Portable Programs and Apps

Do you regularly work at another computer? A coffee shop, friend, library, lab, or generic office computer? Do you ever wish you could take all your information and programs with you? You can with a portable drive.

Choosing the Drive
There's three ways to get a portable drive.
  • One way is to buy a new U3 drive. It's a specially made USB flashdrive (sometimes called a thumbdrive) that allows you to install and run special software from the drive itself without installing any files on the computer where you are working. The nice thing about these drives is that they often come with some special software for you for free, for example a "launcher" program that looks like the Windows Start Menu to organize the programs and files on your portable drive, as well as a security program of some sort to password protect access to your files. A 2GB U3 drive will set you back about $230.

  • A second way is to buy a portable harddrive. These range from between one to two cigarette packs in size, and are different from the U3 flashdrive described above. A flashdrive uses flash memory, meaning information is stored in a memory circuit so there are no moving parts in it. You can drop it from less than 9 feet and it should be OK. A portable harddrive, however, does have moving parts (since it is a hard drive), and a good bump or drop from a few feet can damage the drive. However, a 40GB portable harddrive costs about $130 while a regular 4GB flashdrive costs $277. So, a portable harddrive costs half the price, and gives you 10 times the memory… clearly a better deal, but it won't fit on your keychain and shouldn't be thrown in your bag.

  • The third way is to take the plain old flashdrive you've been using, and just install the special software onto it. Yep, that's right. It's not the drive that's special, it's the software. Two concerns if you take this route:
    • you'll need a big flashdrive. You can install one or two programs on a small USB flashdrive, but if you intend to install a wordprocessor, music, calendar, documents… you'll probably feel the need for something with 512MB at the very least, which can cost $60 (1 or 2) to $80.
    • flashdrives have a limited lifecycle (see wikipedia.org) based on how many times they are accessed. While exactly how long they live is debated, basically, every time you access it either to read a file from it or save a file to it, you shorten the life of the drive.

      This may not seem like a big deal since you get 10,000 to 100,000 accesses before it fails, but think about opening a file in Word, with Word's autosave feature set to five minutes (that's what mine is). Work on the file for 60 minutes, save the file three times yourself over that hour, and then save it just before you exit Word. That makes 20 accesses - 1 to open the file you'll work on, 1 for Word to create a backup file while you work, 12 for Word to autosave to the backup file every 5 minutes, 3 to save the file yourself over that hour, 1 to save the file right before you close it, and 2 by Word to finalize the changes you made and then delete the backup file it made after you close Word. Do this for two hours a day, five days a week, 40 weeks in a year, and that adds up to 8,000 accesses in a year. One benefit of the U3 flashdrives is that some are special, in that they include special software to extend the life of the drive by minimizing the wear and tear on the circuitry that repeated use causes.

      The biggest point to remember in this is that if you intend to use an old flash drive you've been using for a year or two, you might consider buying a new one anyway before you start installing programs on it.
Software
Regardless, once you choose your drive, whether it is a flashdrive or a portable harddrive, you'll need some software to install on it. It used to be that you couldn't just install any software on it and expect it to be portable. Most software for Windows installs files in the program's directory, in the Windows directory, in the Windows settings files (the registry)… and so the program might work fine when you plug your portable drive into your computer, but all those extra files and settings won't be on the other computer you'll be working on.

Enter MojoPac ($30), a program that promises to fix that. While I haven't tried it myself, it looks promising.

Barring this, you need software that has been specially designed to write all its files and settings in one place (much of it is free even!). The programs below do just that…
    Calendars
  • Sunbird - this is the webmaster's choice for a portable calendar program (see images and use)
  • Essential PIM - another Personal Information Manager

    Encryption
    While U3 drives and many regular flash drives come with this kind of software free, some do not. If you have any files with sensitive data, this allows you to lock them in case you lose the portable drive.
  • Lockbox - though not free, it's cheap ($9.95), and the webmaster's choice for simple encryption
  • TrueCrypt - a free but more complicated program
  • LockNote - a free program that will serve as a password protected notebook. If only hold one file though. You can store more than one by just copying and renaming the file.

