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Running PortableApps

I’ve been using PortableApps a lot recently.  PortableApps are open source, Windows applications that have been slightly modified so they can run off a removable drive (and thus do not need to be installed).  A lot of the applications I use (Firefox, Thunderbird, Filezilla, PuTTY, and OpenOffice) are available.

The advantage of PortableApps is that you have a consistent set of applications (same applications, same versions) on every computer you use without having to install anything (assuming you have your PortableApps USB drive with you).  You get the same browsing history on every PC (and ability to search it – a wonderful Firefox feature) when using PortableApp’s Firefox (Foxmarks works great for synchronizing bookmarks, but doesn’t synchronize history).  It’s pretty lightweight (easy to start, applications run fast) and nothing is left on the host PC.  Upgrading is easy, too – just copy over the new files.

I’ve tried PortableApps on a number of portable drives.  Performance does matter, since some PortableApps frequently write to the hard drive.  My experiences:

  • Memorex 8G micro hard drive (3600 RPM) USB 2.0 portable drive — works, but can be a bit painful (e.g. a lot of pauses when browsing with Firefox)
  • OCZ 4G Rally2 USB 2.0 flash memory stick – better than the Memorex 8G, but still a bit slow.
  • Acomdata 80G USB 2.0 hard drive – works great.  Now my normal PortableApps drive, since it’s fast enough, but less hassle than the 7200 RPM drive.
  • Hitachi 100G 7200RPM 2.5″ USB 2.0/eSATA hard drive – works great.  The best solution for portable Virtual Machines, but more of a hassle than the Acomdata, since it needs 2 USB ports for power (and an eSATA port for best performance).

However, only a limited number of applications are available, so PortableApps doesn’t help if, for example, you want to run EaglePCB portably.

Other options for creating a portable work environment include taking the whole computer with you (laptops – but I love my 20″ and 24″ monitors), web applications such as GMail (but again, many applications aren’t available or wouldn’t work well), file sharing such as Dropbox or a version control system such as Subversion or git (but this solution requires the applications to be installed on each computer, and keeps local copies of each file) , or running virtual machines from a portable hard drive.

The Virtual Machine solution lets you install almost any software, and you only have to have the VM server installed on each computer you use.  VMWare Server 2.0 now supports USB 2.0 (very nice); in the near future, I hope to try VirtualBox.  VM’s are more of a hassle than PortableApps, and requires a host PC with a hefty amount of memory (for example, my small laptop can handle PortableApps, but not VMWare).

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