Have you ever gone to a friend's house to borrow their computer for something? Say you want to check your Gmail account for new messages. You go to mail.google.com and your friend's browser automatically connects to your friend's Gmail account. Whoops! So you sign your friend out and sign yourself in. Your friend's browser now wants to know if it should save your login info - you tell it no, and proceed to do your thing. Finished, you sign out, and it has your email address in the username field, so now your friend's gotta retype his credentials to check his mail. What a mess! On top of that, what if your friend has a keylogger, maybe he doesn't trust his girlfriend, and now he's got your password? Will he use it or will he delete it and slyly advise you to change it, lest he be tempted? What a mess indeed.
These days, every computer has USB, whether it's a laptop, a desktop, or one of those new netbooks. On top of that, USB drives get cheaper every day. Our local Walmart is selling 2GB flash drives for $5. I got a 4GB flash drive from Newegg for $11, shipped. I hear the 16GB drives are fast approaching the $20 price point. And at the other end of the road, you have the open-source Mozilla Firefox taking the web browser world by storm. Open source meaning that anybody can take it apart, change how it works, and re-release it on the web as their own program (Mozilla just stipulates that they alter the name to avoid confusion).
So what brings these two ideas, cheap USB drives and an open-source web browser, together? How does this sound...? "Portable Firefox". That's right, you can install a modified version of Firefox formally entitled "Mozilla Firefox, Portable Edition" to your USB drive and carry it with you everywhere you go. You carry your own bookmarks, your own login credentials, and your own plugins. Looking at the above scenario, instead of using your friend's Firefox, you instead plug your USB drive in, find the portable Firefox, and run it.
That's all pretty nifty, but for the non-technical user, it's a bit of a hassle. Enter PortableApps.com.
You download their suite, which sort of takes over your flash drive. It's best to install it on a new or freshly formatted flash drive, but it's not required. Now when you plug your flash drive in, when Windows asks you what you want to do with the device, you can choose a new option, right at the top, "Start PortableApps.com". A menu much like your Start menu, but red, and on the right side of the screen, pops up. There's nothing on it, if you just downloaded the menu, which I recommend. If you want to go all-out, you can get the suite, which will include a ton of stuff you don't need. But, like Windows, it includes a lot of stuff a lot of people would like at some point, so it's not a bad thing. PA (short for PortableApps) recommends you take the full suite or the light suite. The light suite is a little smaller, replacing the Office suite with just a word processor. I recommend starting with just the menu, because their site is very simple to browse, and you can add what YOU want a la carte just as easily, and this is more efficient as you're not wasting space (drive space, and menu space) with crap you won't use. (And remember, you're not just limited to their programs. It's quite easy to add your own applications. More on that in a bit.)
Here's what I run and some notes on each. All of these I got at PortableApps.com unless otherwise noted.
7-Zip - Archive and compression tool can open just about any archive (e.g. ZIP, RAR) you throw at it. So if you're at the library or at work and you want something that only comes in an archive file, it's a quick way to unpack it right then and there. Or if you'd like to mail something to yourself, you can ZIP it and send it along.
AbiWord - This word processor (Microsoft Word alternative) is the difference between the Full and Light suites (Light has it, Full has the full OpenOffice suite). I carry a text editor as well, but sometimes you need just a little more power, or formatting options like bold, italics, etc.
CCleaner - I like to live by the philosophy of leaving things as I found them, or better than I found them. After using someone else's computer, I'll run CCleaner on it to get rid of unnecessary temp files, redundant registry entries, and other stuff that's not needed but just taking up space. This isn't on PA.com, but you go to CCleaner's page, and under the download link, there's a link that says "Other builds". Click that, and there are two of interest. Slim doesn't have the Yahoo toolbar which bloats the original to 3x its size, and Portable is just a ZIP file you can unpack everywhere. To save about 1MB, you can opt to not unpack the LANG folder if you don't need any languages besides English. Also when running CCleaner on someone else's machine, go through its settings and don't let it delete their Firefox cookies - doing so will log them out of every site they're logged into, and they might not appreciate that too much.
ClamWin Antivirus - It's never fun to be without antivirus, and while this isn't automatic, it won't scan files on access, you can start it and let it scan a machine before you use it. It might take a few hours, though, so it's not practical. Best to just refer your friend to the free version of AVG Antivirus, or keep a copy of the latest installer on your USB drive so they can quickly install it, if they haven't got one. Or maybe their computer came with Norton or McAfee and the trial expired, so they're left with no protection. The worst thing about ClamWin is there's no way to update it. You have to go to the ClamWin site, search for updates (they're not linked from the main page) and download two files, then search for these files (because it would be too much work for them to tell you where they go) and replace the ones you've got. But, it's currently the best way to get antivirus on the go.
CoolPlayer+ - Simple audio player similar in appearance and form factor to Winamp, but nowhere near as good. And it looks like the PA menu. Cute. It's rather buggy, and since learning VLC (more on this app later) plays music, I'm considering dropping it. If you don't want a video player, CoolPlayer+ is a lot smaller than VLC, so it's not all bad.
Crimsonland - I love this game. Top-down shooter, similar in concept to Asteroids, but very different. You're destined to die, as monsters approach you from all directions. The goal is to take as many of the bastards with you and score the most points. This app isn't meant to be portable and won't be found on PA.com, but just to try it, I copied the directory to my flash drive. It worked. It won't always work that way but sometimes it does.
