USB Flash Drives Mobilized - InformationWeek

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Hardware & Infrastructure
03:25 PM

USB Flash Drives Mobilized

Five ways to load up these little devices with data and apps, and take your computing anywhere.

Now that floppy disks have been replaced by USB flash drives, it's time to think about those drives as more than just big floppies.

For $25, you can pick up a 2-Gbyte USB flash drive, enough data to fill roughly four CD-ROMs. In addition to data, applications have become common on USB drives: Some companies sell Linux distributions preloaded on them. With all that space and flexibility, it's possible for people to take both their data and apps with them.

But using them isn't always intuitive or easy. Here are some ways you can get your USB drive working more effectively.

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Many common free and open source productivity applications are available in portable versions. They can be run directly from a USB drive--with both the application and user data stored on the drive--and will never need to be installed anywhere.

Apps Suite: A starter kit of apps that fit on a USB drive
(click image for larger view)

Apps Suite: A starter kit of apps that fit on a USB drive
PortableApps Suite from is a preconfigured collection of such programs that's a snap to run. The default package weighs in at about 256 Mbytes once it's unpacked and is like a free software greatest-hits collection, including mobile versions of OpenOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, and Sunbird. You can add other apps, including the 7-Zip archive manager, AbiWord (a word processing app), the FileZilla FTP client, IM clients, and the Sumatra portable PDF reader. You can install as many pieces as you like, and it comes with its own customizable launch menu.

A big reason to go with the suite rather than downloading individual apps is that there's a fair degree of integrity within the suite. Everything has been prescreened to work reliably in a standalone fashion and be up to date. Another point in favor of the suite is that it automatically saves user-created data in a directory tree that travels with the suite, so user data is never saved to the PC. It even includes a backup utility that saves and restores user or application data to an archive.

The PortableApps Suite isn't the only prepackaged collection of portable programs out there. Consider the far less ambitious but still impressive Floppy Office, which packs an array of tiny little productivity tools into a 1.5-Mbyte archive.

There also are lots of apps with portable versions. For example, there's a nice version of the Opera browser. And if OpenOffice isn't to your taste, you could swap it for a portable version of the Scribus word processor and page-designer app. If you're still not satisfied, has a whole subcategory devoted to portable productivity applications.

Finally, there's Nirsoft, maker of a collection of useful and free utilities, all of which require no installation and will run from a thumb drive or CD. They're perfect if you want to assemble a Swiss Army knife USB collection of utilities.

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