By now the number of flash drives and USB sticks that you’ve accrued in your life is probably creeping into double figures, as they lie listlessly in your drawer while you figure out whether you should turn them into dedicated movie drives or something equally creative.
So here’s an idea for you: you could fill one of your spare flash drives with portable apps which you can run directly from the disks and plug and play in whatever computer you like. Here are the best ones out there to get you started.
1. Search Everything
The Windows search tool never really quite cuts it when it comes to finding better-hidden files, and the files that it does find it tends to take its sweet time doing so. Voidtools’ Search Everything has for a long time been the go-to app for Windows users needing to dig deeper, offering super-fast indexing and searching within a simple minimal interface.
The portable version means that whatever PC you jump on, you’ll be able to find the files you need in a cinch.
Whether you’re looking to do some text editing or tweaking the config files in games and emulators, Notepad++ is the best tool for the job. The things you’d do in Notepad by default become much easier in Notepad++, thanks to proper tabbed editing and an interface that numbers each line of code or text for a clearer picture of what you’re doing.
It may not be much to look at but is highly customizable and essential for anyone who wants to quickly burrow into files and edit them under the hood.
3. Google Chrome
Portable web browsers let you surf the Web (anyone still refer to it as that?) without leaving any trace of your personal information like browsing history, cookies, login sessions, etc. on the computer. Obviously, as soon as you’re connected to the Web with the portable version of Google Chrome and use your Google accounts, your data will inevitably end up in the company’s vaults, but Chrome users are aware of that by now. The fact remains that it’s the best browser around (and certainly better than an outdated version of Internet Explorer if you’re in an Internet cafe).
Not long ago, we wrote that 7-Zip is the best file compression tool around, doing the job that much more quickly than its closest rivals. 7-Zip is a free and open-source application with a high compression ratio and powerful file manager and is worthy of keeping around in your USB portable apps collection for when you need to do some quick compressing.
GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a free and open-source image editing tool with powerful features. It’s a perfect alternative for Adobe Photoshop, considerably less resource-intensive, and contains many of the same advanced features for hardcore editing. It takes a little getting used to if you’re coming from PhotoShop, but it does much the same job, and can do it portably without Adobe’s massive installation process.
6. VLC Media Player
VLC has long since been the fastest, most robust video player out there, and being portable makes it even better. Using VLC media player as a portable, you can play a vast number of formats – such as MKV – alongside the standard MP4 that makes up most movies. It has just about all the video codecs you need built in, too, so there’s no need to download extra ones.
LastPass is a great password manager which lets you securely store and manage all your passwords. It garbles and encrypts your passwords and stores them online. (Don’t worry, it’s very safe.) Handily, the portable version integrates with portable web browsers like Firefox and Chrome.
CCleaner is a free Windows cleanup utility, which lets you clean such junk as redundant registry keys, cookies, and excess temporary files. If you want to wipe your web browsing after you’ve been in an Internet cafe, for example, then you can just pop in a USB stick with the portable version of CCleaner on it, then use it to wipe all your browsing history. (And you can let it clean up the entire computer while you’re at it!)
LibreOffice is my favorite alternative to Microsoft Office. The open-source suite contains equivalents to Word, PowerPoint and Excel and has much the same compatibility and functionality as Office. The portable version brings all the power of the entire suite to whatever PC you’re on, without having to go through the tedious process of installing it all before using it.
A good way to think of portable apps is that they’re your personal computing setup on a USB stick, ready to be used on any Windows PC you plug into. Obviously, each person has different needs, and there are hundreds of portable apps out there, so if you don’t find what you need in this list, don’t let that put you off searching for the portable apps you really need!
This article was first published in October 2014 and was updated in June 2019.