    File Managers
    If you won't have access to a file manager (like the one that comes with Windows) or don't want to use it
  • A43 File Manager
  • Free Commander
  • XYplorer

    Fixing Computers
    You might take a portable drive to a friend's home to fix the computer problems they are having. Here's some great tools to keep handy:
  • Avast - virus scanner
  • Free AntiVirus - virus scanner
  • McAfee Stinger - virus and worm scanner
  • Symmantec Removal Tools - website to download specific tools for cleaning worms off someone's computer
  • AdAware spyware detector (install like normal to the hard drive of your computer, then copy the AdAware directory to your portable drive)
  • Restoration - an "undelete" tool
  • Rootkit Revealer - this detects software that hides itself deep in the computer, and allows other programs to use it to break in to the computer
  • AutoRuns - shows you what's running when Windows boots up
  • System Information for Windows - a detailed report about Windows computers
  • Bootable USB - this is no easy feat, but TomsHardWare provides an explanation for how to create a bootable drive for Windows that you can carry with you

    Launcher
  • PStart - a Windows-like "start menu" for your portable drive if it did not come with one

    Music Players
  • XMPlay - webmaster's choice for simple and easy to use music player
  • ZoomPlayer - plays video too
  • CDex - a complicated program that can rip music, change formats… as well as play music
  • playlist - this is an old time batch file for mp3 playlists. Put this batch file in your music directory on the portable drive. When you copy a new folder of mp3 files (with no subfolders under it) to the portable drive, drop the new folder on the batch file, and it will place in that folder a playlist for all the mp3 files in that folder. Any software that reads m3u playlists will be able to play this list.

    Passwords
  • Pass2Go - saves passwords for your favorite websites and such
  • SignupShield Passwords - another saved passwords program
  • KeePass - yet another saved passwords program

    PDF Reader
    If the computer you will be working at does not have a PDF reader, use this free one
  • Foxit Reader

    Photo Organizer
  • Preclick PhotoBackPack - this program allows you to create slide shows, as well as quickly organize and find the picture you want. great for taking a lot of photos to friends to show off.

    Synchronizing
  • WinSin - webmaster's choice - great program to synchronize a folder (or several) on your portable drive with one (or several) on your home or laptop computer so you never forget files somewhere or have only an old copy of a document with you. It can also exclude files and folders you don't want to sync.

    Task Management
  • TiddlyWiki - webmaster's choice - this is a simple webpage file that you can take anywhere with you. It holds "notecards" to store information - things to do, ideas, and links to websites, pictures, and local files even. It requires no knowledge of programming webpages, and is very very easy to use.

    Web
  • Portable Firefox and Thunderbird by John Haller - this is a portable version of a great and safe web browser - this means you can browse the web without leaving a trace on the host computer
  • Trillian for chatting online with AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo Messenger, and IRC
  • Miranda for chatting online with AIM, ICQ, IRC, Jabber, MSN, and Yahoo
  • MiniAIM - mini AOL Instant Messenger
  • i.Scribe - email program in case you want to save past emails locally (see here for a helpful tip using this with some email providers)

    Word Processors
  • Portable OpenOffice by John Haller (read more PDF) - webmaster's choice - a great alternative to Microsoft Office with similar menus, as well as an Excel-like spreadsheet and PowerPoint-like presentation program.
  • AbiWord with
  • plug-ins for many kinds of files

    Zipping
    Many programs are distributed as ZIP file, or many smaller files zipped up into one big one. These two free programs let you open them.
  • HJ-Zip
  • 7-Zip

    Links
    Where else can you find great portable applications?
  • TechTastic.ca
  • PCStats.Com
  • U3.Com
  • Kikizas USB Apps
  • NedWolf's List
  • PortableFreeWare
  • PCMagazine