Travel Light with Portable Software

By Joseph Moran | Posted March 02, 2009

When you're packing to hit the road for business, a notebook PC is often right up there with deodorant and toothbrush on the list of essential travel items. But when you're just working at home for an evening or roaming around town for the day, you may not necessarily want to be saddled with a relatively heavy, pricey piece of technology everywhere you go.

Of course there are other ways to stay productive besides having your own notebook in tow, such as making use of a hotel business center's or public library's computers or those of the colleagues and friends you visit. But those systems may not have the software installed that you need to get your work done. And even if they do, or if you use online applications, there's still the issue of privacy to consider, because evidence of your online activities or even sensitive data can be left behind on any PC you use in the form of browser history, temporary files, or other tracks.

Portable software offers an alternative to lugging your own computer around, and can also mitigate the inconvenience and risk of relying on the PCs you come across in your travels.

Going Portable

Conventional software must be installed on a PC's hard drive in order to work. By contrast, a portable application is one that's designed to be installed entirely onto a removable storage device such as a USB flash drive. Because all of the files and configuration settings that the program uses stay on the removable device, the application isn't tied to a particular computer and can run on any system you plug the drive into.

(Since this article will focus on Windows portable software, we'll stipulate that you're plugging into a Windows PC, though numerous Linux distributions can install a whole operating system as well as applications on a bootable flash drive.)

In a nutshell, portable software offers a self-contained computing environment that fits in the palm of your hand and can get you up and running in seconds on almost any available PC. All you have to do is pop in your storage device and run your programs directly from it, then save your work and unplug the drive when you're finished. No personal data or other detritus is left behind.

A potential downside to portable software is that the specific programs you typically use may not be available in portable form. Although you can find a portable application to handle almost any task, they're frequently open-source or shareware programs -- the OpenOffice.org productivity suite instead of Microsoft Office, for example, or Mozilla Firefox instead of Internet Explorer. What you often will find, though, are portable alternatives to the applications you're accustomed to that offer data-file compatibility and most if not all of the same features. Choose Your Weapon

You can run portable software from pretty much any storage device, including a USB hard drive or even an iPod or other media player that can appear as a storage device in Windows. USB flash drives offer the best combination of capacity, convenience, and cost, with 4GB models available for around $12 to $15. (As always, the bigger the better -- 8GB thumb drives can be found for $20 or $25, with 16GB models for as little as $30.) Capacity differences aside, flash drives come in a variety of shapes and sizes and with specialized features such as rugged construction or built-in data encryption.

U3 Software Central
U3 Software Central offers a library of free and low-priced applications for use with flash storage devices.
(Click for full view)

Flash drives from SanDisk include a built-in platform called U3 that provides password protection, a menu system for launching portable applications, and an online directory where you can easily browse for and buy new software. Ceedo Technologies' $39 Ceedo Personal software works a lot like U3 but can be installed on the flash drive of your choice, and Ceedo also offers a separate utility called Argo that can repackage Microsoft Office, Adobe PageMaker, and some other standard software programs so they can be installed portably. (Certain Lexar drives come with a version of Ceedo's software called PowerToGo.)

If you want to get portably up and running in no time, the open-source project PortableApps.com offers a free suite of programs with a single, integrated installer. The suite draws from PortableApps.com's extensive list of 60-plus applications, ranging from familiar ones like Firefox and OpenOffice.org to tools for sending instant messages, displaying PDF documents, editing photos, and playing audio and video. All the software at portableapps.com is free, though the site does accept donations via PayPal to fund development and hosting.

Portable software gives you a way to carry all the applications and data you need on the road in your pocket instead of in a bag over your shoulder. They're the ultimate way to travel light without sacrificing productivity.

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He's also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he's currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, Fla. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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