Portable Apps: The Swiss Army Knife of Software
What are portable apps?
Portable apps are programs that can be installed on removable storage (such as a USB flash drive) or cloud storage (like Google Drive) and not just on the computer itself. The advantage of this is that you can then use this software, not only on your own laptop or PC, but on almost any computer you have access to.
Why not just install the software on my PC?
If you only intend to use the programs on your own computer, this is still the best option. However, if you want to use the same software on any computer you work on, this is where portable apps come in.
The problem with the way that software normally installs is that it integrates into the system. This is usually a good thing, as it allows the program to run optimally. But if you want to use the same software on someone else’s computer, it’s not always that straightforward. At the very least, you’d need their permission to install it, and, if it’s a corporate PC and you don’t have administrative rights, you probably won’t be able to install it at all.
How do portable apps work?
No, it’s not through magic or hocus pocus. By installing them (and their associated settings) to a place of your choosing, you should then be able to access and run them on most computers, even if you only have limited permissions on that machine.
What is the Portable Apps platform?
In this article, we’ll look at the two different options for setting up portable apps.
1. Set up portable apps individually.
2. Set up multiple portable apps using software designed to aid your workflow.
The software used in the second option is known as the PortableApps.com Platform. As you’ll discover, using this has many advantages over setting the apps up individually.
So let’s dive in…
Getting started with portable apps
For the purposes of this article, I’ll be setting up my portable apps on a USB flash drive. This will work on practically any drive: I used a modest-sized 2GB model. I would suggest using something a little larger, especially if you plan on saving a few documents along with your programs.
Helpful Hint. The humble USB flash drive, or should that be memory stick, or how about pen drive? It goes by so many names; even by technology standards, this device has a lot. For the sake of consistency (and our sanity), throughout the course of this article I’ll try to refer to is as “USB flash drive”, or just “flash drive”.
To keep things simple, we’ll start by setting up a single app, and because it’s a fantastic bit of software, we’ll go with GIMP. I won’t go into details about the program itself, as it’s not the focus of this article, except to say it’s like a free version of Photoshop (if you’d like to know more about this software, check out Farewell Photoshop… Hello GIMP by clicking here).
Okay, on with the portable apps. First, head over to the website.
Click on the “Apps” tab in the menu, shown above. Scroll down the page to the “Graphics & Pictures” section and click “GIMP Portable”. On the page that opens, click the “Download from PortableApps.com” button, as below.
Make a note of where you’re saving the file, and, once it’s downloaded, double-click on it to launch the installer. First, choose your language and click “OK”. Then click “Next” to proceed through the installation wizard. On the following screen “GIMP Portable [Required]” will already be selected. You can check the “Additional Languages” box if you need this before clicking “Next”.
The following screen allows us to choose where we want to install the program. Here you’ll want to click the “Browse” button and navigate to your USB flash drive (if you were using a cloud storage folder, this is where you’d select it). Once you’ve selected the folder in which you’d like to install GIMP, click “OK”. Confirm the “Destination Folder” is where you expect it to be and click “Install” (I’ve used USB flash drive E: in the example to the right).
You’ll notice the software automatically created a “GIMPPortable” folder to put all of the programs associated files into. You can now click “Install”.
Once the app has finished installing, there is the option of ticking the “Run GIMP Portable” box to start the software. However, as I want to show you how to launch the program in future, we’ll leave it unchecked and click “Finish”, as shown here.
Next, open File Explorer and navigate to where you’ve installed GIMP Portable. In the following screenshot, you’ll see the “GIMPPortable” folder sitting on the root of my USB flash drive.
Double-click this folder to reveal all the folders and files GIMP portable has placed inside the install location. To open the program, double-click “GIMPPortable” (highlighted in the figure below).
GIMP will open. Note. This will probably take a little longer due to the fact its running off a USB flash drive rather than your internal storage (later, we’ll look at how to minimize this delay, or you can click here to skip to the “What type of flash drive” section now).
If you’re already familiar with GIMP, notice the extra “Portable” word in the splash screen.
Once open, the program should be perfectly usable. If we now look back in File Explorer at our USB flash drive, you’ll see that the software has created an extra “PortableApps.com folder” beside the “GIMPPortable” one. This is perfectly normal and part of the Portable Apps package.
And there you have it: your very first portable app. However, to really get the best out of this software, you ought to run multiple apps, and for that you’ll benefit greatly from the Portable Apps Platform, which handily enough we’re going to look at now.
