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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Portable Applications

If you haven't heard yet, portable applications are the new cool thing! Portable applications run from a portable device (usually a USB thumb drive). Typically you install a application launcher on the device and this launcher automatically runs when you connect the device to a computer.

There are many different applications that can be run from a portable device. Some of the more interesting ones include Firefox, OpenOffice (similar to Microsoft Office), Thunderbird (a news/email reader), and many more. One of my favorites is RoboForm2Go (password manager, discussed below).

There are also a number of different application launchers. Portable Apps seems to be a popular (and free) launcher. U3 came installed on the thumb drive I just purchased and it seems to work fairly well. I'm not sure about Portable Apps, but U3 requires a special installation format. However, if you know an application can be portable, you can easily create a U3 installation package by downloading a program called PackageFactory for U3 (ironically, this is not a portable application).

I've been wanting to use portable applications for awhile now and last night I took the plunge. For under $50 I got a 2GB thumb drive that came with an application launcher (U3) and several applications. My primary goal was basically to have a portable password manager and news reader.

The password manager was the most important thing. I have been using a password manager called Billeo for several months. It was nice that I didn't have to remember all of my passwords for all the different sites I visit, but Billeo is basically an Internet bill paying service and they use the password manager to try to get customers. I don't mind the marketing gimmick, but it did mean that the password manager included features I didn't intend to use and thought that perhaps a software company that focused on a password manager might have a better password manager (though Billeo did work very well). Plus, Billeo is not a portable app, so I had to install it on my machine at home and work and then train it (login to a website and save the password) in both places.

The thumb drive came with a password manager, but it didn't work very well. I ended up installing RoboForm2Go instead. RoboForm2Go has all the features I expect in a password manager. Basically, it automatically fills in passwords for me :). It also can be used to populate web forms with common data (such as shipping/billing info). The data can be secured with a master password so that in order to populate the form, you must enter a master password first. With passwords you can protect some and allow others to just automatically populate (for instance, you might want to protect your bank password, but you might not care about your favorite news sites password). RoboForm2Go also includes the ability to have different identities. This is used primarily for filling out forms. You might have one identity with your personal information in it and another for your work information (address, phone, credit card number, etc).

Thunderbird was the other important portable application for me. I subscribe to a number of RSS feeds. Thunderbird has been my RSS reader of choice because I like the preview window. However, the problem with the standard version is that if I wanted to read RSS feeds at home, I wouldn't be able to know which feeds I've already read. Portable Thunderbird solves this problem. I can open Thunderbird from my thumb drive at work or home without having to deal with this issue.

So what portable applications do I have installed?

  • CruzerSync U3 Edition - Backup software that came with the device. I'm not sure if I'll use this or not. It's nice backup software, but I've got a USB backup drive for that (which I believe this is the same software I use for it, though named differently).
  • Process Explorer - This is an advanced version of Windows Task Manager (Ctrl+Shift+Esc). I use it mainly to make comments on what is running on my machine. This allows me to know what all of the software on my machine is for (I hate unknown processes). What I am hoping for (but haven't verified yet) is that the comments are stored in a way that are portable with the application. Probably not, but we'll see.
  • Snippet Compiler - This is a very cool .Net tool that allows you to quickly and easily test out code without having to create a project or anything like that. I just found it and haven't had much of a chance to play with it, but it seems interesting.
  • Color Cop - Allows you to pick colors off of the screen. Very handy when trying to match a color. It gives the value in many different formats so it is easy to import into just about any application that is requesting a color code.
  • RoboForm2Go - This is a password manager (discussed in detail above).
  • Lutz Roeder's .Net Reflector - This is a must-have tool for any .Net developer. It allows you to decompile .Net assemblies and read the code in whatever .Net language you choose (C#, VB.Net, etc). I have used this frequently to learn how different parts of the .Net framework work.
  • Notepad2 - Very similar to Notepad (the text editor built into Windows), but with a few extra features and more reliable. What's nice about Notepad2 is that it is not trying to be a code editor or anything else.
  • avast! antivirus - This is a free antivirus utility. It has gotten a lot of positive feedback, but I already have an antivirus, so it's unlikely I will use it.


Murali said...

Dear Brian,

I enjoyed reading the blog. I am founder of Billeo and pleased to hear that you find that Billeo works well for Password Management. I want to make one point of clarification regarding the portability of the application:

Billeo allows saving of the passwords and profile data for form-filling onto a USB drive. When you switch machines you have to point the location of this data to the passwords to the USB drive.

Softland said...

As backup software you can also use Backup4all for U3 ( ). Has a special feature that allows running a backup when you plug-in the USB device.