Productivity on the Go

Never install software again! We look at 20 top portable apps, from office suites to IP scanners.

Install a Windows application and it'll spray cryptic files and registry changes all over your PC. In addition to mucking up your configuration, these apps typically can't be used elsewhere without installing them on another PC.

It doesn't have to be that way. A new generation of portable apps runs without touching your Windows configuration. Just copy the program files and folders to a spot on a hard disk, USB storage key or other media, and double-click the .EXE file.

Portable apps can ease backup and management of program settings, storing them in their local folders, rather than a Windows program or user profile folder. Copy your portable apps folders to a USB key, and all your settings and files travel with you. Your apps just work.

John T. Haller can tell you. A Web developer in Queens, N.Y., Haller wanted to see if he could tune the open source Firefox Web browser to run from a USB storage key. The result was Portable Firefox, a repackaged, feature-identical version of the popular browser.

For Haller, what began as a simple project has turned into a full-time job. He maintains and distributes portable versions of nearly a dozen open source applications, which can be found at His work is getting noticed.

"I've got tons of e-mails from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying ‘Thank you for making this available and making my life easier,'" says Haller. He also recalls getting noted on such popular news sites as Slashdot and Digg on the day he released Portable OpenOffice. "It took out the site for about a day and a half. That was a first for me."

Many of these apps hark from the open source movement, which enables developers like Haller to repackage them and means they're free to use. Be sure to look for the non-installable versions -- usually .ZIP files -- when downloading.

Should you consider portable apps? To help you decide, we look at 20 install-free programs, ranging from productivity behemoths like the OpenOffice suite to nifty utilities like XnView. The broad range of mature software surprised us, as did the overall stability and performance of the portable code.

Productivity Apps

The Kitchen Sink
Disk space: 147MB

Almost ludicrously complete, this Microsoft Office competitor comes packed with word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, graphics design and database software. The massive download may be too large for many USB keys, but the programs run reliably and as quickly as the installable version of OpenOffice. The applications read and write the latest Microsoft Office formats and include built-in PDF output -- a nice plus. The one concern: application load times. Launching from the hard disk, OpenOffice Writer took a full 15 seconds to come up on a 1.6GHz Pentium M-based laptop.

The Tabs Have It
Mozilla Firefox
Disk space: 19MB

The feature-identical version of the popular Firefox browser weighs in at just under 20MB and offers familiar features like tabbed browsing, support for plug-ins and automated program updates. Portable Firefox loads a bit less quickly than the installable version, but the time difference is negligible. This is a must-have app that can help secure your surfing. Just be sure to manually turn on caching and other settings if you intend to run this from your system's hard disk; these settings are turned off by default to streamline performance on flash-based USB keys.

All-in-One IM
Portable GAIM Beta 2
Disk space: 15MB

This multi-protocol IM client replaces dedicated IM software for MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, AOL IM, and a host of other protocols (including GroupWise, IRC and SameTime). Quick and unobtrusive, GAIM includes nice features like Buddy Pounce for catching elusive contacts the moment they log on. It also integrates better with Windows than Miranda, another portable IM client alternative.

Go forth and sleuth!
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Figure 1. Portable apps can do everything from manage your e-mail to sleuth system settings and ping devices on the network.

POP Goes Your E-mail
Mozilla Thunderbird
Disk space: 12MB

This capable POP3 e-mail client comes packed with junk mail controls, user-customizable e-mail filters, and capable search and sort functionality. While Thunderbird ably supports multiple POP3 accounts, the configuration interface is difficult and controls for managing passwords and upstream connections are complicated.

PDF Portable
FoxIt PDF Reader
Disk space: 2.6MB

Whether you work in IT or man a desk in marketing, you gotta read PDF files. FoxIt PDF Reader ensures that you can read any PDF, from any machine. In our tests, it displayed large and complex PDF files with aplomb, opening them in a fraction of the time of the criminally bloated Acrobat 6 client. Scrolling and navigation are also slippery fast -- a far cry from the delayed rendering of Adobe's client. One annoying quirk: while FoxIt PDF Reader faithfully displayed text edit marks in our PDF files, it failed to pick up the associated text. The $35 Pro version includes edit tools.

