How to Carry Your Desktop Anywhere with Portable Apps



Even the lightest laptops won’t fit in your pocket. But these days, you don’t need to lug around an entire computer just to get some work done. In fact, you can carry your entire PC desktop on a USB stick and gain access to your favorite applications, browser bookmarks, documents and even your e-mail no matter what computer you sit down in front of.

We’re talking about portable apps, the most intelligent way to keep your favorite apps with you without lugging your laptop everywhere. A flash memory stick or an iPod loaded with portable apps is essential for visits to Bangkok internet cafes, grandmas house in Canada, the school library or anywhere you need to go when traveling light is a must.

A Primer on Portable Apps

The definition of a portable app will vary a little depending on who you ask, but the basic requirement is that once installed on a piece of removable media, it will work on any compatible machine when it’s plugged in.

Obviously, you’ll need to have some sort of portable device. You can use an iPod, an SD card or (our favorite) a USB flash drive. It shouldn’t be difficult to find something with ample space for around $20. Also, since USB flash drives are frequently given away as promotional offerings, you can probably get one for free.

Most portable apps are open-source or free software alternatives. So you probably won’t be able to carry a portable version of Microsoft Word with you, but you can carry a portable word processor that can open and edit Word documents, giving you the same functionality.

Keep in mind that portable apps are not cross platform, don’t expect your Windows portable apps to run on a Mac.

Get Some Apps

Wikipedia has one of the most extensive lists of standalone portable apps.

Some essentials:

  1. Firefox Portable. A widely used and supported portable version of the browser.
  2. has an entire portable office suite that can open Microsoft Office docs and that’s free to use.
  3. Thunderbird has a great portable e-mail client that can be configured to download your e-mail from anywhere in the world. Webmail is obviously easiest, but this is a nice alternative.
  4. Pidgin Portable is a lightweight, multi-protocol chat client.
  5. StickWiki. A small javascript file that you can open with a browser and edit. Useful for taking hyperlinked notes.
  6. There are a number of portable app launchers available for Windows users which auto-launch when you plug your media into the host computer. Two of the more popular options are the portable apps suite from and MojoPac. Both packages are similar — once installed on your portable device and connected to a host machine, they will auto-launch with menus allowing you to select which programs to use. MojoPac is a little more full-featured in that it creates a virtual desktop which you can set up to mimic your home machine.

Mac users can turn the Free Open Source Software Mac User Group (FreeSMUG), which offers a complete listing of individul portable applications for your Mac-compatible storage device. Keep in mind though that passwords and other information stored in the Keychain application are not portable.

Portable Linux on Any Machine

Since the entire operating system can be reduced to a few hundred megabytes, Linux is an ideal candidate for a portable drive. Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux are two distributions which can be installed on most storage devices. Using a virtual machine like QEMU, you can create a cross platform virtual machine that will allow you to plug your USB device into any computer and run Linux, regardless of whether the host is a Mac or PC.

Hackszine has a tutorial on how to set up Puppy Linux with a QEMU virtual machine that will run on a Mac.

A Word About Security

One of the advantages of using portable apps is that you can avoid insecure applications (like that unpatched, six-year-old install of IE 6 running in the internet cafe next to your hotel). However, if the host machine is infected or compromised you could infect your portable device. To get around this, put your USB flash drive in read-only mode or carry some sort of anti-virus application.

Also, keep in mind that spyware tools like keystroke loggers will still capture your keystrokes. Unfortunately it’s increasingly common for internet cafes around the world to become compromised with keystroke loggers. Painful though it may be, we suggest typing passwords backwards or otherwise out of order to foil the potential snoops. It isn’t foolproof of course, but it may slow them down enough that they move on to easier prey.


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