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Which current laptops support bootable USB 2.0 external hard drives?

Posted on 2004-03-27
Medium Priority
Last Modified: 2007-12-19
Many current laptops can boot an external floppy or CD/dvd through the USB2.0 port.
Does any of the current laptops let you boot off an external USB 2.0 hard drive?

I'd really like someone with, say a Toshiba Satellite or Tecra M2 to try and confirm this is possible with that model; or an HP 2100Z or any Athlon 64 laptop ( Mitac 8350 aka raptor 64..)

Running without the internal IDE HD and with exernal HD would be a great way to run multiple OS systems with minimum fuss. I have found so far that Intel does support that feature for some of their desktop motherboards ( from this forum, see link http://www.intel.com/update/departments/desktop/dt05011.pdf ).

The info from different laptop vendors is somewhat murky, with the exception of Toshiba who said all their laptops which boot from USB will boot from HDD. But, I' m a little hesitant to trust the tech guy, couldt find any written confirmation of that fact.

Also saw that the Mitac 8350 ( Ahtlon 64!) has an Insyde BIOS; and that Insyde says their CMOS support boot to USB HDD  ( http://www.insydesw.com/solutions/pc/mobilepro.htm ). However the resellers for that Mitac in the US said it doesnt support booting from USB HDD (  I  think they just didnt want to bother with the question)...

OK. Any solid confirmation greatly appreciated; best is proof is in the pudding type of answer, but solidly documented answer would be great too.
Question by:andretchen
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Expert Comment

ID: 10718397
Toshiba Tecra Portege & Satellite Pro 6100
can use a USB floppy drive to boot from: https://www.mendax.com/productInfo.aspx?m=&productID=89703 

Author Comment

ID: 10720062
Yes ,that is true of all current Toshiba laptops, they all can boot from a USB floppy or CD ROM, which is very nice; however that doesnt answer the question, being able to boot from a USB hard drive (please see the Intel link above).

The idea is to enable one to have the same capability as swapping IDE hard drives in a desktop.

I'm not that interested in a solution that would start with a bootable USB floppy -then switch to an external HD.. maybe via PCMCIA, because then I'd need SCSI's  which are  expensive, and all this all more pain in the neck than switching the internal HD and forgetting about external ( faster, cheaper) HD's.

I have now heard from another Toshiba tech that, no they cannot boot from a USB 2.0 hard drives. Maybe i should just plunk down the money and see if that MItac works; expensive if it doesnt. And they havent answered my emails so far.
LVL 69

Expert Comment

ID: 10720456
My understanding is that if a laptop has a BIOS that will allow it to boot from a USB device, that includes any USB device, whether it be a floppy or a hard drive.  The BIOS determines which device will be booted from, as long as the device conforms the boot method.  When you boot from a cdrom in a desktop, that drive is connected to the same controller as the hard disk.
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Author Comment

ID: 10724175
Hi Callandor:

thanks for the follow-up; so now we are at a critical point. Would be awfully nice if someone could do a proof-in-the-pudding experiment to confirm your take. Or, would you be willing to fork the bucks if I get the Tecra M2 and it DOESNT boot and operate from an external HDD ?

Pls understand my skepticism, having heard 2 different stories from Tosh TEch support directly; and reading the Intel document above seems to indicate that the BIOS needs to ALSO have a USB to ATA drive protocol translator (which, granted, IF CD-ROMs are read as ATA, would mean ..).

Any Tecra / Toshiba owners out there  ??


Accepted Solution

beaker67 earned 2000 total points
ID: 10814917
I have a Toshiba A45-S250, and just tried installing Linux (Fedora Core) on an external USB hard drive - setup didn't even see the drive. I also tried installing Windows XP on the hard drive. Windows setup did recognize the drive, but told me that I can't install it because my computer does not support booting from that drive. I don't know how definitive this is, but it is an answer...

Assisted Solution

beaker67 earned 2000 total points
ID: 10814953
Also, I tried to make the hard drive bootable myself simply by copying the system files to it - didn't work (in fact it seemed the boot process didn't even see the drive). I also HAVE managed to boot off of a USB floppy drive, so the system does in fact differentiante between hard drives and floppy drives.

