Take Your Office Suite With You

In our age of over-inflated programs that greedily consume hard drive space and offer lots of features that few people actually use, one developer is thinking inside the box, albeit a small one. Portable Apps Suite offers a collection of programs that includes an office suite, standalone word processor, Web browser, e-mail client, Web editor, personal organizer and FTP and instant messaging (IM) clients.

While the programs aren’t necessarily competition for their mainstream brethren, they do a good job carrying out their respective tasks. The kicker is that the applications are relatively small and the suite, in its entirety, fits on a 256 MB USB flash drive.

Small has its advantages. You don’t have to install the programs in the Portable Apps Suite onto your hard drive or integrated into Windows. You can simply copy them into a folder and call on them when you wish. And when you copy them onto a flash memory drive, or other external storage device, you can easily move the applications from computer to computer without losing all of your settings.

Best of all — it’s free. On the downside, if your storage medium happens to be slow, the programs bog down during loading and, at times, during operation.

An Office Run
Most impressive is the Portable OpenOffice.org office suite that includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, drawing package, and database. It’s much like an integrated “Works” program that offers almost everything under the sun but allows you to take your documents and everything you need to work with them wherever you go.

The individual applications are surprisingly comprehensive although they don’t offer depth of features you’ll find in mainstream applications — but hey, what do you want for free? In particular, they lack the step-by-step wizards that help novices accomplish basic tasks; templates for working with commonly used designs and layouts and the ability to work with graphics and other higher-order features.

The suite’s word processor exceeds expectations. It offers the standard features that you’d expect in a high-quality word processor, including spell checking, auto-spell checking that identifies misspelled words as you type, selective undos that annul specific tasks (even those performed several tasks earlier), and a find-and-replace function that can match letter case. The program also supports industry-standard file formats and can, in many cases, accept heavily formatted Word documents.

You can easily change fonts — including style and color — and highlight text. The program handles hyperlinks and offers built-in graphics capabilities to work with images, draw diagrams, create bullet points and fill in backgrounds. You can also control indents, headers, footers, spacing, text flow and more, along with basic table tools. You can also record and execute macros.

The app even offers basic review functions that allow several people to collaborate on the creation and review of documents. OpenOffice.org’s word processor offers most of the features that people require, and the help is well written, comprehensive and easy to understand.

The spreadsheet maintains the feel and protocol of the standard programs: Excel and Quattro Pro. You can highlight columns and select a summation function to immediately total them. You can select columns and copy functions over to other columns. There’s a good selection of predefined formulas that include trigonometric, statistical and other functions. You can right click to format cells and alter other settings. And there are also decent charting functions.

The presentation program offers the basic, requisite functions — almost everything that you need to build a presentation, whether you want to display it on-screen or print it out. The program comes with the standard outline, slide and sorter views, and it serves page templates for different style slides that offer predefined placeholders for titles, text, graphics and images.

The graphic tools let you add text and objects and manipulate them, and you can embed pictures as well as video and audio files. What the presentation program clearly lacks is a rich collection of professionally designed templates — it only comes with a few. But people who are confident with their design skills will be able to accomplish quite a bit with the program.

The suite even includes a database that offers some relational capabilities. This one is definitely workable, but its lack of templates and wizards makes it harder to learn and use. By the way, a second version of the Portable Apps Suite, Portable Apps Suite Light, leaves out Portable OpenOffice.org and fits on a smaller 128MB USB flash drive.

More Office-Style Apps
With good office-style applications already in the mix, Portable AbiWord, a repackaged version of the AbiWord word processor, mostly seems redundant and brings little more to the table. It’s a good word processor, but when it’s running from a flash memory card, it tends to run slowly.

As you would expect in a any decent word processor, Portable AbiWord lets you easily manipulate fonts — changing styles and colors as well as highlight text for modification. It too offers spell checking and automatic spell checking. There are features for setting page numbers and also for creating tables of contents and listing bullets. The program supports the standard word processing formats that include Microsoft Word, RTF and text — pretty much all that you need.

AbiWord creates and works with tables, and offers features for performing mail merges and tracking revisions. It’s a good program, but most users will likely prefer the word processor found in OpenOffice.org.

To organize appointments and tasks, Portable Sunbird offers a handy calendar and computerized task list that you can carry with you, a repackaged version of Mozilla Sunbird. You can easily view the electronic calendar in month, week and other views, and immediately change between them. By simply clicking on a day, you can view your appointments. When you pass the mouse cursor over an appointment, the program automatically displays a summary.

For more detail or to modify an event, you only have to click on the event. Each task and appointment offers its own dialogue box that manages details such as who, where and how long, and you can add notes and assign predefined categories. And the program presents itself in an intuitive and graphical interface.

The only thing that’s missing is an address book to track contacts. While Portable Sunbird won’t come close to replacing a contact manager such as Sage Software’s ACT, it’s a decent program for managing your schedule and tasks. And it can help make sense of your busy days.

