box

Related Tutorials

How to Share Partitions Between Host and Guest in VMware Player
31 Jan 2013   #1

Windows 7 Ultimate 64 bit

The video volume is way too low...I have to crank up my volume to 75% just to hear it.
My System SpecsSystem Spec
31 Jan 2013   #2
Microsoft MVP

Vista, Windows7, Mint Mate, Zorin, Windows 8

Quote   Quote: Originally Posted by bassfisher6522 View Post
The video volume is way too low...I have to crank up my volume to 75% just to hear it.
I know I have a problem with my recorder - or my mic. Have already cranked it up by 12dB. Will have to see whether I get a new screencapture program or a new mic.

Problem with the screencapture programs is that this is the only one I know that works with a DPI of 150% which I need in order to see things on the screen.

Interestingly enough it plays very well (with medium volume settings) on my system.
My System SpecsSystem Spec
15 Feb 2013   #3

Windows 7 Pro 64 bit

Thank you for this tutorial, I am just getting into VMs and this has been very helpful.

Much appreciated.
My System SpecsSystem Spec

15 Feb 2013   #4
Microsoft MVP

Vista, Windows7, Mint Mate, Zorin, Windows 8

You are welcome. If you have any questions regarding VMware, you can post them here.
My System SpecsSystem Spec
16 Feb 2013   #5

Windows 7 Ultimate x86/32bit Build 7600

thanks for this easy step-to-step, helpful tutorial :) it really helps me. the screenshot makes me understand easily :)

thank you so much
My System SpecsSystem Spec
16 Feb 2013   #6

Windows 7 Pro 64 bit

Quote   Quote: Originally Posted by whs View Post
You are welcome. If you have any questions regarding VMware, you can post them here.
Thank you for the offer of help as well. I expect I will be taking you up on it. Again, much appreciated.
My System SpecsSystem Spec
30 Mar 2013   #7

windows 7

I tried Brink's tutorial on installing VM Player
VMware Player - Install Windows 8

Didn't get very far. Things are fine until it gets to the part to install the operating system on VM Player. It always says it can't be found. I have tried multiple times, with W8, W7, XP, and it just spins its wheels then says it can't find the file to install. Tells me there aren't any. Yes there are, but it won't listen to me. So I can't get to your tutorial unless I figure out how to solve this. What now?
My System SpecsSystem Spec
30 Mar 2013   #8
Microsoft MVP

Vista, Windows7, Mint Mate, Zorin, Windows 8

Soahs, Maybe you did not tell it where to look for the OS to be installed.

Attached Images
Portable OS - Carry your OS on an External Drive-2013-03-30_1047.png 
My System SpecsSystem Spec
30 Mar 2013   #9

windows 7

That's what I thought too and made sure to check Iso and the folder where the file was. However - the tutorial says to check "I will install the operating system later." But you don't have that checked. Could this make a difference?

Also, does the iso file have to be in the same folder as the VM I am trying to create? It isn't.
My System SpecsSystem Spec

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