I'll take mine to go: 12 apps to carry with you at all times
Mobile devices, personal cloud storage, and easy Web access notwithstanding, there are still plenty of reasons to carry your apps with you on a USB drive.
Image credit: flickr/Dennis Yang
Back in the dinosaur days of computing, I could, and did, carry a bootable copy of an operating system plus my key professional productivity tools -- a text editor and a telecom program, plus a few other tools, with me -- all on a 1.44MB floppy disc, with room to spare for a bunch of documents. Even, over time, tossing in a TCP/IP stack, our old friend Trumpet WinSock, if I recall correctly. In a trade show press room or at a friend's system, I could simply plunk my floppy in, reboot, and get to work.
Today, of course, no new machine has a built-in floppy drive, and between mobile devices, personal cloud storage, and easy quick access to the Web, there's far less need to tote around any software. Just stash a copy in the cloud, or grab a fresh one from SourceForge.net or Downloads.CNET.com or some other trusted site.
But "less need" isn't the same as "no need."
Depending who you are and what you do, there are still plenty of reasons -- "use cases," if you will -- to carry around apps and even entire bootable/installable OSs. For example:
No (or slow) Internet connectivity. For example, you might want to try a particular program on a computer that you're thinking of buying (at a computer store, yard sale, etc.). Or you might be on a metered-megabytes connection, like a MiFi mobile hot spot or hot-spotting from your smartphone.
You don't have permission to download software on the machine you're at.
The software requires a (paid) license (which you already have).
You'll save time by not having to search for and download a piece of software you want to use.
Privacy, safety (and paranoia). It's always a good idea to use software copies and bootable environments you trust -- particularly if you suspect/know that the target machine has malware lurking inside.
Your target system is slow enough that download/install would take too long.
The apps listed here range from a few hundred megabytes to gigabyte-ish. If you're not doing OSs, a one or two GB flash drive should do it. I've focused on Windows and Linux, but there are also portable apps for MacOS -- see, for example, OS X Portable Applications.
Most of the items listed here are "portable" apps, meaning that you can install and run them from a USB drive, rather than needing to copy/install them over to the target computer -- and will keep any configuration or temp files on the USB drive. The rest can be carried on USB drives for installation on other computers (or, perhaps, as a virtual-machine image on the flash drive).
Without further ado, here are 12 apps (and categories of apps) that are worth keeping with you at all times.
TrueCrypt (or some other encryption tool)
Cost: Free (donation suggested)
Even if you're just carrying documents with you, you may not want them publicly accessible. Some "secure" USB flash and hard drives include password and encryption protection, and some versions of Windows offer BitLocker To Go (and Microsoft offers the free BitLocker To Go reader to access FAT drives from XP or Vista... but that may be a too-blunt stick for your security druthers.
TrueCrypt is a free open-source encryption program. Encryption/decryption is "on-the-fly," meaning "data is automatically encrypted right before it is saved and decrypted right after it is loaded, without any user intervention" (according to the TrueCrypt site). TrueCrypt never saves decrypted data to disk.
TrueCrypt can work in a variety of ways, including creating a virtual encrypted disk within a file, and mounting it as a real disk and encrypting an entire partition or storage device -- like a flash drive, SD card, or hard drive.
Note, the TrueCrypt documentation advises that before removing an external drive, etc. when running TrueCrypt, you either dis-mount the TrueCrypt'ed volume from within the program, or turn the machine off, to avoid damaging the protected file(s).
PuTTY (or other SSH/terminal/Telnet app)
System and network admins may need to talk to serial devices at the command-line level. And some fossilized users like me still prefer to access email terminal-style. That requires Telnet and/or SSH (Secure Shell, basically Telnet with some security around it).
I'm fond of PuTTY because it's free and small. It's also available as a "portable app". (The main version will run directly from a USB stick, but might not retain any configuration changes.)
It's not perfect -- it's not a "True Windows App," so cutting and pasting is left/right mouse clicking, clicking on a URL takes you to the Lynx ASCII web browser in the shell; to open in a graphic browser like Firefox, you have to copy the URL, and paste it to the browser. Other SSH apps do this better... but may not be free.
TextPad (or other text editors and word processors)
Cost: About $25 for one user
TextPad is a text editor, suitable for writing articles (like this), and also as web page editor and an IDE. It handles huge files, switches among a handful of open files, and more. I've been using it as my primary writing application for well over a decade, resorting to Word only when absolutely necessary. The only thing I want that TextPad doesn't do is let me "split" views of a file into more than two windows. (PCWrite did that, one reason I still miss it.)
Portable app bundles
A "portable app" is a program you can install (or even simply copy) onto media or external storage -- e.g., a flash drive or SD card, run on any (Windows) computer, without leaving data behind (except if you explicitly saved to the computer, that is).
The PortableApps site is a compendium of 300+ free, portable apps, categorized under Accessibility, Development, Education, Games, Graphics and Pictures, Internet, Music and Video, Office, Security, and Utilities.
Many are apps -- or portable versions of apps -- that have their own main sites, e.g., TrueCrypt and Putty, which I've already talked about.
Two benefits of this site are aggregating the find-and-installs -- you don't have to click to each apps site -- and the launcher/manager.