Reaching for the Web
The suite comes with the Portable Firefox Web browser, a compact version of the popular Mozilla Firefox Web browser. Portable Firefox offers a fast, full-featured Web browser that’s easy to use. In fact, if you didn’t know that you were running the portable version of Firefox, you would think you were running the standard version.

Beyond basic browsing, the software offers pop-up ad blocking, integrated searches, and automatic updates. Like its full-fledged version, there’s tabbed browsing, a hallmark of Firefox that allows you to open several windows and conveniently switch between them by clicking a tab. The beauty of the system is that as a movable app, Portable Firefox allows you to take your bookmarks, extensions, and saved passwords with you, wherever you use it.

The suite’s e-mail client is Portable Thunderbird, a repackaged version of the well-known Mozilla Thunderbird. Again, as with Firefox, the portable version looks and feels much like its full-featured counterpart. And being portable, you can carry all of your e-mail contacts, accounts, settings and addresses with you.

Portable NVU is a repackaged version of the NVU Web editor and provides tools for building and maintaining Web sites. Like other Web editors, the program offers clear icons for performing the tasks of adding images, working with text and creating tables. There’s a mode to build a page as well as preview it, just as it would appear in a browser.

On the other hand, compared to mainstream Web editors such as Microsoft Front Page and Macromedia Dreamweaver, NVU doesn’t create pages in a visual WYSIWYG manner and offers few templates for beginners to use as a start for their pages. As a result, the program is mainly for experienced Web designers who know what they are doing, already understand HTML and, for some reason, aren’t working with FrontPage or Dreamweaver.

Portable FileZilla, a version of FileZilla, brings a solid FTP client to the mix. While there may be more advanced features that users look for in their FTP clients, this one definitely covers the basics.

Finally, Portable Gaim offers a portable version of the Gaim instant messaging (IM) client. The multi-protocol instant messaging client supports AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo and more. For security, the program supports the Off-the-record plugin to encrypt messages.

The program allows you to simultaneously log onto multiple IM networks and multiple accounts. It offers file transfers, away messages, typing notifications, and MSN window-closing notifications. It supports Buddy Pounces, which alerts you when a specific buddy goes away, signs online or returns from idle by sending a message, playing a sound, or running a program, depending on your preferences.

Portability also allows you to bring along your IM settings and buddy lists and use the program on any computer.

Taking It All With You
While the applications are small, their load times depend on the storage medium that you are using. In particular, when the portable apps are loading from a slow flash memory drive, they tend to slog along.

Portable AbiWord is the slowest of the Portable Apps. It seemed to constantly access the flash drive, which caused it to bog down. Of course, if you run the applications off of a fast external hard drive, your load times will be much quicker. Keep in mind that beyond flash memory and external hard drives, you can use any portable media to store and transfer the applications, including iPods and memory cards.

Installation is easy. You simply download a compressed file and unzip it. As it decompresses, the program creates a folder with icons of the respective programs that you double-click to open them. The decompression process also creates respective data folders for each application. The suite doesn’t install executable icons on your desktop — you use either “My Computer” or “Windows Explorer” to access your memory drive and double-click the applications to run them.

You can save your documents, settings, and data to the flash memory drive that stores the software. Most of the programs, such as Portable Sunbird, for example, automatically save their data to their own folders on the memory card. This makes them easy to take along and carry from computer to computer.

Other applications, such as AbiWord, try to save documents to the standard “My Documents” folder on the computer’s main hard drive. As a result, when you’re working with AbiWord, you do have to remember to check and possibly change the directory you’re saving a document to if you want to take it with you.

When running under Windows 2000, the OpenOffice.org applications could have trouble opening and saving data on some computers. According to the program’s Web site, this problem will be fixed in future versions. Because the suite is free, don’t expect to be able to call tech support should you encounter a problem — there is no formal tech support. But you can access online networks for casual assistance.

The Bottom Line
It’s refreshing to come across software that’s compact, takes up little space and minimal resources, can be carried from computer to computer and still offers enough features to do the job. And it’s free. What is there that’s not to like?

On the other hand, in the real world, it’s hard to wean oneself from a Microsoft Office or Corel WordPerfect Office, and even more difficult for a company or organization to make the switch. But the Portable Apps Suite offers a set of applications that do an admirable job, especially given the price. And in this case, bigger is not necessarily better.

Pros: Freeware (open source), suite offers solid collection of useful applications that fit onto a flash memory drive (or similar); portable for use on any computer

Cons: Depending on the storage medium, applications can be slow to run; some apps lack the power features found in competing mainstream utilities; no tech support available

Adapted from winplanet.com.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

Must Read

Get the Free Newsletter!

Subscribe to Daily Tech Insider for top news, trends, and analysis.