There is a huge variety of portable storage devices available on which to store data and favourite software applications if you are on the move. Most portable storage solutions come in the form of a flash memory device or a small hard disk drive (HDD). Flash memory is used in flash drives, memory cards, and solid-state drives (SSDs). Flash drives are known by several names - thumb drive, pen drive, USB stick, memory stick, etc - and the great majority connect through USB ports, although some connect through FireWire (IEEE 1394) or eSATA instead. Memory cards come mostly in Secure Digital (SD, SDHC and SDXC) and CompactFlash (CF) formats. All of these storage devices can be used effectively if you select your portable applications carefully. You can set up your applications the way you like them without worrying whether host computers have these applications installed or are configured differently.
Portable applications can also help preserve the integrity of systems and ease the maintenance of a cluster of computers. Being self-contained, portable applications don't interfere with operating system files or existing installed applications. On a network or group of computers, application files can simply be copied from one computer to another, without going through the rigmarole of installing the software from scratch on each individual system. Moving the location of applications is also made much easier.
Software bloat is a widespread problem, meaning that successive versions of a program disproportionately increase its demands - on disk space, memory or hardware requirements - for little improvement in functionality. Applying the Unix philosophy of "write programs that do one thing and do it well" can help to counteract this tendency. A lightweight application is one that is relatively simpler or faster or that has less overheads than another, while doing a similar job. An informed selection and implementation of lightweight applications can increase system responsiveness, reduce the use of resources, improve user productivity, and extend the working life of computer hardware. The learning curve for such applications is often less steep too.
29 October 2014: Added portabase-bin AUR package for PortaBase database manager.
My name is Douglas McFadzean and I used to work as an IT professional (MBCS, CITP, CEng, etc). Now computing is mostly an adjunct to other work, or for recreation. Working on Windows from many locations in highly confidential situations, and supporting networks of Linux computers for family and friends, prompted my need for portable and lightweight applications which are reliable and secure.
When considering the portability or efficiency of software be wary of applications which:
- need formally installed rather than being copied to wherever you want
- write settings to the host computer's system registry or other system files
- write your data, even temporarily, to the host computer; even the best of apps can crash leaving your trace behind
- install or require particular versions of dynamically linked libraries (Windows .dll files or Linux .so files)
- depend on particular web browsers, interfaces or frameworks (such as DirectX or .NET), or proprietary multimedia codecs
- require administrator or root user rights on the host computer
- cannot cope when a portable drive's identifier changes (on Windows, when its drive letter changes, or on Linux, when its mount point changes)
- are becoming more bloated, or burdened by advertising, with each successive version
- have restrictive licensing for usage and upgrading of the software
- lock you in to vendors' proprietary software or data file formats
The following portable applications are personally recommended, but do not constitute any kind of definitive list. Most applications are open source and free, though some outstanding commercial software is also included. Lightweight software is generally preferred, but some larger titles are also included when they are considered the best tool for the job. Please be encouraged to try out an application for yourself and make up your own mind about its worth. Some apps are more natively portable than others; some may leave behind light traces on a host computer (for example, making trivial entries in the Windows registry and/or creating temporary files or folders). These should not trouble the average user, but if privacy is critical to you, please research an application's behaviour in more detail. Good places to start are The Portable Freeware Collection and inspecting the source code of portable launchers from PortableApps.com.
Chrome is Google's high performance and secure web browser with stable, beta and dev releases for various platforms. Notably, each Chrome tab runs its own process and many browser extensions and applications are available. Also see the vast selection of command line switches (note --user-data-dir for portability). Chromium is the open source browser from which Chrome draws its source code. On Windows, download portable
releases of Chrome or Chromium Portable.
Firefox is Mozilla's long established and reliable open source web browser for various platforms which can be customized with a great variety of extension programs. On Windows, download the Portable Edition (or see the -profile command line switch).
Thunderbird from Mozilla is one of the most fully-featured and highly customizable email clients. Open source and available for various platforms, it has excellent security and anti-spam features. On Windows, download the Portable Edition (or see the -profile command line switch).
