Life In A USB Nutshell

By Team Digit | Published on 01 Apr 2006
Life In A USB Nutshell
To most people, computing on the go means investing in a laptop, PDA, smartphone, or any such mobile device that lets one carry one's data and applications along with them. This is all very well for big corporates who can afford it, but what of the common businessman? In a SoHo or Small Business, you can't really be expected to buy a company laptop for everyone who needs it and not feel the pinch, can you?

The ultimate solution to this problem will be on-demand computing-when we'd sit in front of any PC, anywhere, and with the digital equivalent of yelling "Gimme!", have all our applications and data at our beck and call. Of course, there's still a few years to go before that.

But strangely enough, most of us don't even realise that we don't need to wait for the advent of on-demand computing-we've got the solution to these woes in our hands already! Many people carry their data around on a USB stick-presentations, documents, spreadsheets, you name it-why not carry programs too? Portable Applications are built for the sole purpose of being run off a USB stick-no installation, no writing settings to anything other than its own folder, and best of all, nearly all of them are free.

All you'd need then would be access to any PC with a USB hub, and you've saved yourself at least Rs 20,000!

The Demands
Finding the best portable application for your needs is all about balancing size and features. Your first consideration is that the application should not write any settings to the host computer-you don't really want to leave your mark anywhere. The next priority is size-you'd rather have several small programs rather than one that hogs all the space. After all, even 512 MB USB drives can get full alarmingly quickly, and the more room you have for our data, the better. Smaller applications do tend to have fewer features, but let's admit it-few of us use all the bells and whistles in most software anyway.

So it's decided: you go out and buy a 512 MB USB drive (this will cost you about Rs 1,650). You should remember, however, that all the applications need to be crammed into 200 MB of space-the remaining 300-odd should be kept free for data. Small size is a priority, but as far as possible, you don't want to compromise on features. You also have to take into consideration the possibility that the data you carry on the drive will be shared, so all programs must work with all common file formats, where applicable.

And so begins the hunt.

The Office Suite
While there are plenty of office suites out there that could even fit on a floppy disk, hardly any of them have support for the ubiquitous .doc format, leaving only one choice: Portable Right from its excellent support for all common MS Office formats, to its MS Office-like interface that ensures that its users don't feel like lost sheep, Portable is the office suite you want to carry around with you. It weighs in at 144 MB, taking up a huge chunk of our limit, but when you consider that it gives you practically everything that your current 500 MB (and very expensive) installation of MS Office does, it's worth it.

The Word Processor
There are loads of people who install whole office suites where a program or two would have sufficed, but even if you don't need an entire gaggle of office applications, you will need a good word processor-enter Portable AbiWord. AbiWord has a look and feel similar to Microsoft Word's, and offers nearly the same features. So if all you need is something to write and to edit documents on, this 15 MB alternative is one worth considering.

If all you need is something to write and to edit documents on, the 15 MB AbiWord is one alternative worth considering

The E-Mail Client
On one hand, there's i.Scribe, a small, seemingly simple e-mail client that fills up only 1 MB of space. It even comes with its own Bayesian spam filter, and is extremely light on system resources. It's a stripped-down version of a commercial product called InScribe, and is limited to only one user profile and one user filter.

At the other end of the spectrum is Portable Thunderbird, which brings to the USB all the features of Mozilla Thunderbird-e-mail, internal support for RSS feeds, a spam filter and a spell-checker. On the flip side, it occupies 9 MB.

The Anti-Virus
Now you could be safe in assuming that you're connecting your USB drive to a clean PC, but it never hurts to carry an anti-virus with you-just in case. ClamWin is a free, open source, 18 MB anti-virus that comes from the ClamAV team, who have been developing the Clam anti-virus engine since the days of DOS. Getting it to work off a USB drive does take some time though. You need to first install it to your current PC and follow the instructions in the manual to set it up for USB drives. Luckily for you, we've done the dirty work, and you'll find a ZIP file on this month's CD, which you just need to extract to your USB drive.

Remember, it isn't a real-time or on-access scanner, so you will need to start the program and choose the file/s you want to scan.

Some Homework 
There are applications that boast about being portable, and then there are more modest applications that don't talk about it so much. For example, you'd think that Winamp would be tied to one PC at a time, right? Copy the Winamp program folder to a USB stick and try to run it from a PC that doesn't have Winamp, and surprise, surprise-it's portable! So if you're ever in the mood, go ahead and see if a program you need is portable. And tell us about it, too! 


For busy individuals who need to keep track of their tasks and schedules, EssentialPIM is a very useful Personal Information Manager (PIM), which looks a little like Outlook's PIM side.

You can use it to create to-do lists, schedule meetings and appointments, manage contacts, and leave little notes to yourself-just as you would do in Outlook, and the familiarity of its interface means that you need hardly spend any time getting to grips with the software itself.