Once again, we’ll start by heading over to the Portable Apps website.
This time, click the “Download” tab, which will take you to the Download PortableApps.com Platform page. From here, click the “Download from PortableApps.com” button (shown below).
Make sure your USB flash drive is connected to your computer, then double-click the file you just downloaded to run it.
The installation wizard will first ask you to select a language, as in the screenshot. Do this and click “OK”. There’s even a “English (British)” option – nice to see we haven’t been forgotten on this side of the pond!
Click “Next” to proceed though the installation wizard and agree to the licence terms. The Install Type is a “New Install” (highlighted in the following image). Select this and click “Next”.
Now we come to the Install Location.
Here we’re going with “Portable – install to a portable device” (this is where you’d choose a Cloud drive, if that’s your preferred option). You’ll note that you can even install it locally, but as we’re doing this to carry our favourite programs around with us wherever we go, I think this kind of defeats the purpose. You can see my selection to the right. Choose yours and click “Next”.
On the next screen, your flash drive should have been auto-detected and selected.
If you have more than one USB drive plugged into your PC, make sure it’s going to install the software on the correct one. Note. if, for any reason, your flash drive isn’t in the list, you can always “Select a custom location…” and browse to your removable storage that way. Once it’s selected (as shown in the screenshot), click “Next”.
Confirm that the location is correct and click “Install”. When the software has finished installing, you’ll see the screen shown below. The “Run PortableApps.com Platform” box should be ticked – as in the figure below – so you can click “Finish” to start the program.
A couple of windows and a menu will open. You can close the About screen and turn your attention to the Download New Portable Apps window. The programs are grouped into categories, each is fairly self-explanatory. We have: Accessibility, Development, Education, Games, Graphics and Pictures, Internet, Music and Video, Office, Security, and Utilities. Each category has numerous programs within it. Some of them are shown in this screenshot.
Use the scroll bar on the right to move down through the list, checking the boxes of any software you’d like to install.
Tone’s Tip. To the right of each program is a Download and Install size. This is useful, particularly if your USB flash drive isn’t very big, as you can see how much space the software will take up.
For this guide, I’m going to set up three apps. From the Graphics and Pictures category, the GIMP image editor; from Internet, the Opera web browser; and from Office, the LibreOffice productivity suite. Put a check in the box next to each of these (or choose your own programs instead), then click “Next”. The programs will download and install (as pictured below).
You may need to agree to some licence terms along the way, but eventually you will reach the Portable Apps Added screen (displayed in the following screenshot) and can click “Finish”.
We’ve now set up the Portable Apps Platform, and it should be running on your computer. If you need to start the software again, or open it on another computer, we’ll look at how to do that now.
Starting the Portable Apps Platform
First plug your flash drive into a spare USB port, if it’s not already (ideally you’ll be using a USB 3 flash drive, so you’ll want to plug it into a USB 3 port). Open the root directory of your flash drive (if it doesn’t open automatically, click File Explorer in the taskbar, and locate it in the left hand column).
To open the Portable Apps Platform, double-click “Start”, as shown here.
Tone’s Tip. If you need access to any of the individual programs, but don’t want to run the entire Portable Apps Platform, you can find them in the “PortableApps” directory on the root of your flash drive. You can open each one in exactly the same way as we did earlier with a single portable app.
Now we know how to open the software, let’s find our way around.
Getting to know the Platform menu
The Portable Apps Platform has its own menu, not dissimilar from the Windows Start menu, which appears in the taskbar once you launch the software. Click on its curved arrow to open it (pictured in the screenshot).
As you can see, the programs you have installed are listed on the left. Simply click one to open it. If you’d like to view these in their associated categories, select “All Portable Apps”.
Where are my files?
A nice touch with the Portable Apps Platform is that, along with the various programs and settings folders, it also creates a directory (on your USB flash drive, if that’s where you installed it) for saving your files. Not only this, but it then creates subdirectories that mimic the actual Windows ones: so you have Documents, Music, Pictures and Videos in which to neatly store your files – all available directly from the Portable Apps Platform menu. Note, there is also Explore, which quickly gives you access to the root of your flash drive.
Tone’s Tip. If you need to manually locate these subfolders, you will find them in the “Documents” folder on the root of your USB flash drive (as in the following figure).
Other useful features
The Portable Apps Platform also has several other useful functions. We’ll briefly look at each of them now.
Backup and Restore
Clicking “Backup” from the Platform menu opens up this submenu.
