How to Use a USB Drive to Run Portable Applications

How to Use a USB Drive to Run Portable ApplicationsThe USB drive is a handy little gadget that serves the purpose once reserved for floppy disks and Zip drives. It’s commonly used to move folders, files, and data easily from one computer to another in a format that’s often small enough to be given a second job as a key chain. There’s no need to burn data into the drive as you would with a CD or DVD; you can erase from and overwrite onto the USB drive as often as you need to until the darned thing falls apart. Add the fact that even USB drives capable of storing relatively large amounts of data are pretty darned cheap nowadays and you’ve got an ideal little workhorse for those files that you want to be able to use between the office, home, laptop, band camp, coffee shop, cyberpub, school, or wherever, really. One might wonder if a miraculous device so well suited to carting your data all over creation might have any alternative uses — wonder no more! You can also use a USB drive to boost your computer’s performance and run portable applications.

What’s a portable application? Think about the files that you want to take from one computer to another — the reason you’re using a USB drive in the first place. Now think larger: Wouldn’t it be nice if you could use entire applications between computers without having to install them onto each system? There you go! Simply put, that’s what portable applications are. Mozilla’s Firefox Web browser, The OpenOffice suite of free Microsoft Office replacement applications, Google’s Chrome Web browser, and the Miranda IM client are just a few examples of portable applications that can be used directly from a USB drive. Looking a little further, you’ll find that everything from games to space simulators to Bible study to sound editors to the Skype VoIP service can also be used as portable applications from a USB drive.

A few words of caution: Because a USB drive is so easy to use, it’s especially susceptible to viruses and malware, and because of its portable nature, it can serve as an unwitting carrier of such viruses and malware between computers. Make sure you’re using reliable sources to download portable apps (and really, haven’t we learned that this is a good idea no matter what it is we’re downloading?); one such recommended source is

Depending on your operating system, knowing how to use a USB drive to run portable applications is as easy as your usual method of saving to or running regular applications from any other hard drive on your computer. The hard drives view on my computer (still running on Windows Vista, I’m moderately ashamed to say) looks like this before I add a USB drive:

How to Use a USB Drive to Run Portable Applications

And then like this after the USB drive is added (notice the new Removable Disk “J” drive):

How to Use a USB Drive to Run Portable Applications

Double clicking on that J drive will show me everything that’s currently on that drive. Double clicking on a portable application stored on that drive will run it on my computer — just as it would with any natively stored application. It’s really as easy as that! For an even easier time of it, the aforementioned has an excellent platform for helping you add, delete, manage, and update portable applications.

Do you regularly use any portable applications from a USB drive? Let us know what your experience has been and if you recommend any for our fellow LockerGnome readers.

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Our resident "Bob" (pictured here through the lens of photographer Jason DeFillippo) is in love with a woman who talks to animals. He has a fondness for belting out songs about seafaring and whiskey (arguably inappropriate in most social situations). He's arm-wrestled robots and won. He was born in a lighthouse on the storm-tossed shores of an island that has since been washed away and forgotten, so he's technically a citizen of nowhere. He's never killed in anger. He once underwent therapy for having an alien in his face, but he assures us that he's now feeling "much better." Fogarty also claims that he was once marooned along a tiny archipelago and survived for months using only his wits and a machete, but we find that a little hard to believe.

  • GadgetFix

    I’ve gone through the process of creating a custom PortableApps USB drive package with custom applications. Its a tedious process, but it makes certain tasks a breeze. Toss all of your system recovery apps into one drive and certain utilities to keep from installing software on a foreign workstation. If you use a combination of PortableApps + VMWare ThinApp you can literally take your desktop with you with certain minor limitations.

    ThinApp allows you to virtualize all of your applications and they can all fit snug on your drive and you can take them with you.

    Other decent alternatives include Codysafe and the cumbersome yet effective pStart.

    If you plan on creating custom applications not found on, simply create a new folder within the PortableApps directory using your applications name and copy the executable or installer file into the folder. PortableApps allows you to rename your applications within its ‘start’ menu simply by right clicking.

  • Wolfee Darkfang

    Ah yes. The portable firefox and chrome, that save their data within their own install folders. I’ve been using that for a while. Very handy.

  • fastoy
  • Inbalancebydesign

    Thanks for writing this, Fogarty. This topic and my geekiness helped me win Gnomie of the Day!  😀

  • matthew4295

    Here’s a question for you…. can I run something as big as Visual Studios on a (school) computer that doesn’t have admin rights? I have a plan to run Windows XP off of the USB but that’s a little extreme for just wanting 1 app. Is it possible?

    • GadgetFix

       Maybe if you make it a ThinApp it might be possible, unles there are any software restriction policies in place; or it requires elevated privileges/registry access it won’t work.

    • Shy Morag

      You can use an application like Ceedo to run Visual Studio, Netbeans and even Office. VS doesn’t require administrative rights and should have no problem running as user. However you may encounter a license issue because the VS and Office license is related to the machine.

  • Melinda P

    Sent this to a friend of mine whom I’d call king of the portable app! :) I’m hoping he’ll weigh in on his experiences.

  • Guest

    I have Ubuntu 11 on a Flash drive because I have Linux Mint 12 and like Ubuntu also. Dual booting wasn’t a choice for me either. go USB!

  • Robert Glen Fogarty


  • Dan

    I use it for LastPass, they have a portable with their premium account ($12/yr) and it is an amazing app!

  • Dan Allard
    • Chris Pirillo


  • Dan Allard

    No mention of unetbootin?

  • Ernie Cordell

    One more step (in expense more than technology) and I could think about carrying around Linux in virtualization to use on Windows machines.