The Browser
There are only three browsers worth mentioning today-Internet Explorer (IE), Firefox and Opera.

For IE users, there is Crazy Browser, a 500 KB browser that seems to be a heady mix of all three-it uses the IE engine, but also brings in some cool features from the other two, like tabbed browsing, plug-ins (Ã la Firefox extensions) and mouse gestures (quite similar to Opera's). It even has its own pop-up blocker and RSS reader.

Getting Your USB Drive To Autorun 
On PCs with Windows XP and Service Pack 2, you can bring up an autorun menu (just like the one for CDs) for your USB drive, too! This is how we made an autorun item for PStart, the portable Start Menu:
1. Open Notepad and type in the following text:
*open=PStart.exe* (This is the application that you want to run through the autorun menu)
*action=Open your Start Menu* (This is a description of the action that will be performed)
*icon=PStart.exe* (This is the icon which will be displayed in the autorun menu)
2. Save the file as *autorun.inf* in the root of your USB drive.
3. Now, every time you plug the drive into a PC with Windows XP SP2, you'll get an autorun menu that will include the action you specified in autorun.inf.

The same open source community that's responsible for Portable and Portable Thunderbird also gives us Portable Firefox, which is just that-a fully functional USB version of the Firefox browser, including support for installing the insanely popular Firefox extensions, but at 17 MB, you're going to be crunched for space.

Unfortunately, Opera hasn't yet released a portable version of their browser, but a few intrepid users have tweaked the existing Opera to make it capable of being run off a USB drive. You can download it from Remember, this is not an official release by Opera, so if things go wrong, you're on your own.

The Media Player
Work or play, chances are you can't escape without encountering a sound or video clip that needs viewing. Since we can't guarantee that the PC of the hour has all the codecs necessary for us to open the files,

we've decided on VLC Player, which can play nearly any audio and video file in existence, and doesn't require any codecs to be pre-installed on the system. It's a tad costly at nearly 35 MB, though.

Another option is MPUI, a GUI for the popular open source MPlayer. This, too, doesn't need any codecs to be installed on the PC you'll be working on, and it's a lot lighter at 7 MB. In its current stage it's a little buggy, but definitely worth the 28 MB you'll save.

The Image Viewer
IrfanView supports a huge number of image formats, is light on system resources, easy to use, and can even convert images to different formats with some really good compression ratios.

The Newsfeed Reader
You still need to keep in touch with the latest news when you're on the move, and what better way than with a good RSS feed reader? GreatNews is a really good feed reader which even integrates browsing via the IE engine. It also comes pre-loaded with settings for many great sites, including a vital Dilbert comic feed.

You can view the feeds in any style you choose-be it simple text or a newspaper-like appearance. And at 3 MB, it's more than you'd hope for.

The PDF Reader
While Adobe Reader is the de facto for reading PDF documents, it's bulky and is a resource hog. Overcoming both these nags is Foxit PDF Reader.

It occupies only 2 MB of space, and is so light that it even works even on PCs that are a couple of years old. It also looks just like Adobe's Reader, so once again, you aren't going to feel lost.

We recommend this not only as a portable application, but as a credible replacement for Adobe Reader altogether.

The Start Menu
It isn't fair that road warriors shouldn't have the benefit of a Start Menu, is it? PStart is a program that sits in the system tray and gives you your own menu that lets you choose which application you want to run.

It even hunts down executable files on your drive, so you don't even need to make any manual entries-once you've put all your applications on your drive, just select the "Scan for Executables" function to create your own portable start menu.

You can find all these and more portable software on this month's CD and DVD.

Packing It All In
Once you've decided on what you're going to put in your drive, installation is usually simple enough. Most of these applications come as ZIP archives, so all you need to do is extract them to the drive.

For the ones that come with installers, you could either install them directly to the drive, or install them to your Windows drive and copy the program folder from "C:Program Files" (or wherever you installed the application) to the drive.

The Next Step-The Mobile Geek
We have, of course, assumed that you'll be working on PCs with Windows loaded on them, so you'll still have to bear with whatever settings the owner of the PC has kept in store for you. If, however, you wish for the same computing experience on every PC you ever sit at, you could go a step further and put an entire OS on the USB stick! We're talking about Damn Small Linux (DSL), a 50 MB Linux distribution that fits more than neatly into a portable drive (find it on this month's DVD). "It's probably got no GUI," you might say, before we tell you that it does come with the FluxBox window manager, as well as a host of applications including the über-light Dillo browser. On the hardware front, you will need a bootable USB drive (most drives today are), and the motherboard of the PC you're working on must support booting from a USB device.

Of course, you will have to learn the basics of Linux and get used to the user interface, but once you do, every PC you ever work on will be like your own.

So with everything so eerily close to the ultimate vision of on-demand computing, are you still going to wait?  

Team Digit

All of us are better than one of us.

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