August 09, 2010, 4:22 PM — If you travel frequently, there will be times when you don't want to lug your laptop along. Whether you find yourself at a local cybercafé or library, or have to sit down temporarily at a colleague's computer, you need a secure and simple way to get online and get your work done.
These days you can't be too careful. Many public computers are infected with botnets and other malware, or can record your Web site passwords as you surf. The trouble is you don't really know until you sit down at the PC, and then you still might not be aware of what is going on in the background. The ideal situation is to have something simple so that you can't and don't leave any digital tracks or other evidence behind when you are done using your borrowed PC. There are a few solutions that require a bit of pre-planning before you leave for your trip, but aren't onerous, costly or complex.
One way, of course, is to make use of an iPhone or some other smartphone and use the built-in broadband data service and the mobile phone's Web browser. The advantage is that you don't need to carry anything else, and that you can get online quickly and just about anyplace these days. The downside is that the tiny phone screens aren't great for generalized Web browsing, and processing huge email volumes can get tedious. Also, the iPhone doesn’t support Flash so that viewing that kind of content can be frustrating.
A second choice is to purchase a U3 type of USB drive. These have been around for several years and are an inexpensive (less than $20 in most cases) and quick solution. They run on most modern versions of Windows PCs (not Macs though) and contain a piece of software that will launch when the drive is inserted. This can bring up a collection of programs that you configure when you first get the drive, including browsers and the like. Once you setup your U3 drive with the requisite software, you can make whatever changes using the built-in management programs that come with the drive. You can store your preferences and bookmarks on the USB drive, and when you remove it your host PC remains untouched.
Any programs that run on a U3 drive have to be pre-packaged in special u3p files, and a number of USB memory vendors such as SanDisk maintain app catalogs where you can download and then install them.