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A ton of great software exists out there. But who has the time to try it all? And even if you do take the time to install, say, a new e-mail program on your home PC, your company may well prevent you from installing that app at work. A few tinkerer types might be willing to learn the ins and outs of using multiple programs for the same task, but most of us are going to stick with what we're used to. And so we get stuck in a rut.

Enter PortableApps. John Haller recently assembled his collection of free portable programs into a new suite you can run from a USB drive, without having to install it on the PC. Haller has been offering portable versions of popular apps like the Firefox browser and the Thunderbird e-mail client for some time, but his new suite ties them all together in a polished, easy-to-use package. It's similar to programs available for the commercial U3 platform for thumb drives, but his suite consists of free, open-source apps.

The stylish PortableApps menu launches from a system-tray icon.
The stylish PortableApps menu launches from a system-tray icon.
I don't know how Haller manages to deliver it all in a package capable of fitting on a 512MB thumb drive, but the snazzy-looking PortableApps suite includes Firefox, Thunderbird, ClamWin antivirus software, GIMP for image editing, and the OpenOffice collection of productivity apps, among other things. There's even a portable Sudoku game.

A so-called "lite" version of the suite, containing the AbiWord word processor instead of the full OpenOffice installation, fits onto a 256MB drive. The site says you can even run the collection from an iPod, presumably after enabling a feature (via iTunes) to let your PC access the iPod like it does a thumb drive.

Portable Start Menu

When you connect a USB drive loaded with the suite to a Windows computer, a small system-tray icon appears. Click the icon to bring up a launcher (which looks much like the Windows Start menu) for all the included programs, or to access stored documents.

The benefit of toting the suite around is that you'll always have the programs you're used to, along with all your saved bookmarks, settings, and other customizations (such as Firefox or Thunderbird extensions).

I used PortableApps on a Windows XP PC, but the site says it will run on any version of Windows, from 95 through Vista. A backup feature lets you save your settings to a PC in case you lose your thumb drive.

I ran the portable version of Firefox, and was able to install extensions just as I could with a version on a hard disk. ClamWin, the portable antivirus program, could be useful for cleaning an infected computer, but it took forever to run.

Many thanks to PC World reader Matt for letting me know about the new suite. We looked at the individual portable apps, along with many other lesser-known thumb-drive apps and tips, in last year's "23 Things to Do With a Thumb Drive."

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