Portable Applications that won’t tie you down


A ton of great software exists out there. But who has the time to try it all? And even if you do take the time to install, say, a new e-mail program on your home PC, your company may well prevent you from installing that app at work. A few tinkerer types might be willing to learn the ins and outs of using multiple programs for the same task, but most of us are going to stick with what we’re used to. And so we get stuck in a rut.

Enter PortableApps. John Haller recently assembled his collection of free portable programs into a new suite you can run from a USB drive, without having to install it on the PC. Haller has been offering portable versions of popular apps like the Firefox browser and the Thunderbird e-mail client for some time, but his new suite ties them all together in a polished, easy-to-use package. It’s similar to programs available for the commercial U3 platform for thumb drives, but his suite consists of free, open-source apps.

I don’t know how Haller manages to deliver it all in a package capable of fitting on a 512MB thumb drive, but the snazzy-looking PortableApps suite includes Firefox, Thunderbird, ClamWin antivirus software, GIMP for image editing, and the OpenOffice collection of productivity apps, among other things. There’s even a portable Sudoku game.

A so-called “lite” version of the suite, containing the AbiWord word processor instead of the full OpenOffice installation, fits onto a 256MB drive. The site says you can even run the collection from an iPod, presumably after enabling a feature (via iTunes) to let your PC access the iPod like it does a thumb drive.

Portable start menu

When you connect a USB drive loaded with the suite to a Windows computer, a small system-tray icon appears. Click the icon to bring up a launcher (which looks much like the Windows Start menu) for all the included programs, or to access stored documents.

The benefit of toting the suite around is that you’ll always have the programs you’re used to, along with all your saved bookmarks, settings, and other customizations (such as Firefox or Thunderbird extensions).

I used PortableApps on a Windows XP PC, but the site says it will run on any version of Windows, from 95 through Vista. A backup feature lets you save your settings to a PC in case you lose your thumb drive.

I ran the portable version of Firefox, and was able to install extensions just as I could with a version on a hard disk. ClamWin, the portable antivirus program, could be useful for cleaning an infected computer, but it took forever to run.

Many thanks to PC World reader Matt for letting me know about the new suite. We looked at the individual portable apps, along with many other lesser-known thumb-drive apps and tips, in last year’s ” 23 Things to Do With a Thumb Drive .”

Thunderbird 2.0 Beta

If I can convince myself that I won’t lose or mutilate a thumb drive by regularly carrying it around, I may start using this fine collection for my day-to-day needs. Until then, for maximum freedom I’ll keep using free downloads that I can grab on a moment’s notice — and quickly set up to ensure maximum portability.

For e-mail, for example, I use Mozilla’s Thunderbird client and connect to my mail server via IMAP, an alternative to the POP connection most people use to get their e-mail. IMAP saves all your e-mail on the server. You can set POP to save mail on the server too, but with IMAP your sorted e-mail folders live on the server as well, so you’ll get the same e-mail view from any computer. (POP can save only the unsorted messages.) For more on IMAP, see Scott Spanbauer’s latest Internet Tips column .

And here’s the latest on Thunderbird: The Mozilla foundation recently made a beta of the upcoming version 2 available for download . It’s the first beta, intended for testers and early adopters. But if you don’t mind putting up with a few bugs to get all the latest features, you can try it too. I didn’t have any problems with my testing, but I always expect betas to crash and otherwise go bonkers every now and then.

Better e-mail organization

The most interesting new feature in version 2 is probably the ability to add multiple message tags to any given e-mail. Tags replace the current version’s preset labels (such as Important or To Do), which you apply by right-clicking a message. Labeled messages display in different colours, and you can apply filters to your view so that you see only messages with particular labels. Labels are highly useful for taming our increasingly unruly inboxes.

Tags are similar to labels, and the Thunderbird 2 beta ships with preset tags that match the current version’s labels. But you can add multiple custom tags to any given message. I added a couple — “Trips” and “House” — to the default Important and To Do tags. When you create a new tag, you can choose from a range of display colours for the tag.

Besides adding the tagging features, the new version changes the app’s look slightly and enhances mail alerts by adding the message’s subject line and other info. Also, if you mouse over a folder, you get a pop-up window listing the unread messages in that folder.

One thing I’d like to see in Thunderbird (but don’t expect in the near future) is better junk-mail filtering. Spammers seem to have figured out how to largely defeat the artificial-intelligence filters in Thunderbird and other apps, giving the edge to Web-mail filters that harness the collective intelligence of all its users as they manually mark messages as junk.