PIM and Proper
EssentialPIM Portable
Disk space: 1.7MB

Outlook schmoutlook. EssentialPIM could be the killer app that keeps your Registry tidy and your schedule and contacts in order. The program offers ample calendar views and options, including recurring appointments and a useful text filter for hunting down tasks, notes and contacts. Like other options here, the application can import and export industry-standard iCalendar files. Most impressively, it will find and import your existing Outlook or Outlook Express data, including contact, schedule and other information.

Straight PIMpin'
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Figure 2. EssentialPIM supports recurring events and custom alarms, and lets you import calendar and task data from Outlook and Outlook Express.

iCalendar Eye Candy
Disk space: TKMB

The luscious looking Rainlendar calendar program employs nifty transparency effects and features an active community of skin and plug-in writers to deliver great-looking calendars for your desktop. The software can read and output standard iCalendar (.ICS) format files and offers a plug-in for displaying Outlook calendar data. While you can set up recurring appointments and task lists, the software falls short as a PIM replacement. But it sure is pretty.

HTML Hotness
Disk space: 10.3MB

Creating HTML content was meant to be simple, straightforward and clean, but along the way vendors like Microsoft and Macromedia also made it expensive. The solid, open source Nvu HTML editor lets you create standards-compliant HTML pages for nothing, and the portable version lets you do it from anywhere. The interface can be a bit brittle -- for instance, HTML code and rendered output reside under different tabs rather than side-by-side. But the graphical interface produces clean and consistent HTML that roundtrips reliably with Dreamweaver and other well-behaved HTML editors.

Play Anything
Video LAN Client (VLC)
Disk space: 35MB

Never open Windows Media Player again. VLC is a self-contained media player that supports an incredibly broad range of codecs and formats. Unlike the popular and portable Media Player Classic (MPC) app, VLC doesn't rely on system-installed codecs to interpret files. Instead, support for everything from .MPEG and .WMV to Dvix and XviD-encoded files are contained within the (rather hefty) 35MB download. The volume and scrubber controls may be a bit unrefined, but otherwise, VLC is an extremely full-featured program for playing back audio and video files of every stripe.

Music to My Ears
XM Player
Disk space: 1.4MB

XM Player could make you forget all about WinAmp. While it falls short as a true music library application -- for instance, it won't nest titles within artist and album entries -- the software is slick and fast, loading instantly on my desktop. By contrast, WinAmp often needs 10 seconds or more to do the same thing. The interface can be a tad quirky, with its right- and left-click aware buttons, but a broad selection of skins helps make XM Player easier to use.

Cook up a batch in one step!
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Figure 3. Rich batch conversion tools
let you transform entire collections in a single step -- a huge time saver.

Pixel Perfect
Disk space: 14.4MB

Whether you manage gigabytes of digital photos or need to retouch screen shots and graphics, the free XnView application can do the job better. Much better. Fast and intuitive, XnView displays virtually any graphic (and even many video) file formats in a familiar Explorer-like split screen interface. Powerful, rules-based batch conversions let you rename, resize, compress, adjust and even transform images to new formats. Create slide shows, output contact sheets and produce attractive Web pages of your photos. A ridiculously complete, yet intuitive, image-management program.

IT Tools

Able Uploader
Disk space: 3.29MB

If you need to upload and download files from a remote server, the popular FileZilla open source FTP app has been the ticket. The portable version of this client keeps the fast and well-designed UI, so you can carry your numerous server pre-sets anywhere. Unlike other FTP apps, which have gone on to embrace bloat, FileZilla does one thing very well -- move files across networks. A must have.

Password Manager
KeePass Password Safe
Disk space: 750KB

Password confusion is a growing malady. Rather than keep passwords in an easy-to-snoop text file or on sticky notes, store them in KeePass and protect them with a universal password. Because the app is portable, you can run this secure storage utility from any Windows PC. A killer app for the portable set.

