Hands on With Windows To Go: The Good, the Bad, the USB Bootable

Working with the Windows 8/Office 2013 cloud

Having signed into my Microsoft Account (what used to be called Windows Live ID), all my language settings, keyboard preferences, wallpaper, themes and various other settings got applied almost instantly. I felt at home. Once I set up all my applications, I couldn't really tell whether I was working with the physical machine or the USB thumb drive.

Next up: I launched Office 2013 on the Windows To Go drive. Since I already signed up for the Microsoft Account, Office 2013 recognized my ID and immediately applied all my Office preferences and connected me to my SkyDrive folder. Within seconds I had access to all my files in the cloud.

Performance

I was afraid that, even on a USB 3.0 machine, I would encounter performance problems -- especially during heavy multitasking. But that didn't happen. I had about 30 tabs open in Internet Explorer, basically all Office applications, Photoshop, iTunes, etc. and did not see a massive difference in responsiveness when compared to the physical Windows installation on the same machine.

What I did notice, however, was an occasional brief freeze. It happened mainly when opening the context menu, switching between browser tabs or even when typing. But overall responsiveness and multitasking was almost on par with the physical machine.

Boot performance

Obviously, another area where performance matters is boot up. First, I tested Windows To Go on my dedicated work machine at the office of one of my clients: A desktop PC equipped with a Core 2 Duo 3 GHz, 4 GB RAM and a 7200 RPM drive. While Windows 7 Enterprise took nearly 47 seconds to boot, the Windows To Go drive just needed 32 seconds (and that's via USB 2.0, mind you).

On my dedicated Windows 8 tablet, the Samsung Series 7, Windows To Go took about twice as long -- but since we're talking 8 seconds versus 15 seconds here, I'm not exactly complaining.

Installations

Setting up applications shows where even a high-speed USB 3.0 thumb drive fails: The installation of Office 2013 Professional Plus took about 5 minutes, whereas it didn't even need 2 minutes to install on the physical machine. I assume the flash controller couldn't handle both the load of the OS (file system) as well as the extraction and reads/writes of the installation.

Application Performance

Working with applications proved to be snappy as well. Only on machines with USB 2.0 did I notice much of a delay when launching applications, but once loaded into memory, they were as snappy as on the physical machine:

I also put both both Windows 8 and Windows To Go through the entire suite of PCMark 7 tests. PCMark is a popular benchmark designed to measure overall system performance (CPU, hard disk, graphics) by simulating real-world scenarios such as browsing websites, copying/pasting huge amounts of text, rendering video files, gaming, scanning for viruses, etc.

I repeated these tests several times and the results were the same: I lost quite a bit of performance (nearly 300 points) most likely due to the fact that the USB 3.0 drive didn't achieve the same throughput as the built-in SSD of the Core i5 Samsung tablet I used for testing.

Overall, the performance differences were negligble and barely noticeable in day-to-day usage.

Disk space becomes a luxury item

With my review unit being just a 32 GB thumb drive, I instantly noticed where Windows To Go quickly hits its limits: Having installed all my most critical applications, I was left with about 8 GB of free space. I'm not sure how much of an issue this will be for enterprise users, since Windows To Go is designed for scenarios in which users won't be handling massive amounts of data (you won't hand your CFO or Creative Director a Windows To Go stick and tell him to scrap his desktop). Also, as I mentioned earlier, SkyDrive makes up for a lot of that shortfall in storage space. I went with the 125 GB option and didn't miss the local storage as much thanks to my 100 Mbps connection (I guess I'd quickly change my mind if I had sub-10 Mbps speeds).

Bottom line: My "emergency" Windows 8

Overall, I came away impressed: Windows To Go offers the entire Windows 8 functionality on a handy USB thumb drive. This should make things easier for any IT pro who would rather carry a USB stick than a laptop. What I don't understand is why Microsoft hasn't talked licensing yet and why this feature is strictly enterprise. I assume Microsoft will open up Windows To Go for a broader audience sometime in the future. Until then I can only advise admins to take a look and evaluate how Windows To Go could ease some of their BYOD (bring your own device) pains.

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