Put an Office in Your Pocket

Just about everyone these days knows how useful a USB thumb drive can be for moving files from place to place. For people on the go, who may find themselves sing a variety of different computers, a thumb drive offers more than just portable storage. With very little work and no money aside from the original expense of the drive itself, you can easily turn a thumb drive into your primary workspace — complete with the software and settings, reference material, and documents you uses the most.

Here’s what you need to do:

  • Buy a thumb drive. Or “pen drive” or “USB stick” or whatever you call it. You can also use one of those portable USB or firewire drives, though they’re more expensive and not quite as pocketable. Look for drives that are certified USB 2.0 (or “high speed”) with at least 2 GB of memory (they’re so cheap these days there’s no reason to buy smaller unless your budget is very tight). Stick to brands you know — the flash memory in “no-name” drives tends to be less quality-controlled, which could mean fewer read-write cycles. In short, they may not last as long.
  • Download and install the Portable Apps Suite. The Portable Apps Suite consists of several open source programs you already know and love, specially configured to run from a thumb drive without being installed on the host computer. The applications include: the entire OpenOffice.org suite (word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software), GAIM/Pidgin (IM software), Firefox (web browser), Thunderbird (email), Sunbird (calendar), ClamWin (anti-virus), and Sudoku (game). If you don’t need the entire OpenOffice.org suite, you can download the “Lite” version which replaces OOo with AbiWord, a simple word processor. It also includes a launcher program that offers access to all the programs and files on the thumb drive from the system tray when the drive is inserted.

    Insert your thumb drive and run the installer program, which will copy the files onto the thumb drive and create folders for documents, music, and apps. Once installed, you can easily delete programs you don’t use by opening the thumb drive program using Explorer and deleting them from the apps folder. There are also dozens of other programs available at the Portable Apps site that you can install if you need them; I added FileZilla (FTP client), GIMP (graphics editor), VLC (media player), and NVU (webpage editor) when I set mine up.

    (Note: alas, the Portable Apps Suite is PC-only, though I’m sure Mac-friendly equivalents are out there somewhere. If anyone has any pointers, feel free to leave a comment!)

  • Configure the applications. If you use any of these programs on a regular basis, you’ve probably got them set up just how you like them; the good news is, you can usually easily transfer your settings to the thumb drive version. For example, you can copy your Firefox profile from the “Documents and Settings” folder on your PC to the FirefoxPortable\Data\profile directory on the thumb drive; all your extensions, themes, and even saved passwords will be transferred. You can do the same thing with Thunderbird, which will also copy your accounts over. There are clear instructions under each application’s page on the Portable Apps site to tell you how to transfer your settings, where applicable.

    There are a few things to keep in mind, though. Since you likely keep your email on your own PC or on the web, make sure you check the option under each email account in Thunderbird to leave a copy on the server when you download email. In Firefox, you’ll want to turn off the disk cache to avoid excessive wear and tear on the thumb drive (instructions are on the site). You can install extensions on the thumb drive-based browser normally once you’re up and running. Once you have everything set up just the way you like it, you can use the software the same way you normally would — they are all feature-complete.

  • Add reference materials. You can install the free Sage Dictionary and Thesaurus by installing it on your PC and just copying the installed directory to your apps folder. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is available from Project Gutenberg. You can download a 2500-article extract from Wikipedia via BitTorrent and copy the files over (it’s around 700 MB, so only do this if you have a large thumb drive!).

    Don’t forget your own references: syllabi for classes, PDFs of research articles from J-Stor or elsewhere, lists of addresses, notes, your resume, whatever else you might need to access somewhat regularly.

  • Load your documents, music, and photos. Add whatever you’re currently working on, as well as some MP3s and photos you might like to look at from time to time. Since text documents are fairly small, a student should be able to keep an entire semester’s worth of work on their drive along with everything else. A business person should find room for months’ worth of work. The nice thing about keeping work on a thumb drive is it’s always available if you want to share your work with someone else — just plug it into their PC and launch the document (or copy it over).
  • Backup regularly! Use a program like SyncToy to backup the whole drive to a folder on your PC (or just drag and drop the files over). The downside of thumb drives is that they’re very small and get lost. Plus, they eventually wear out. Keep a recent backup on your main PC — backup daily if possible — and when you need a new drive, just copy the entire backup folder back onto the new thumb drive (no need to reinstall Portable Apps Suite).

I’ve said before that I’m a big fan of LogMeIn’s free remote access service, and that is in fact what I use most of the time. However, using LogMeIn or Windows Remote Desktop or VNC requires leaving the server PC on all the time, and an always-on Internet connection, so these options won’t work for everyone. If you share a PC with other people, use dial-up Internet service, or are otherwise unable to use a remote access solution, a thumb drive-based virtual “office” makes a lot of sense. With the price of flash memory dropping almost constantly, it’s possible to keep almost everything important to you in your pocket at all times, ready to use at just about any PC you find yourself in front of.

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