Note, if you're installing a few dozen apps, be prepared for it to take a while. E.g., (I checked 51 while testing for this article, the installs took over an hour.) And you need to keep an eye on the install, as a few items may pause, waiting for a click or two from you in order to continue. The 51 apps I installed take up about 1.6GB on the flash drive.
PortableApps.com isn't the only game in town; for example, there's WinPenPack (also free), with three default installs, one including tools and libraries for software developers.
Bootable operating system(s)
To diagnose/fix a machine so troubled it can't even boot from its own hard drive, it's helpful to have a bootable USB stick with you. This is primarily for system admins, tech support, and knowledgeable end users. One friend, for example, says, "I usually use it to reset Windows admin accounts and use various Unixy utilities on filesystems."
For Windows, "bootable USB" means "boot to an installer," to then load the OS onto a hard drive (or SSD), except for some versions of Windows 8 combined with a USB 3.0 flash drive. You will need a copy of Windows and/or its install disks, and a Windows license key.
For Linux distros, "bootable" can also mean a live-boot copy of the OS (like those bootable DOS floppies of yore). There's no shortage of ways to create bootable Linux USB sticks working from either Windows or Linux.
For example, LinuxLive USB Creator "creates portable, bootable and virtualized USB stick running Linux." Among its other virtues, by using a version of VirtualBox, LinuxLive "allows you to launch a LinuxLive directly in any Windows without any configuration nor software installation on your hard drive."
My colleague Tom Henderson advises, "When creating these USB install masters, if possible, start from an original disk or a known-to-be safe-download if possible, to avoid the danger of propagating malware or viruses, rather than creating them from what's on your computer."
Granted, not all target machines will boot from USB (older ones, in particular), or may need you to access and tweak BIOS settings.
In any case, be careful in creating these. Ideally, if you aren't already good at this, don't use your production machine, just in case something goes horribly awry.
System Boot/Rescue Collections
To test, diagnose, and fix/repair systems from a bootable Linux media, you'll want a bunch of apps. You can select and accumulate a bunch -- or get one of the bootable pre-fab distros, like SystemRescueCd or Ultimate Boot CD. Free downloads, affordable as flash drive or CD pre-loads.
Anti-malware/Anti-Virus and other security tools
For untrusted systems, it makes sense to carry some detection/removal tools. There's lots of free (and affordable) ones, like Malwarebytes, MyTurboPC, SpyBot Search And Destroy, and ClamWin. The "portable app collections" above include a handful of these.
If you're really suspicious of a computer, you'll probably want to start by booting from the USB drive and then scan the system's hard drive from apps also on the flash drive.
Passwords proliferate -- and while there are web/cloud-based apps to store them in, you might not be able to reach that online password stash. There are bunches of free password apps available, including PasswordSafe, KeePass, and Password Gorilla Portable. While I can't personally vouch for any of these, they're certainly worth a look to see if they meet your needs.
Sometimes you -- or a friend/family member -- forget the password to a machine's user or admin account or a donated or second-hand machine is locked. Happily, there are utilities -- many of them free, like OphCrack -- that let you recover or reset passwords.
Given that you may need to run the program on a computer you're unable to access, some of these tools include a bootable Linux distro suitable for a CD or flash drive.
(If you do go looking for a password tool, be careful where you get it from -- try SourceForge.net or Download.CNET.com.)
Aside from saving copies of any files you care about, one thing it's important to do before letting go of old computers and hard drives is to "wipe" -- scrub, erase, eradicate -- data so it can't be recovered. On Windows, simply doing a "Delete" and then "emptying" the Recycle Bin isn't good enough; you want to make sure those portions of the disk have been rewritten over.
And you may want to also do it to a disk on your computer, particularly to a notebook you carry with you -- keeping the programs and data you want, of course, but scrubbing deleted and draft files, along with cookies and other temp files you want to eliminate.
If you're prepared to wipe the whole disk, you can use Darik's Boot and Nuke (DBAN) (boot disk). If you only want to wipe selected files -- and possibly "free space" (which may still have old file fragments in them), you want a more selective tool, like Eraser (Windows utility, also available Eraser Portable), File Shredder, or Piriform's Ccleaner.
Cost: Freeware, Standard $24.95, Pro $199.95
PingPlotter is a good example of a niche-audience tool -- in this case, for monitoring and diagnosing network performance and connectivity graphically. It's also a good example of a tool you might have bought and therefore want to carry the non-free version of. (PingPlotter can be run from a USB drive.)
Portable browsers and email clients
Since "portable apps" work from and on their removable media, and don't leave data on the computer's disk, browsers and mail clients like these let you browse the web and read mail without caching login credentials, browsing history, etc.
Have USB flash drive, will travel
In addition to the aforementioned apps, there are, of course, hundreds (probably thousands or tens of thousands) of other programs worth toting around.
a backup tool
a default Cygwin install (setup.exe plus the standard packages), which is "a collection of tools which provide a Linux look and feel environment for Windows."
virtual machine(s) with all sorts of stuff
MP3 player and a day's worth of your tunes
any software needed to access your employer's network and systems. (VPN, secure browser, etc.)
What software do you carry -- or want -- on your keyring?
Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer based in Newton Center, MA.