Author Comment

ID: 10820376
Hi beaker67:

thanks for conducting the test. Nothing like a *real* test. So, thanks a lot for putting to rest any doubt about it. In fact, based on further research results summarized below, it is clear that  NO CURRENT LAPTOP provides this USB HDD boot feature, even though it is available for some workstation motherboards.  Too durn bad !

beaker67, your detailed test reporting  that " Windows setup did recognize the drive, but told me that I can't install it because my computer does not support booting from that drive. I don't know how definitive this is, but it is an answer... " is in fact VERY perfectly in accordance with the Intel document mentioning the BIOS implementation of an USB -> ATA translator  as necessary for a USB HD to be bootable.

Callandor, although I appreciate your effort, your statement " .. My understanding is that if a laptop has a BIOS that will allow it to boot from a USB device, that includes any USB device, whether it be a floppy or a hard drive.  The BIOS determines which device will be booted . . "  was not helpful, even as it also echoed the (same incorrect) assumption of one of the Toshiba techs.

To conclude this thread, I want to mention what I found so far:

MITAC didnt follow up on my email inquiries (to recall, one of their tech contacts answered in the negative by phone, rather briefly and somewaht unconvincingly) ;

Arima ( which makes the eMachines Athlon 64 laptops) forwarded my requests to their techs, but nothing came back;

Gigabyte -who made the first Athlon 64 laptop- was most tenacious in having their tech find out for sure; he reported that even though their laptops used the Insyde BIOS, Insyde's  USB HD boot feature was only avalable for desktop motherboard BIOSes.  Soo, I would give Gigabyte five stars for support, and will certainly choose their products all other things being equal - wouldnt mind even paying a premium as they seem to have more responsive and qualified   tech support.

OK then. Question settled, with proof in the pudding courtesy of beaker67. Back to swapping internal drives.


Expert Comment

ID: 10821463
Yes, I have seen several other threads here that mention problems booting from USB (CD-ROM drives in particular). Coincidentally, I didn't try installing stuff to the external drive because of your post - I just happened to try it the day before I even saw this thread (actually, I had never even been to this site at all before). :-)

Actually, I believe my system technically doesn't allow booting from anything connected to USB - I just found out the only reason bootable floppy drives work is because my computer has a BIOS override setting - "USB Legacy Floppy Drive Emulation" - and I'm sure many other recent computers have a similar feature. That being said, what Callandor said may actually be accurate (or at least the opposite) - USB doesn't allow booting from ANYTHING.

Author Comment

ID: 10822084
Well one reason I do like all recent Toshiba laptops, they all do boot from USB floppy or CD. This is a recent development, so I can understand many transitional models do not do both or only do some etc.

Again, according to the Intel paper mentioned above, http://www.intel.com/update/departments/desktop/dt05011.pdf  a PC will boot from a USB HD if the BIOS has a USB to ATA translator. I suppose all (sensible) laptops with an external USB floppy or CD are designed to be bootable from them.
LVL 69

Expert Comment

ID: 11544628
I heard from Ken Easson, of di.fm, who says his IBM T41 will boot from an external USB hard drive:

"I have an IBM T41, which I have been assured will Boot Windows XP from a
USB hard drive. There is actually a setting to boot a USB Hard Drive,
USB CD-Rom or USB floppy in the BIOS, the BIOS allows me to control the
boot order or all bootable media.

There is also an added feature that allows me to distinguish between the
boot order of a Wake on LAN boot, and a regular Power/Restart boot - so
that I can use the laptop as a stand-in server running a different OS to
what it would normally boot up with from a remote setting (or
automatically depending if I ever figure out how to set up my routers to
do that) - a very nice function if you travel WITHOUT you're laptop.

Currently - I am attempting to install FreeBSD, Mandrake, and Red Hat
Linux to my USB drive (120GB USB 2.0/Firewire CrossFire). Sadly I may
have to install windows to the USB drive and FreeBSD to the built in
drive, as there seems to be a problem with the OS having a conflict with
Atapi, causing it to reboot itself before it can start up properly. If
you are interested in my success or failure as I attempt to get a linux
version to book on the ThinkPad, let me know, or if you can to reply to
Andretchen, please feel free to do so."

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