• Running Windows 7 from an E-SATA Port

    E-SATA LogoAfter getting my current laptop (a few years ago now), I immediately installed Ubuntu. I have been using Ubuntu for a really long time, and had no real desire to use Windows. More recently though, there have been a few instances where I have wanted to make use of Windows, and simply running in VirtualBox was no good. I set out to see whether I would be able to install Windows on a spare SATA drive I had, connected to an external SATA port on my laptop.

    Why Not the VirtualBox Option

    For the most part, I have been able to achieve all I have needed to by running Windows in a virtual environment under Ubuntu. There are a few issues with this, some of which one can put up with, but others of which are a real nuisance.

    Graphics Performance

    Graphics performance is poor – I can only assign up to 128MB memory for the graphics environment, despite having a laptop with two 3D capable graphics chips (2GB NVidia and an Intel). I can put up with poor performance for small tasks though. On occasion I have edited large batches of raw image files – which is a painfully slow task under such conditions.

    USB Passthrough

    One of the reasons I used Windows has been for printing. I have one printer (a cheap Epson) which Ubuntu has never been able to drive, and another older (originally more expensive Epson) which Ubuntu can print to, but where the print quality lacks. From Windows, I have been able to print to the cheap printer with great success by passing it through to the VM. The older printer, however, never gets picked up by Windows, and I am unable to use it within the VM.

    I have also come across a curious issue with my satnav. I have a TomTom, and I am sure that the TomTom Home application tries to detect whether you are running through a USB hub, preventing proper function should that be the case. This has been deduced by how the app responds depending on where the device is connected on a PC (USB ports on the front compared with those at the back). In the VM, it behaves in the same way – although Windows can see the device and install the drivers, TomTom Home won’t recognise it or use it.

    NVIDIA Optimus

    As mentioned, my laptop has an additional GPU – which runs with NVIDIA Optimus. Under Ubuntu, it is possible to use Bumblebee to make use of the graphics card’s advanced processing power and 3D acceleration, however, each Ubuntu version upgrade seems to break the installation, and getting it all working again takes a significant amount of time. Following the latest update to 15.04, I haven’t been able to get Bumblee working at all.

    Further, the additional card means that it is possible to run 3 screens off the laptop (including its own screen) – this is something that is almost impossible to achieve under Ubuntu (I have seen some people manage – but nothing I have ever tried has worked).

    Why not Dual-Boot

    Historically, I have always dual-booted between Windows and Linux. This solution is OK, though it generally means giving Windows a small partition (which it will consume in no time). I don’t really have the space to spare on my laptop drive to allow a piggybacking Windows installation. Further, I would have to reduce the size of the Ubuntu partition, which is possible, but carries a significant amount of risk.

    Final Option? Boot from E-SATA

    Can you install Windows on an external HDD connected via E-SATA? The short answer (without the need to install 3rd party tools / drivers) is “No!”. However, reading around the topic, I saw some suggestions that if Windows was installed to the hard drive whilst inserted in the laptop, it could subsequently be taken out and used externally.

    Installing Externally

    To satisfy my own curiosity, I initially tried installing from the DVD-ROM to the eSATA disk connected to my laptop. The Windows install found the disk and even gave it the label ‘C:’ – but no matter how I partitioned it (both in the UI and in the Command shell), Windows would not install, giving some error about the partition.

    Installing Internally

    I used to have a Dell XPS M1330 – which was an awesome laptop for the fact that Dell had designed it to allow swapping of components with relative ease. Certain panels could be removed to reveal RAM, the WiFi card, etc. The HDD could simply be slid out, following the removal of a couple of screws. Sadly, this is not the case with the Dell XPS 15z, which has an aluminium base screwed and clipped on, which has to be unclipped very carefully, so as not to break any of the holding clips on the inside. Once open, access to the HDD is easy – and I removed the existing, replaced it, closed the case gently (leaving the screws out), and proceeded with the install.

    Following completion of the installation (prior to any drivers being installed), I took the base back off and swapped the HDD back out again.

    The drive was placed in my HDD dock (I had already established that my portable disk with eSATA would power the drive on), connected to the computer and booted into BIOS. In BIOS, I was able to pick the eSATA drive as the one to boot (Note: every time I wish to boot into Windows, I will have to do this).

    Once the boot option was made, the laptop booted into Windows, and I have since been able to install all drivers, and have got three screens displaying etc. For me, this is a perfect solution – I don’t anticipate needing Windows when out-and-about (apart from the VM, of course) and at home, I have two systems, both with significant amounts of storage space.

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