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Normally, Windows 9x must be installed on each PC individually so that it can be loaded/configured with the appropriate set of drivers. I'm wondering if there is any way to make a boot HDD that can be transported between machines.

I have two PCs with vastly different hardware specs that can both run Windows 9x, though using their own specific drivers for the video, sound, and probably other stuff. I boot both from a Compact Flash card using an IDE-to-CF converter. I'd like to find a way to have just one CF card that I can use interchangeably with both machines. I suppose part of the solution could be a scheme with partitions and BIOS settings so that each PC actually boots from a different partition. This would be fine providing I can access a main partition where apps/games are installed from both PCs.

Is it possible to setup such an interchangeable HDD for Windows 9x?

NOTE: I'd like to share a 64GB CF card, so assume I'll use FAT32.

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    There is some way to have different hardware configurations in Win9x, but it's only designed to handle laptops and docking stations, not completely different machines. I never got it work when swapping hard drives around between machines like you're doing. Instead I would delete the root of the device tree and run the Add New Hardware wizard to regenerate it. – Ross Ridge Sep 6 '19 at 21:12
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    Anecdotally, when I moved a Win9x drive from one machine to another (e.g. when upgrading hardware) I found it detected and installed all the new hardware, but didn't delete the old devices' drivers. They were still visible in Device Manager if one selected "show hidden devices", or an option to that effect. I used to go and delete the old cruft when I knew I wasn't going to put the hard drive back in the old machine any more. – Kaz Sep 7 '19 at 7:22
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This will be tricky and pose significant differences, so I want to ask: why? What is it that you hope to achieve?

I presume it is not about price, as media cost is not very significant today.

Is it for a set of installed apps or games? If so, can you do it once and then clone it to another card?

The principle driver that matters is the disk controller. So long as they have the same make/model, it should work. But each time, it will go through a cycle of reboots as it detects and re-detects graphics card, sound card, etc.

The BIOS settings only specify which disk, so the first active partition will be the one that boots.

You could use a boot manager, such as PartitionMagic's BootMagic, to offer a menu allowing you to pick between 2 different installs in different partitions. But if you go to such lengths, then why not just use 2 CF cards? It would be much easier.

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  • Can the Windows NT boot manager be used to select betwen different Win9x ? Grub can be used in the same way. – Stefan Skoglund Apr 16 at 18:24
  • Fair question. I spend a lot of time tweaking the contents of the CF, adding, removing, re-configuring things. It's not a "once and done" proposition. So keeping track of and backing up a single CF is preferable to having two CF cards and 4 copies (with the backups) of mostly duplicate stuff. – Brian H Apr 16 at 18:26
  • @StefanSkoglund -- no, because NTLDR must start from the 1st primary partition on the 1st disk, and Win9x will only install into primary partitions, so they would inevitably share. – Liam Proven Apr 16 at 18:42
  • However, BootMagic supports multiple primaries and setting one to visible and hiding the others. That is ideal for this. PartitionMagic 8 was made free years ago so this is a no-cost solution. – Liam Proven Apr 16 at 18:49
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I used to have an exchangeable disk that I used between my PC and my kids' PC. Theirs was more powerful so when they were at school and I was working from home, I'd use their PC.

The trick is to have two boot configurations that the user can select on startup. Basically you put the menu into config.sys (see How do I create a boot menu to select between Windows and DOS?) and depending on which configuration is chosen, you load up different drivers.

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