How I Went Portable and Learned to Love the Thumb Drive

A little something about my workspace/workflow today.

Circumstances conspired, recently, to put me in a bit of an awkward situation. We moved house a few months ago, and in the new place I don’t have an office. My office computer ended up in the living room, connected to the TV and serving primarily as a media server. As you can imagine, this makes it more or less perfectly unsuitable for doing any serious work.

My day job provides me with a decent laptop, which I had also been using for my personal purposes; including writing and the running of the Anthology Club. I was uncomfortable using this computer, though, for a few reasons. The biggest reason was, of course, privacy. This isn’t my computer, and the school where I work could, theoretically, decide to take back the laptop and give me a different one at any time, for any reason. I’m not comfortable with having my Anthology Club and personal email accounts set up on a computer that might leave my possession at some point.

Another issue I’ve been facing is one familiar to all writers in this day and age – backup and portability. There’s a reason that, among writers, Dropbox is one of the most popular services ever created. It solves the twin dilemmas of providing iterative backups and of making those backups available almost anywhere. I, like most writers, use a combination of Dropbox and a thumb drive to take care of my data security needs.

It occurred to me, though, wouldn’t it be great if, rather than just my data, I could also take my programs with me wherever I go? My software needs are really pretty simple when it comes to being productive. I need email, I need a web browser, I need Scrivener (yes, I do so need it). I wondered if there was a way to run all of my software from a USB drive and not have to install my programs on that untrustworthy work computer.

It turns out there is. It’s called portable software.

First – Scrivener. If you have any serious writing to do, in particular writing that requires organization (anything longer than flash fiction, really, and including academic writing) Scrivener is a godsend. It is as close to a perfect writing tool that I can imagine. It is also, as it turns out, possible to run it from a USB drive and take it wherever you go. How does one do this? Well, the answer is actually in section 4.5 of the user manual (I know, who reads those?) which basically tells you to install Scrivener as normal, to your hard drive, then just cut and paste (or copy and paste if you prefer) the entire install folder to your thumb drive. Run it by double clicking the .exe file on the thumb drive, or create a shortcut to that file and place it in the root of the thumb drive for easy access.

One down.

Next up: web browser. Part of the impetus for this, I have to admit, was a recent decision by Google to not allow Chrome users to install extensions they didn’t get from the Google store. This broke some functionality that I needed for website development, and made me very angry. A quick search for alternatives that aren’t Firefox or (shudder) IE turned up Pale Moon – an open source fork of Firefox that, wouldn’t you know it, has a portable version. For this one, all you need to do is download the Pale Moon Portable installer, and install it to your thumb drive. Easy. The best thing is, it works with the vast majority of standard Firefox add-ons, so you can use downthemall, ad block plus, and all the other extensions you had to give up when you moved over to Chrome because Firefox started to suck. Also, it uses the older (better) interface. Exporting my bookmarks from Chrome and importing them to Pale Moon was simplicity itself, but it took me most of an afternoon to (manually) move my saved passwords over. That’s the price you pay for convenience, I guess.

Now, all I had left to figure out was email.

A search for portable email clients produced a list of three or four candidates. One of those candidates was Thunderbird, an email client that I remember from the days when I was still running Linux, and which I quite liked. It is also available for windows, and it has an add-on called lightning that brings calendar and task list functionality to the program and makes it more or less equivalent to Microsoft Outlook. The easiest way to install a portable version of Thunderbird, according to my search results was… hold on. What’s this? Oh, my…

So, the easiest way to install a whole whack of software to a thumb drive or external hard drive and take your programs wherever you go is something called portableapps. It is basically a launcher for and repository of a long list of portable applications. You install the portableapps client to your thumb drive, and then you can browse that list, download, install, and update whatever packages you like from within it. The ones I installed were; Thunderbird, Audacity, Notepad++, Inkscape, Irfanview, LibreOffice, and a handful of disk utilities, file viewers, and malware scanners. There are more. Many more.

So now I can sit down at any computer running windows, pop in my USB drive, and start working. I can check my email. I have all my bookmarks and cookies and login credentials. I can use the software I like with the settings I set, and I don’t need to do anything to the computer I’m using and don’t leave behind any personal information when I go. I can take my workspace with me, even without taking a computer. Perhaps the best part, though, is that I can back the whole thing up by simply making a copy of the thumb drive contents. I do so daily to both my external hard drive and my drop box account, so even if my thumb drive dies a horrible death, I can be back up and running in minutes.