If it's been a while since you've needed a boot disk for your Windows machine, you may just be struggling with how exactly to do it. It's not like the old Windows 98 boot floppy where I could just go into Windows Explorer and make one with a couple of quick clicks of the mouse. However, you need not worry, since the current process is surprisingly well documented by Microsoft.
What may seem, at first, to be a complex task is actually fairly simple. There are essentially seven steps to create a bootable DVD or bootable UFD (USB Flash Drive), all of which are command line based. While the seven steps are relatively straightforward, the Microsoft article outlining those steps has a slightly obscure title: "Walkthrough: Create a Custom Windows PE Image." Anyway, this Walkthrough, for all intents and purposes, is a step-by-step how-to for creating a bootable DVD disk.
Walkthrough: Create a Custom Windows PE Image <- Start Here!!!
Almost everything you need to know can be found by clicking on the link above. (For the things I think perhaps should have been included in the Walkthrough, see below.) If you follow the steps from the Walkthrough, you'll essentially make a disk that will boot into a nice little command prompt. From that command prompt, you can manipulate your Windows files, including copying them off to another hard drive for backup or recovery. Another nice thing about the WinPE environment is that USB disks and drives are automatically detected and accessible from the command prompt. They'll automagically be given their own drive letter when you plug them in because of that wonderful thing known as plug and play. So, you can copy your data to/from just about any drive you want to, including flash drives, with ease.
From your new WinPE boot environment, you can also use the ImageX tool, which is included in your bootable DVD if you follow Step 4 from the Walkthrough article. ImageX could be called from the command prompt to capture your entire hard drive into a snapshot .wim (.wim is Microsoft's Windows Image format - roughly akin to .gho or .pqi files) file. It makes a pretty fair backup of your entire drive, but for novices you'd be better off just using the CompletePC backup that's part of Windows XP or Windows Vista Backup.
Now, if you don't like booting into a command prompt interface, you can include the Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE) in your WinPE image. That way, when you boot to your new disk, you'll see something that looks just about identical to the GUI you'd see when booting to a Windows Vista Installation disk. It takes a bit more work, but you may find it's worth it to have a nice friendly set of recovery tools.
How to add the Windows Recovery Environment to your WinPE Image <- Add a WinRE to your boot environment
Or, add your own recovery and troubleshooting applications to the WinPE environment by following the steps in the next link. Might I recommend copying your favorite virus scanning software (Forefront Client Security, for example) into your WinPE boot disk? That way, you can scan for viruses while the OS is not running - a truly beautiful way to make sure everything is cleaned up so your OS boots without a hitch.
As the link above states, just copy the application files you'll need into the C:\winpe_x86\tools directory. If it's an application that needs to be installed and not just a bunch of simple .exe's, you may not be able to run the application from the WinPE boot environment. It's gotta be files you can copy, paste, and run - in other words, relatively simple stuff, folks.
IMPORTANT DETAILS YOU MIGHT NEED TO KNOW THAT AREN'T EXPLICITLY DETAILED IN THE WALKTHROUGH ARTICLE
So, remember I said the Walkthrough tells you almost everything you need to know? It wouldn't be a Microsoft article if we didn't leave out a few simple steps we assume everyone already knew how to do. But me, personally - I like to spell it out to the nth degree so there is no opportunity for confusion. So, here goes.
First thing I'd like to point out. You'll need software to burn the bootable DVD. Yeah, I know it seems obvious, but I don't care - I'm mentioning it anyway. You can't use the DVD burning software that comes with Windows Vista. You've gotta get a DVD burning application that's specifically designed to burn .iso and .img files (Nero, for example). And, by the way, let me help you out here - ANY DVD burning application worth its salt today can do this. So, you don't need to spend a lot or worry about which one you get. A perfect choice if you're cheap like me? Use DVDBurn from the Windows Server 2003 Resource Kit. You can grab it here:
So, what's the first thing you'll need to burn? Well, the Windows AIK, actually. It's downloaded as an .img file, so you'll need to burn it to a DVD (using DVDBurn). Once you burn it to DVD, click on setup and you'll have all the tools referenced in the Walkthrough article. DVDBurn will also be used to burn the .iso file that is created at the end of the walkthrough. (Yes, this .iso is your bootable DVD).
The walkthrough article doesn't tell you where to get the Windows AIK. It just assumes you have it. I hate that - treat me like I'm an eight-year-old when I'm learning something new - that's the way I feel. So, here is the link to the FREE download for the Windows AIK. It's a big 992MB download, by the way, so now might be a good time to grab a cup of joe.
Download the Windows AIK <- This has all the tools talked about in the Walkthrough. You need this to get started. It's critical!
The walkthrough tells you how to create a bootable UFD at the end of the article, but I haven't had great success with this. The diskpart commands are all there and they work, but I keep having issues with the fat32 formatting. I think my UFD's are just cratering, but if anyone else has experience with this, please let me know and I will post an update explaining any gotchas or tips and tricks.
By the way, here's another great article from the folks at svrops.com that covers the Walkthrough and explains many of the why's an how's. You might find it helpful as well.
More explanation of Windows PE and customizing images
Well, I'm sure I'm missing a few things as well , but I'm tired and can't think anymore tonight. So, I'll close this rather lengthy post out. Please feel free to let me know what I missed with a friendly comment. :)
Thanks for reading and HAPPY BOOTING!