December 18, 2006

PortableApps Suite: Portable computing with style

Author: Dmitri Popov

While the process of creating a portable computing environment (a fancy term for a set of portable applications on a USB stick) is not particularly complicated, it does require some manual work, and the final result may not be as polished as you might like. The new PortableApps Suite from John T. Haller, who also brought us Firefox Portable, Thunderbird Portable, and OpenOffice.org Portable, is designed to solve these problems, making it dead easy to turn your USB stick into a portable application platform and add a couple of useful features for good measure.

The idea behind the PortableApps Suite is to provide an entire portable environment as a single installable package comprising everything you need: applications and additional utilities that make portable computing more efficient. In addition to the programs mentioned above, the suite contains more than a dozen desktop applications.

You don't have to be a savvy computer user to install the PortableApps Suite: just download the version you want (you can choose between the Standard and Lite versions), double-click on the downloaded file, point to your USB stick, and the installer does the rest. The result is a neat environment with a wide range of preinstalled portable applications from the OpenOffice.org Portable office suite to the ClamWin Portable anti-virus tool. The Standard version takes a 512MB USB stick, while the Lite version, where OpenOffice.org Portable is replaced with AbiWord, fits on a 256MB USB drive.

If this much code is too big to fit your USB stick -- or if you prefer to handpick the applications -- you can opt for the bare-bones version of the PortableApps Suite, which doesn't include any applications, and download individual applications from the PortableApps Web site and install them one by one. Most applications at the site are available in the new Portable Application Format, which makes them simple to add to the PortableApps Suite. Simply press on the Options button in the PortableApps Suite panel, select Install a New App, and point to the PAF package. You can also install a portable application in the PAF format even if you don't use the PortableApps Suite. Moreover, the PortableApps Suite recognizes non-PAF applications, too. Copy your portable applications to the PortableApps folder, press on the Options button in the PortableApps Suite panel, select Refresh App Icons, and the application's executable appears in the list of installed applications.

Besides the ability to install and remove portable applications, the PortableApps Suite panel also helps you quickly access folders that contain your documents and files, and search for files. Perhaps the most useful feature in the PortableApps Suite is the backup utility. While this is not the most sophisticated backup tool out there, it does the job with minimum fuss. In just a few clicks, you can back up the entire USB stick or just particular data on it, such as application settings and documents. Since this is a no-frills tool, you can only back up your data to the local hard disk or another removable device; there are no fancy options such as saving backups on an FTP server or burning them to a CD-ROM.

The PortableApps Suite runs on Windows, or on Linux via WINE, which is a major boon for Linux users. This does, of course, require that WINE be installed on any Linux host machine. While the chances of stumbling upon a Linux-based machine at a hotel or an Internet café are still slim, it's nice to know that you can use your applications and access your documents on Linux, too. Just don't count on all the features and applications working 100%. The PortableApps panel, backup utility, AbiWord, Firefox, OpenOffice.org, Thunderbird, and several other applications work fine under WINE, but ClamWin, the GIMP, and Sunbird will likely fail.

The portable versions of Firefox and OpenOffice.org that are included in the PortableApps Suite also sport an interesting enhancement. You can now run them off a CD very much like you would do with a live CD Linux distribution. You do need to tweak Firefox and OpenOffice.org before you burn them to a CD, but this is not a difficult thing to do. Although the live versions of Firefox and OpenOffice.org may not be as useful as their portable siblings, they are appropriate for users who want to try Firefox and OpenOffice.org without installing anything on their machines -- exactly as with live CD Linux distributions -- but I don't see this feature as appealing to most users.

Some users might find the PortableApps Suite limiting: it isn't tweakable enough to satisfy the needs of power users. However, its sheer simplicity and polished interface will appeal to people who want to be able to use a portable computing environment with minimum efforts and maximum style.

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, German, and Danish computer magazines.

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