Netbooks and smartphones are certainly a convenient way to carry the internet around with you, but sometimes you need more than these devices can offer.

USB flash drives are an obvious solution, but you can't always get access to the software you need to edit your files. This is where Portable Apps can help you out.

It's a suite of programs that sits on a flash drive. You can plug it into any Windows PC and get your own Start menu, including your own choice of applications and your personalised settings. You do need to get access to another PC to use it, but you get portable computing for the cost of a flash drive, and it's small enough to fit on a key ring.

Portable apps start menu

START MENU: Plug your flash drive into a host PC and navigate using its Portable Apps Start menu

Portable Apps provides a simple environment, including its own Start menu. The platform on its own takes up a mere 2MB, which leaves plenty of room on any flash device for applications and some of your most useful files.

There are two ready-installed suites that you can choose from. Suite Light is a 47MB download that takes up 100MB and includes Firefox, Thunderbird, Pidgin (an MSN/Yahoo messenger equivalent), Abiword and Thunderbird Calendar, along with antivirus and media-playing software. If you need a full office suite, get Suite Standard. It's a bigger download but includes a full version of OpenOffice.org.

The Portable Apps menu includes links to folders for Documents, Music, Pictures and Videos, each of which is stored on the flash drive. To install a suite, point your browser at www.portableapps.com/download and download one. For general use the Suite Light is probably sufficient, but if you have more space and bandwidth we'd recommend opting for Suite Standard.

Start by launching the installer, and then click 'Next'. Ensure that your flash drive is plugged in and recognised by Windows. Select the drive letter of your flash drive and click 'Install'. Wait as the suite is written to the drive. Finally, complete the wizard.

Portable apps installer

INSTALL: When installing, you need to specify the drive letter of the USB flash drive on the current PC

When you connect a drive, including Portable Apps, one of the autorun options will be 'Start PortableApps.com'. Select this or browse to the drive and launch 'StartPortableApps.exe'. Then click the icon in the system tray to open the Portable Apps Start menu.

If you'd rather create your own custom set of programs, select 'Options | Install a New App' and browse to the application installer. You can only install applications that have been ported to Portable Apps, but there are plenty available for download from here.

When you've selected the software that you want, download the 'paf.exe' file using the link provided. To install it in Portable Apps, open your Portable Apps Start menu and choose 'Options | Install a New App'. Browse to the file you downloaded and open it.

Portable apps backup

BACKUP: Take a backup of your drive so that none of your work gets lost

Follow the installation to add it to your flash drive. You'll now be able to launch it from your Portable Apps Start menu.

Top 10 portable programs

1. Notepad++ Portable
Download

Text files are widely used in programming, website mark up and configuration files. Notepad only provides basic text editing. If you use text files a lot, Notepad ++ Portable is a must.

Portable apps notepad plus

It provides a wider range of features, such as the ability to record macros and thus automate tasks that you perform regularly. It has a much more sophisticated search tool than Notepad, plus you can set bookmarks in text files.

2. Kompozer Portable
Download

If you need to generate HTML web pages or simply make edits to existing ones, Kompozer will do the job admirably.

It isn't quite as fully featured as FrontPage or Dreamweaver, but it's adequate for most uses. You can switch between a full preview of the HTML code for precision editing or paste in code snippets in normal view.

3. Celestia Portable
Download

Celestia is Google Earth for the skies, giving you access to the known parts of the galaxy within a computer-generated environment.

When you start the program you'll see Earth in its current orientation. Want to see it spin on its axis? Choose 'Time | 10x Faster'. Repeat this twice so that it's running at 1,000x normal speed – you'll see the planet majestically turning.

4. GIMP Portable
Download

GIMP supports multiple layers and is capable of completing fairly complex graphics tasks. Anything that you can do in Photoshop, you can do in GIMP. If you need to do any graphics work, this portable version is a worthwhile addition to your flash drive.

5. Inkscape Portable
Download

Graphics programs fall into two categories: raster and vector. Raster graphics are composed of a pattern of pixels, while vector graphics are concerned with shape.

Draw a triangle in a raster graphics program and when you zoom into it, you'll see that the sloping sides are stepped. A vector program would preserve the triangle shape no matter how big you made it.

Inkscape Portable is a vector program, and a very good one at that.

6. Filezilla Portable
Download

Filezilla Portable is an FTP program that makes transferring files to and from remote computers straightforward.

Launch the program, enter the address of the FTP server you want to contact (providing your username and password) and click 'Quick Connect'.You can now drag files to and from the remote computer.

Filezilla Portable saves your list of servers and settings, which makes it very handy to carry around with you.

7. Google Chrome Portable
Download

If you like the simple interface of Google's browser then you'll probably want to take its portable version with you on your flash drive. It supports all the major features of the desktop version, including extensions.

Chrome portable

As with all applications on flash media, it may take longer to initially load than its desktop counterpart, but once in memory, it should be every bit as fast.

8. Putty Portable
Download

Putty is a popular telnet and SSH client used for running remote sessions on other computers across a network or the internet.

Once set up it gives you a local command line console for a remote machine. This portable version is handy as it enables you to run remote sessions without leaving any data behind.

9. Skype Portable
Download

Need to make a phone call or instant message a contact? Skype Portable enables you to do this from any internet-connected PC.

To make use of its audio and video capabilities, the PC needs a microphone and webcam.

10. VLC Media Player Portable
Download

VLC is one of the most flexible and useful media players around. It plays pretty much any format you care to throw at it and the program supports playlist files including those in M3U format. You can use its playlist manager to open, edit and save new playlists.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 295

Liked this? Then check out How to create your own free computer forensics kit on a USB drive

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