Itty Bitty BitTorrent
Disk space: 155KB

This tiny app lets you tap into the vast BitTorrent distributed file sharing network. Used to enable everything from the download of software patches and technical documentation to outright media piracy, BitTorrent uses an innovative distributed access scheme to speed file transfers. While there are plenty of BitTorrent clients, uTorrent is smaller and more portable than the rest.

Size doesn't matter.
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Figure 4. Despite its compact size, uTorrent gives you helpful information about the status of your file transfers.

Heads up Display
Disk space: 330KB

To diagnose an intermittent system or connectivity problem, you need situational awareness. Few utilities do a better job of providing heads-up system intelligence than Statbar, a compact dashboard that displays everything from CPU and memory usage to network throughput, system uptime and battery charge levels. Handy volume and system on/off/lock controls offer one-touch access to oft-used functions.

U3 Eases Portability Hassles

An emerging standard called U3 could tempt mainstream software makers into the portable app arena.

Founded by leading flash storage device makers SanDisk and M-Systems, U3 provides a framework tying applications to flash memory-based storage. U3-enabled USB storage keys use a special controller that uniquely identifies the device. A hidden partition lets Windows AutoRun fire up the U3 Launcher interface, a sort of Start menu for U3-smart devices. Encryption prevents a lost USB key from creating an embarrassing data spill.

Users can buy U3-smart devices today from SanDisk, including devices with pre-loaded applications. Adding applications is a simple matter of downloading the software to the U3-enabled drive.

U3 has some merits, but it’s not clear if the standard will get off the ground. The two companies leading the charge have yet to rope in other portable storage firms, and no major ISVs have released U3-smart versions of their software. Still, if successful, the effort could help make portable apps more commonplace. -- M.D.

Diagnostic and Troubleshooting Tools

Document and Overcome
Disk space: 620KB

Take stock of your entire system hardware and software configuration, from BIOS, OS and application version information to the status of open ports and services. You can select which areas of the system to audit, and can print, e-mail or save the results as a report, including to a .CSV file.

Scan and Deliver
Angry IP Scanner
Disk space: 108KB

When I need to reach out and ping a bunch of systems, I reach for Angry IP Scanner. This bitty utility launches in a flash and lets me ping and resolve hundreds of local and Web-based IP addresses in a single go. I can discern IP addresses from URLs and perform tasks like traceroute and geolocation. A Favorites list keeps frequently pinged addresses handy and the program can write out scan results to a variety of formats.

False Start Finder
Sysinternals Autoruns
Disk space: 333KB

Autoruns plumbs your Registry and system settings to find every executable, DLL and component invoked between the moment you hit the power button and when Windows finishes loading. Each entry offers a Google link, which launches a Web browser with Google search results for the selected file name -- great for sleuthing mystery entries (and you will find a few). Use the tabbed interface to explore items by category, while the Hide Signed Microsoft Entries setting spots third-party components that can be the source of trouble. A simple checkbox interface lets you disable components that autoload. Just be careful -- users have hosed their boot routines by axing the wrong bits.

Task Manager on Steroids
Sysinternals Process Explorer
Disk space: 1.4MB

The Task Manager's Processes tab is the first place IT-savvy folks go to search for a runaway process or locked up application. Sysinternals' Process Explorer is a much more functional -- if cluttered -- utility that offers exhaustive detail and fine control. For instance, I can display the CPU history of each running item, so I can track down apps that intermittently hog resources. The program also lets you promote or demote process priorities, kill or suspend processes, and even perform system events like shutdown or restart of the PC.

Connect More
Sysinternals TCPview
Disk space: 104KB

If you need to sniff out active network connections on a Windows-based PC, Microsoft includes the text-based netstat utility. Sysinternals' TCPView does pretty much the same thing, but offers a sensible Windows interface that makes the resulting output much easier to process. You can sort results so it's easy to find specific processes, or save a snapshot to a .TXT file for review offline.

More Information

Download an extended PDF version of this article, featuring additional product reviews, a Q&A with developer John T. Haller and more, here.


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