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14 August 2007

Portable applications - interim report

By Andrew Clifford

It is practical to run a PC environment from a flash drive. Additional work is required to make the environment really flexible and easy to use.

A few weeks ago I wrote about my experiment with portable applications. I thought I would give an update on progress so far.

To recap, I am trying to recreate my PC environment on a USB flash drive. I want to transfer my work between Windows XP and Vista PCs easily, and make sure that I can continue my work immediately if one PC fails.

I have now largely managed to recreate my environment on a flash drive. My conclusions so far are:

  • PortableApps.com provides a strong and growing collection of office products and utilities that run directly from a flash drive.
  • The PortableApps version of Thunderbird, run with the Lightening calendar plug-in, provides a usable alternative to Microsoft Outlook. Because I want to be able to access and send email anywhere, I have had to find an alternative to my ISP's outgoing email service because that is only available when connected directly to them.
  • Most of the development tools that I use are easy to run from a portable device because they have not been designed to be Windows-specific.
  • Flash drives have different speed characteristics than disk. I have not noticed the speed differences for reading data or for writing a small number of large files. However, writing a large number of files to the flash drive is very slow indeed.
  • Because of the speed characteristics, some software runs very slowly from the flash drive. I have got around this by using a version installed on the PC where available, and relying on the flash drive version only when on a borrowed PC.
  • For backup, it is relatively easy to copy an entire flash drive, compress it, and write it to a CD. Recovery is simple because the entire environment is just a bunch of files. There are no registry entries or file permissions to worry about.
  • Some software does not run properly from a flash drive. I have copied the installation files for these to the flash drive so that I can install the software as required.
  • I found it rather unnerving moving to a portable environment. Files and programs are not in their familiar places, and I have to be paranoid about not losing the flash drive.

I still have more work to do.

  • I want to recreate lost shortcuts, file associations and startup programs. This would then give me the best of both worlds - a PC that feels like it's my PC, but with all the flexibility of portable applications.
  • The environment still assumes fixed locations for software and data. To make it more flexible, I want to restructure the environment into bundles of functionality and data that can be moved round. This would, for example, let me simply copy a directory to the hard drive to speed up software that does not run well from a flash drive. It would also let me split the environment over many devices - for example keeping little-used data on a different device.
  • I want to create a more efficient backup, using incremental backup or synchronisation.

I will let you know as I progress.

Next: Journey to the sixth circle of hell

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