Deus Ex - My favorite game of all time. My CD got damaged years ago, so I copied all the files to my hard drive. It didn't work, so I downloaded a pirated copy and transferred over the files it had that I needed, and I built myself a working copy of the game. (Now it's cheap enough I could buy another copy, but why fix what ain't broken?) In doing so I discovered that I could disable the CD check by removing a reference to the CD in one of the INI files in the System directory. I won't explain how to do that here, but instructions can be found online. And it works just as good on my USB stick, except it takes 2-3 minutes to save and load a game or go from area to area. It should go without saying that this isn't found on PA.com either.
Firefox - This is what I started this article with. My Firefox at home has optimizations for stuff I can't do at work, so why take that with me to work? My portable Firefox has AdBlock Plus, so it doesn't display ads, just like at home, and features a proxy switch so at work I can turn it on and turn it off at home.
LightScreen - Screenshot utility. This is actually one of my favorite portable apps. If I want to show somebody something (mostly Jen) I start it up, click the big ugly button, choose Area, and it hides, then dims the screen, and I can draw a square around what I want to take a picture of. It then drops the picture in my Pictures folder, and I can go rename it if I like, and email it off. It can't take pictures of digital video, though. You'd need the internal screenshot feature in VLC if you want to do that.
MPlayer - This is my primary backup video player. VLC crashes on some DVDs and videos. It's rare, but it does happen, and MPlayer will play those same videos without interruption.
Notepad++ - Handy text editor and what I type most of my blogs and articles in, when I write them at work. Any text editor you can make display the text in neon green on a black background is A-OK in my book. It's just a retro look, but I can't stand black on white. Another retro look is yellow on blue (or white on blue) but that's tacky(ier).
Sudoku - A basic Sudoku game from the PA site. Very simple, four difficulty levels, no automatic error checking or relaxing music or any of that junk, but very playable. Great way to stimulate the mind.
Sumatra PDF Reader - Got PDFs, Adobe eBook files? Is the host computer one of only a dozen or so computers in the world that doesn't have some version of the Adobe Acrobat Reader? If so, this free and lightweight PDF reader is for you. Even if the computer you're using has Acrobat, this opens faster.
The GIMP - It's basically a free version of Photoshop. Photoshop is that famed photo manipulation tool from Adobe that costs or at least at one time cost $700. Someone once told me that any movie poster, any billboard ad, any publicly displayed image worth a damn was probably made in Photoshop. My brother pirated it once years ago and I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Way outta my league. His too. We didn't keep it around long at all. The GIMP is a free alternative that is supposedly just as powerful. It amuses me to have something that powerful, portably. Maybe I'll even learn how to use it someday.
VLC - Formerly known as VideoLAN and stands for VideoLAN Client, VLC is literally the Alpha and Omega of video players. It will play just about anything you throw at it, and it doesn't depend on system codecs, but rather internal plugins. Many systems have a DVD-ROM drive but not the software to decode DVDs. VLC has this software built in. Wish you could play DVDs at work, but can't, even though they have a DVD-ROM drive in your computer? It's because it doesn't have the DVD codec. Get VLC and play DVDs through it and all will be well. Or you could pop in a DVD-ROM with six DVD-Rips on it and they'll all play. They'll even load the subtitles if you've got 'em.
WinDirStat - Among other things I don't know about, it'll show you what folders are using up the most space on your drive.
ZSNES - Super Nintendo game emulator. I can't tell you how to get the actual game files, but they're not too difficult to find. Start with Google. Games that would take you several hours to complete are often smaller than a 5 minute mp3 file. Quick tip: If you wanted to, you could load up a 1GB USB drive with nothing but ZSNES, the PA menu, and EVERY North America Super Nintendo game EVER made. How's that for a game system? I should also note that it's illegal to have a game if you don't own the actual cartridge, though Nintendo would like you to believe it's as bad as murder or treason even if you do own the game. While for action-based games, you really should have a gamepad, for simpler, slower-moving games you can get by using the keyboard. I'm sure if I cared to try, I could beat the Zelda game using just a keyboard. ZSNES is not hosted on PA.com, you have to Google it, go to their page, download the program, and put it in a folder of your choice.
As you can see and probably guess, I have too many programs to be displayed on PA.com's PortableApps Menu (PAM). In doing so, you get scroll bars. Not too nice if there's nothing you can do about it. So... I don't use PAM. PAM and everything at PA.com is open-source, and they're not very big fans of programs that are not. Being open source means you can change the code, in most cases without even having to ask permission. It's not even frowned upon, especially not if your changes improve the project. And the PAM Mod R34, as it's called, does that and then some. Unlike PAM, R34 lets you rename apps, so you can take "Portable" off the end of every single app on PA.com. You can make folders on the menu. All of my games and the system utilities have their own folders, so my menu only has 9 objects on it, including the two folders, so it's very streamlined.
Update: PortableApps.com has recently updated their Platform to version 1.5, which now allows renaming. It's not as pretty as R34's, but it's one click less. Rather than right-clicking and choosing rename, you just right click. Like R34, you can also hide apps, but to do so you simply rename it to "-" (just a minus sign). They're still not supporting folders, and are being rather mysterious as to why (R34's been out well over a year), though it's promised in a future version. So if you only want to run a few apps and don't really care about categories, PAM 1.5 is really the way to go. It's the latest representation of the code. If you need folders, R34 is where you want to be for now.