If you find yourself regularly having to use computers that aren’t your own, a number of irritations and practical difficulties can mar your computing experience and make you a lot less efficient.

You may find the applications you like to use aren’t installed and you're forced to use substitutes that you don’t understand very well or don’t like.

Even if your preferred applications are installed on ‘alien’ machines, they might not have the preferences set the way you like them. This can cause friction, stopping the smooth flow of your work as you check or reset settings and make a note to set them back again when you are done.

The solution to these problems is to use portable applications. Portable applications run without having to be installed on a PC. You simply carry them around on a USB drive or even a memory card (provided the computer has a compatible reader) and run them from there.

These portable applications can be set up with your personal preferences so they always look and work how you expect them to. They can also retain data you put into them. For example, a web browser can retain bookmarks you’ve saved so you can take these from computer to computer.

You can also carry around your favourite fonts, avoiding the pain of having to use a substitute.

Portable applications can run from their own separate menu that launches when you plug a device into a host PC. This makes it easy to locate the apps quickly. Plus, you don’t have to dedicate an external device solely to portable applications. Just like any other storage medium it can have folders storing whatever else you need to take with you, from documents to videos, music to presentations.

Granted, you won't be able to use every favourite program, such as Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop, but there are portable versions of a surprisingly large number of applications. Browse to www.portableapps.com to see what we mean. From Google Chrome to Dropbox, 7 Zip to OpenOffice, most bases are covered.

There’s another big advantage of portable applications. Because they run from a removable device they don’t install anything to the computer you are working with. They leave no footprint. That means you can use a remote computer once, leave it for ever, and be sure you’ve left no trace behind. Perhaps the best thing is that portable apps are all free.

How to install and use the Portable Apps software

1. Point your browser to www.portableapps.com. This is a great source of applications and the site offers a launcher as well as a long list of free portable apps to download.

Portable Apps

The launcher is ideal for accessing, sorting and organising your applications and you can even theme it to your own preferences. Within the launcher there is also an app downloader and automatic application updating capability.

2. Click the ‘Download Now’ button. There is another download button on the next web page – click that and you’ll be redirected to the Sourceforge web site where the download should automatically start. Once the application has downloaded, run it. When choosing the destination folder, take care to pick the correct external device.

Download Portable Apps from Sourceforge

3. Now you can launch portable apps from your external device. The App Directory will open so you can work through it and select apps to install. Try Notepad++ Portable, GIMP Portable and VCL Portable to get started, or any other apps that take your fancy then click Next. The selected downloads will install to your external device.

Portable App Directory

4. The apps you have installed are ranged on the left, with folders and options on the right. When you open an app it jumps to the top of the list. You can make apps favourites in which case they are always placed at the top of the apps list. Right-click to favourite an app.

Portable Apps Launcher

5. If you’ve got lots of apps you might want to keep them in folders. Portable Apps calls these categories. Right-click to assign an app to a category. Click at the bottom of the apps list, where it says ‘All Portable Apps’ to see the categories list. If you don’t like the pre-defined categories, set up your own that suit the way you work.

Portable Apps list

6. You can personalise the look of Portable Apps by choosing a theme. Click Options on the right hand column then choose Themes to select a colour scheme. You can also set the window transparency under the General tab. Note that the General tab lets you choose ‘smart’ ordering of apps – where those you use most are listed first.

Portable Apps theme

Tricks and tips for making the most of Portable Apps

Portable Apps is a ‘launcher’ which provides easy access to a wide range of portable apps. It isn’t the only launcher or the only source of portable apps though. Try some other sources such as http://www.portablefreeware.com/ and LiberKey and try some other launchers such a PStart.

While you are working with Portable Apps as a launcher, consider these tweaks to help you get the most from it:

  • Use large fonts. If you find the small default font difficult to see, choose Options, then the General tab and check Use Large Fonts
  • Keep Portable Apps up to date. There’s an Apps option on the right hand column. Left click this to see a menu that lets you check for updates. This will check for updates to all your installed apps in one sweep
  • Monitor disc space. At the bottom of the Portable Apps screen there’s a small info bar showing how much space you’ve used on your storage disc and how much remains free. If you feel you need to upgrade to a larger storage capacity just copy the contents of the existing storage device to a folder on your desktop then copy it all onto a new larger device. It should run like clockwork once copied
  • Keep an eye on what’s new. New portable apps are appearing all the time. If you want to keep an eye on what’s new in the Portable Apps world, then visit www.portableapps.com at regular intervals and see the new releases