If you’re someone who wants to do their computing entirely on the move, then the growing proliferation of portable applications could be just what you’re looking for. These are utilities that are stored, installed and run entirely off a USB flash drive, with no hard disk footprint, and the benefit of literally being able to pick up your computing from one location and start with everything intact at another.
Let’s start with a logical tool, namely an e-mail client. One of the variants of open source e-mail application Thunderbird is a portable version and, on paper, this is an enticing prospect. After all, having all your e-mails with you at all time saves on the frustration of being unable to check your archives of messages until you get back to a desk-based machine.
An e-mail client, of course, is the kind of tool that can quickly fill up a flash drive, as more and more mails are downloaded, and you’ll need just over 30MB for the software itself before any messages are taken into account.
In use, Portable Thunderbird is as light yet efficient as you could realistically hope. It’s as easy to set up as any other tool of its ilk, and we found it ran swiftly and, as with its desktop big brother, is a fine application in its own right. Our only concern of note is one of security, and we’d be reluctant to employ a 100 percent portable e-mail regime, simply because one flash drive falling down the back of the sofa is a passport to real trouble.
AbiWord, meanwhile, is a portable word processor, and it too seized around 30MB of space on our 2GB test flash drive. It’s a fairly rudimentary package, albeit one boasting Microsoft Word compatibility. As with Thunderbird, it also accepts plug-ins, and you’ll need to dig one out if you want to fit in an English dictionary, for instance.
Yet, while it’s little competition for Microsoft’s juggernaut, AbiWord is perfectly competent at what it does. It holds formatting quite well, has an adequate feature set and is speedy at what it does. We’d not choose to rely on it, but as a useful backup to take on the move, AbiWord isn’t bad.
Finally, VLC is a codec-rich media player, and one of our favourite open source applications. The portable version, VLCportable, we confess we had concerns over, especially given the system footprint that media playback software tends to have.
Yet the VLC Media Player is built as much on its sprightliness as it is its ability to deal with so many different types of codecs. The portable version, too, is simply superb, and quickly eradicated many of our fears. It’s fast, slimline and steadfastly efficient, capable of dealing with a broad variety of media files. And it saves your preferences too. A terrific piece of software and a real flag-waver for portable applications.
With the exception of the latter, none of the software we’ve covered here is worth considering as a full replacement for a desktop package just yet, but there’s fast and interesting progress being made in the portable applications arena. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on www.portableapps.com, currently the best repository of such software. It could just be an insight into how we’ll be using software applications five to ten years into the future, or at worst, it’s a convenient way to literally take all of your work with you wherever you go.