MTE Explains: Portable Apps and Their Appeal

Use a computer for long enough and you’ll want to change things or add functionality that isn’t included out-of-the-box. Developers usually change things to suit their needs, and then users install their programs. Over time this can have an impact on hard drive space, and in some cases it may also affect computer performance.

Portable applications have, as a result, become quite an important topic. Not all programs are portable, but many are, and Make Tech Easier previously covered some of the must-haves. Knowing what programs to have and what they do, however, does not explain why you should have them.

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Simply put, these are programs that you do not have to install to use. You may already have some examples on your computer, but it is also possible that these examples came as part of a larger installer (an example of which would be Microsoft Word, which comes as part of the Microsoft Office installer).

Using a portable app is as simple as downloading it, then running it from the folder in which it is stored. In some cases, you can even run it from a compressed archive, such as a .zip or a .rar.

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Installing a program conventionally means that it adds elements across the computer. They’re not always obvious, but if you go through your registry, it is virtually guaranteed changes will have been made through software installation. File associations are added or changed, codecs for file playback are added, and so on.

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Portable apps, on the other hand, do not install and so do not make these changes. They are entirely self-contained, and their changes are written only into the same location as they are stored. This leads into the real benefit of portable applications: the freedom to move around.

Store a few portable apps on a USB drive, and you’ll be able to use them on another computer with all of your settings intact. In other words, the software can be made independent of the computer and used anywhere. Some people bring portable apps to work, though depending on IT restrictions, this may not be possible at your workplace.

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Absolutely! They have their place in modern computing, but that doesn’t mean you ought to abandon traditional installers. For one thing, you may find not all programs exist in portable format. Another simple fact is that computers are to simplify things – having to remove all of the software you’ve already installed is more difficult than it’s worth.

Conversely, some programs are not available as a full-size download. One great example is Rufus, the bootable USB manager. It comes in a .zip download containing the program and can run from a memory stick without ever being installed.

Due to their self-contained nature, portable apps aren’t always as fast as their traditionally installed counterparts. There is, after all, a reason so many programs come with traditional installers. Performance does often come down to hardware, as much as anything else.

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There are numerous sites where these can be found, and in some cases, the original site will offer portable downloads too. PortableApps is probably one of the biggest, though most of the programs run through their own software. If this is no great issue to you, then PortableApps is worth your time.

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Alternatively, searching on Google for portable versions of programs will often point to a project based around maintaining a portable version.

Some differences exist across portable applications. Not all are stored and accessed the same way. As previously mentioned, the PortableApps suite and compressed archives are two methods of using programs without ever having to install them. Even so, compressed archive folders do differ, and there’s one common variation outlined below.

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If the program you are attempting to run resembles this folder layout, then it should be accessed through the ‘bin’ folder. It is highly probable the “bin” folder will contain a large number of files; simply execute the one with the name corresponding to the download. In this example, we downloaded the Midori web browser and so would run “midori.exe” from the folder for it to work.

If there should be an error message upon attempting to run the .exe, you can either try another similarly named .exe in the “bin” folder or extract the archive to another folder and run it from that location instead.

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Portable apps can be very convenient, and while not all programs are available in a portable format, the number is undoubtedly increasing. We at Make Tech Easier often find ourselves using portable versions of programs we are testing or experimenting with, while mainstays like Microsoft Office are given a full-fat install.

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Knowing the difference is useful, not the least of which is to save on installing programs you may not need beyond a few uses. The criticism that portable apps do not update is somewhat flawed: some do not, while others do.