This allows you to run a backup (it opens a simple wizard for selecting precisely what you want to backup). If you save this somewhere safe, it can then be restored at a later date (using another wizard) should the need arise – this is probably overkill for anyone using just a couple of apps, but could be very useful for someone who’s took the time to set up multiple programs.
Clicking the “Apps” section on the Platform menu allows us to do the following.
“Get More Apps…” is particularly useful, as this allows us to add more programs to the platform.
“Check For Updates” is also handy for seeing if there’s a newer version of any of the programs available.
This section of the menu allows you to configure things like “Language”, “Theme” and “Update Settings”.
The platform menu also has Search function and Help section, in case you need them.
The cross at the bottom right of the menu closes the Portable Apps Platform.
The eject button not only closes the Portable Apps Platform, but safely ejects your USB flash drive as well, so you can unplug it from the computer.
As you can see, the Platform offers a great many advantages over simply using a single portable app, and, best of all, you can take this suite of software with you, wherever you go. Which brings me to security.
A quick word on security
Since you’ll likely be carrying your USB flash drive around in your pocket, you may want to encrypt the contents. While it won’t really matter if you’re just using the programs, if you intend to keep your documents on their as well, you should definitely consider encryption.
Note. This would need to be done prior to setting up any portable apps on the flash drive. If you’re interesting in learning how to securely encrypt it, see my article “How to Encrypt a USB Drive… for Free” by clicking here.
What type of flash drive?
USB Flash drives are pretty inexpensive these days, but there’s still a couple of things you should consider. The two most important are capacity and speed. Put simply, go for the fastest drive you can lay your hands on for the price you can afford. As with most things in life, not all flash drives are created equal. Buying a faster drive will give you a much more pleasurable experience when using any portable apps. The difference between a slow USB device and a fast one can be HUGE, so shop around, you’ll benefit greatly in the long run. Not only will you get your portable apps set up more quickly in the first place, they’ll also run much more efficiently and load faster, too.
When purchasing a new flash drive, you shouldn’t even contemplate USB 2 any more, no matter how cheap it is – it isn’t worth the drop in performance. Even if your current computer doesn’t have any USB 3 ports (though majority will do), you should still buy a USB 3 flash drive as it will be more future proof – don’t worry, USB 3 drives work fine in USB 2 ports (just don’t expect USB 3’s superior speeds!)
Capacity also plays a role when deciding on which flash drive to buy, though most of those currently available are of ample size to run at least a handful of apps. Which brings me to my next point.
Too many apps?
I would actually advise against getting a single, large flash drive and piling it full of apps. Doing so could actually lead to slower performance. If you find that you require a lot of portable apps, it may be a better solution to spread them across several different flash drives. For example, you could have one for your Office programs, and another for Music and Video (a separate device for each category of apps).
Bearing these factors in mind, click this link if you’d like to check out what flash drives are available on Amazon
Before we finish, let’s have a look at some of the most frequently asked questions regarding portable apps.
Do I have to install Portable Apps?
Yes… sort of. The term install is slightly misleading in this context. Portable apps don’t install to your computer in the same way that standard software does. Instead they place all of the folders and files they rely on (known as dependencies) in the location of your choosing. This means they don’t show up in the regular Windows Start Menu. Nor do they add an uninstall entry to your Program Files. So, although you will require administrative privileges (which you should already have on your home computer) to initially set them up, you won’t need this level of access when running the programs on other computers – which is why they should work quite nicely on a more restricted account; possibly on a corporate PC or laptop, for example.
Disclaimer. I do not condone playing games, or otherwise using portable apps, to carry out prohibited activities during working hours on an employer’s computer – so consider yourself warned.
Are portable apps safe?
They’re as safe as any other program. As with most genuine software, you should be fine so long as you download them from a reputable source. For this reason, I’d stick with the official Portable Apps website.
Where do I get portable apps from?
As mentioned previously, I’d advise only getting them from the official website here.
What are the best Portable Apps?
Obviously, everyone’s choice will vary, depending on what kind of software you’re after, and your own personal preferences. However, here’s a few of my favourites (and the category you’ll find them listed under).
VLC Media Player
Graphics & Pictures
Graphics & Pictures
Music & Video
Music & Video
What’s it good for?
Testing a PHP/MySQL website
Would-be racing drivers!
Vector graphics editing
Browsing the web
Audio editing and recording
Playing almost any type of media
Word processing, spreadsheets & presentations
File archiving and compressing