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USB Key Drives and Portable Applications

by whoozhe
October 18, 2006
Once upon a time in a the dark ages of the first PC the only way to run programs was from a 5 1/2" floppy. Hard drives did not exist for the humble IBM PC. I can remember running down to my local computer club and rumaging through their collection of softwear all stored and run from these saucer sized floppies. Then along came the hard drive and the users never had to run applications from a floppy again. Near on 30 years later and the USB Key drive (also known as a Pen Drive, Flash Drive, Thumb Drive, USB Drive) has made it's mark in the computer world.

The storage capacity on these drives has grown rapidly where now they allow you to take your applications, files and email with you, all tucked in a device no larger than a cigarette lighter.

Portable Applications

Not every application can be run on different computers from a USB Key drive but there is a growing number of mini applications designed to do just that. These applications are commonly called Portable Apps and most of them are from the Open Source or Freeware end of the software market. The trick was to create applications that simply run everything from one folder rather than those that dump files all over a hard drive and make masses of entries into the Windows registry.

Fortunately, Windows handles the Portable Apps without it self destructing. Now these wonderful tiny drives do not last for ever but with most you will be able to get anywhere between 100,000 - 200,000 write cycles before they give up the ghost altogether. With the push by Microsoft and Google to replace hard drive based software with online "live" versions, charge you to use them and in reality control what you use and how you use applcations the Portable Apps market may well be the saviour for those who wish to keep that controll to themselves.

Right now, Firefox have a Portable version that can fit comfotably on a measly 68 MB of space and still leave enough room the play with. Imagine then what you could do with 512 meg, 1 gig or even the newer bigger 4 gig models. These sizes make room for some pretty hefty portable applications.

Take a 512 meg USB Key drive, which cost as little as $US20, on which you can stack with a Browser, Email Client and even an Office Application, all up and running with room left to store data. Portable Apps are not confined to the USB Key Drives either. They can be run on any device that uses the Windows Universal Storage Device Driver found on Windows ME and XP. This means you can use a USB Flash MP3 player, Ipod, portable music player or even an SD card as used in digital cameras. (The latter needs a card reader)

If the devices are used on a XP SP2 system they can also include an AutoRun function using Pstart from The Portableapps site has a list of downloadble Portable Apps which include a browser, a graphics program, a zip utility, a Multi Network Instant Messenger, a media player, email client, a full office suite and more. Armed with a few USB Key Drives and as long as there is a USB enabled sytem at the other end there is no reason to lug around a laptop.

Linux and More 

Looking away from Portable Apps, there is even a cut down Linux distro loaded with applications that fits onto a Key Drive. One Linux distro that is small enough is "Damm Small Linux" It needs between 1.5 and 2 gig so on a 4 or 8 gig drive you can have a full operating system, all the apps you need. There is even an App called QEMU that can emulate an entire PC, processor and all. More about that at For a more comprehansive article on a Linux Key Drive see:

USB Key drives can also come in different shapes and sizes from a writing pen to some that lok more like a pill container. There are a few issues, especially if you choose to use a USB Drive regularly. One is to have a rapid method of easily transfering data onto something else. Keeping the write cycles to a minimum or in other terms not creating data that is not necessary. Firefox, for example, does this by turning off the cache, history and other non essential features.

Even though most Portable Apps are basic and do have many of their features missing the whole idea of being able to slip your office into your pocket for use on any available compatible computer just makes life that much less complicated. The future for portable devices seems to be unlimited with new usages popping up daily. Maybe in the future, we will see small factor PC's built into cars, aircraft and hotels.

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