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What to Do After Downloading ISO Files from Microsoft

Debbi Landshoff

TechSoup encourages you to download the installation software for your Microsoft Software Donation Program donations instead of having discs sent to you.

So you download the software from Microsoft's Volume Licensing Service Center (VLSC) and find out that it arrives as an ISO file and you need to perform additional steps before you can use that file for installation. What’s an ISO file? Most simply put, it’s a single file containing all the data from a CD, DVD, or other disc, all in one.

Fortunately, it is not so difficult to work with ISO files. This article explains what you need to do. The article also helps you decide whether you need additional software or memory devices and provides links to lists of free software to help you manage them.


Flash Memory vs DVD

If you're installing your Microsoft software donations on several computers, you need to transfer the installation files between computers:

  • Flash memory devices such as USB flash drives and SD, miniSD or microSD flash cards are good and relatively inexpensive ways to move the files. Each computer must have a port that works with your device.
  • If you use DVDs, the drive on the computer creating the DVD must be a DVD writer and each installation computer must have a DVD drive.

Which option is better for the environment? Flash memory and DVD-RW discs are comparable, since they are both reusable. DVD-ROM discs can be used only once, so they are less green (but better than discs that are shipped to you). If you need to keep an ISO file for subsequent installation, consider storing it on a hard drive.


Overview of Installation Choices

An ISO installation file is a collection of all the individual files and folders that would be on an installation DVD, merged into a single file. You have three main choices for making these files and folders accessible:

  • Extract the installation files to a folder
  • Mount the ISO file as a virtual device
  • Write the installation files to DVD

Note: There are special requirements for installing Get Genuine Windows Full PC Operating Systems and for a clean installation of a Windows upgrade operating system. See Perform a Clean Windows Installation with a Downloaded ISO File for details.

Installation Choice: Extracting Files

For many, the simplest way to work with ISO files is to use file compression software to extract the installation files to a folder or drive that has no other files. After extraction is complete, the folder or drive will contain the same files that would be on an installation CD or DVD for this product. You can open it in Windows Explorer or the Computer folder, and click (or double click) the file called setup or setup.exe to start the installation.

Many applications that can be used with ZIP files can also be used with ISO files, so you may already have such an application available. Your application might use the word decompress rather than extract or unzip, but the result is the same.

Note: Although file compression is the common term for this type of software, ISO files are actually created without compression and so take up about the same amount of disc space after they are extracted.

Installation Choice: Mounting the ISO as a Virtual Drive

Virtual drive mounting applications must be installed separately on each computer, so this choice is most appropriate for those who have multiple applications to install or have other uses for virtual drives on their computers.

When you mount an ISO file as a virtual drive, it looks like a CD, DVD, or BD (Blu-ray disc) drive in Windows Explorer or the Computer folder. The contents of the drive are the files and folders that make up the ISO file. Depending on the mounting software, the installation might begin as soon as you mount the ISO or you might have to start the installation by clicking the file called setup or setup.exe.

You can't use this method for installing an operating system. Although it might work for a major operating system upgrade such as Windows XP to Windows 7, TechSoup can't be sure it will work with your application and so can't recommend it.

Installation Choice: Create Installation Discs

For most people, the most familiar installation format is DVD or CD. Most Microsoft applications don't fit on a CD and require DVD.

If you have a computer with a DVD writer drive, you probably already have the software to burn DVDs because manufacturers often bundle the appropriate writing software with their drives. In addition, With Windows 7, the option to create a DVD is available in the Windows Explorer or Computer folder's right-click menu.

After burning the ISO file to DVD, you just insert the DVD to start the setup.


Finding Free Applications for ISO Files

A good way to find appropriate applications is to search through CNET. Below are links that can help you find software for each of the installation choices described above.

Since CNET populates the lists based on keywords, not all the products listed will actually do what you want. If you have any doubts, check the publisher's web site. To find the website, click Full specifications on the page that shows CNET's details for the application.

You might also want to look at the Comparison of disc image software on Wikipedia.

Finally, you might want to look at any videos on the publisher's website or on to get an advance look at how the application works.


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Image: Jump Drive, Shutterstock