Your apps in your pocket

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Imagine carrying the applications you use all the time—a Web browser, an e-mail client, a word processor, and even an image editor—in your pocket, ready to run on any Mac (and in some cases, Windows PCs), with all your preferences and plug-ins just the way you want them. Welcome to the world of portable applications.

Portable apps are written to run from any storage device (such as an external hard drive). The idea is that you can plug that device into any computer (in a library, an Internet café, or a branch office, for instance) and run your apps without making any changes to the host computer, and without accidentally leaving any of your personal data behind. Such apps are an increasingly viable option for anyone who wants to do some computing on the road without lugging along a laptop.

Go for a drive

While you can install portable apps on any kind of drive (even an iPod or your Mac’s main startup disk), they’re most useful when you run them from a USB flash drive. Also known as thumb drives, these drives are the most popular way to carry around portable applications. They come in every conceivable shape, size, and capacity.

When you’re shopping for one to store and run portable apps, make sure the drive is labeled “Hi-Speed” so that you get real USB 2.0 throughput.

To protect your privacy you should look for one with built-in security. The FingerGear Bio-USB Flash Drive, and the BioStik Index Security BioStik drives protect you with fingerprint recognition, while the Lexar JumpDrive Secure and Secure II use a cross-platform encryption utility.

At the moment, 1GB and 2GB drives are the best values; higher-capacity drives tend to be disproportionately expensive. But pricing changes frequently, so do your own gigabyte-per-dollar calculations to find the best deal.

Before you install any software on your flash drive, double-check its format, and reformat it if necessary. To do so, open Disk Utility, select the drive’s volume in the list on the left, and click on the Erase tab (see “Pick a Format”). There, you’ll see a Volume Format pop-up menu. If you want to use your flash drive on both Windows PCs and Macs, choose MS-DOS File System (also known as the FAT32 file system) from that menu. If you’re sure you’ll use the drive only with Macs, choose Mac OS Extended (the HFS+ file system) instead. Ignore the Journaled and Case-Sensitive options.

Find and download the right apps

The next step is to get the portable applications you need (see “Portable Apps for OS X”). When selecting applications, keep in mind that they come in different flavors.

While many portable OS X apps are now Universal—so they’ll run natively on either PowerPC or Intel processors—even those that have been compiled only for PowerPC can use Rosetta to run acceptably on Intel Macs. A few portable applications (notably, portable versions of Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird) are available in cross-platform versions, meaning they run on both OS X and Windows.

Your choice of portable applications is limited only by the apps that are available and the size of your flash drive. I was able to store every application listed in “Portable Apps for OS X” on a single 2GB flash drive with almost 500MB left. If I were constrained for space, though, I’d install Thunderbird (because I always prefer using a real e-mail client to a Web mail interface), followed by Firefox (because I like to have my own bookmarks and plug-ins). After that, your choices will depend on the tools you’ll need on the road.

Portable apps for os x

Application Type Application Platform(s) Space Required (in MB)
Audio editor Audacity PowerPC 12
Calendar and to-do list Sunbird PowerPC 27
Drawing program Inkscape ¹ Universal 40
E-mail client Thunderbird PowerPC 55
E-mail client Thunderbird (cross-platform) * Universal and Windows 42
FTP client Cyberduck Universal 24
HTML editor Nvu PowerPC 35
Image editor GIMP ¹ Universal 165
Instant-messaging client Adium Universal 24
IRC client Newspeak Universal 2
IRC client X-Chat PowerPC 5
IRC client X-Chat Intel 5
Media player VLC PowerPC 37
Media player VLC Intel 37
Productivity suite ¹ PowerPC 430
Productivity suite ¹ ² Intel 430
RSS news reader Feed PowerPC 10
RSS news reader RSSOwl Universal 7
To-do list Check Off Universal 2
Web browser Camino Universal 45
Web browser Firefox Universal 48
Web browser Firefox (cross-platform) * PowerPC ³ and Windows 42
Word processor AbiWord PowerPC 35

¹ - Requires X11 (available on the Tiger installation DVD). ² - Still being tested. ³ - Choose Help: Check for Updates to update to the Universal version.

* - Available from .

Set up your portable apps

Installing portable apps usually means just copying them to the drive. But in some cases, a bit of configuration will make your life a bit easier.

Take, for example, Portable Firefox. When you download it, you get a disk image (see “Moving Images”). Drag the Portable Firefox OS X folder to your flash drive to copy it.

Next, look in your user folder /Library/Application Support/Firefox/Profiles. In most cases, you’ll see a subfolder there, named something like 9nz8qfy6 .default. Copy this folder to your desktop, and give it the name profile. Then go to your flash drive, find and delete the Firefox profile folder there (/Portable Firefox OSX/app), and replace it with the profile folder you copied to the desktop. (If you use Safari on your Mac, you can import your Safari settings into the regular [not portable] version of Firefox and then, from there, into Portable Firefox.)

Once that’s all done, you can launch your new portable browser by opening the flash drive in the Finder and double-clicking on the Open Portable Firefox OSX helper application.

The portable-app experience

For the most part, using a portable application is exactly the same as using its conventional counterpart. However, you will have to adapt to some differences.

First, portable applications are typically slower to load than conventional apps—sometimes much slower. It can take several minutes for Portable Firefox to open the first time you use it after plugging in your flash drive (subsequent loads should be quicker).

Second, portable applications also impose some restrictions you may not expect. The portable Thunderbird stores all your incoming mail on the flash drive (as it should), but if you get a lot of messages or large attachments, that space will fill up quickly. Also, a few portable applications, including GIMP, Inkscape, and, require Apple’s X11 software, which may or may not be installed on the Mac you’re using temporarily. You could carry around a copy of the X11 installer, but that’ll take up additional space.

Tips and recommendations

Now that you’ve got your portable apps downloaded and installed, you’re ready to use them. You can connect your USB flash drive either directly to a computer or to a USB hub. If you connect it to a USB 1.1 hub, you’ll get much slower speeds. Also, many flash drives require too much power to work with bus-powered hubs (such as those built into many USB keyboards). For best results, always plug your drive directly into the computer.

You can store all your e-mail, passwords, and work documents on a flash drive. But because such drives are so small, they’re easily lost or stolen. If your flash drive doesn’t use encryption, keep a close eye on it, and think twice about using it to store sensitive data.

[ Joe Kissell is the senior editor of TidBits and the author of numerous e-books about Mac OS X. ]

Pick a Format: Choose a format for your flash drive from Disk Utility’s Volume Format pop-up menu.Moving Images: Drag the Portable Firefox OS X folder from the downloaded disk image onto your flash drive to install Portable Firefox.
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