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QupZilla, SlimBoat and QtWeb are all relatively light, cross-platform web browsers, with portable versions, which are based on the WebKit layout engine and Qt framework. QupZilla and QtWeb are open source, but SlimBoat has a proprietary licence; QtWeb uses only a single executable file.
LibreOffice is the most advanced open source office suite for major platforms, comprising Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw, Base and Math applications. It may be large but it packs a correspondingly impressive array of professional features. Supports the standard Open Document format and successully handles most Microsoft Office documents too. On Windows, download LibreOffice Portable or make LibreOffice natively portable
SoftMaker Office is a multi-platform commercial office suite which is fast, lean, and reasonably priced. It offers very high compatibilty with Microsoft Office formats, though only the OpenDocument text format is supported. Can be easily configured to run portably.
UK's Kalender is a lightweight appointment and task organizer for Windows, with a surprising variety of flexible features, including holiday plugins. Uses a proprietary file format.
Lightning is an add-on for Thunderbird which provides calendar and scheduling functionality. Can work with multiple local and online calendars including Google Calendar, making it powerful though a little slow.
PDF-XChange Viewer is probably the most sophisticated portable PDF viewer for Windows (runs on Linux via Wine), despite its clumsy name! Can add comments and annotations to files; also OCR functionality. Download the free 'portable zip' version.
Sumatra PDF is a small and fast open source viewer for Windows (runs on Linux via Wine), handling PDF, DjVu, CHM and common eBook and Comic Book formats. Download the portable version (a single zipped executable) or Sumatra PDF Portable.
jPDF Tweak is "a Swiss Army knife for PDF files" which depends on a Java runtime environment. Can combine, split, rotate, reorder, watermark, encrypt, sign, and otherwise tweak PDF files. Download the 'compact version' and see README.txt regarding the processing of very large PDF files.
IrfanView is a very fast and compact graphic viewer for Windows (runs on Linux via Wine) which handles a multitude of formats and options. Extensible with many plugins. Portable if you download the zip archive at the bottom of the 'Other download sites' page, or use IrfanView Portable.
GIMP is a multi-platform image manipulation program - an open source alternative to PhotoShop. Large, but with a tremendous range of tools, extensions and plugins to manage all types of image creation and editing, photo retouching, animation, etc. On Windows, download GIMP Portable.
Freeplane is an open-source mind mapping application (forked from FreeMind), with extensive export options, which depends on a Java runtime environment. On Windows, download Portable Freeplane.
1by1 is a very small and fast audio player for Windows (runs on Linux via Wine) with many useful features. It simply plays music files within directories with no need for playlists or databases. Also supports Winamp input plugins.
mp3DirectCut is a small yet extensive mp3 audio editor and recorder for Windows (runs on Linux via Wine). It can quickly and directly edit audio or adjust its volume with no need to decompress the mp3 file first. The recorder creates mp3 files on the fly from audio input.
Audacity is open source, cross-platform software for recording and editing audio, with very comprehensive features. For example, it can record audio from a variety of sources, create multi-track recordings, and digitize recordings from analogue sound devices. On Windows, download Audacity Portable (though large).
VLC Media Player is an open source, multi-platform media player which plays just about everything - files, discs, webcams, devices and streams - without the need for external codecs. Also does media conversion and streaming. Understandably large, given its capabilities. On Windows, download VLC Media Player Portable.
Q-Dir is a multi-pane file manager for Windows with a comprehensive choice of display configurations and customizable features such as portable file associations and file actions. Remarkably light and able to improve your productivity fast. Frequently updated. Download the Portable.zip version.
FreeCommander is a highly configurable dual-pane file manager for Windows with many useful features including tree views, tabs, folder comparison and synchronization, file viewing, wiping and archive handling. Long-established with solid reliability. Download FreeCommander Portable.
Unison is a cross-platform file synchronizer which works bi-directionally between any pair of networked computers. Unlike simple mirroring utilities, Unison deals with updates on both systems and allows you to manage possible conflicts. Do browse the manual to appreciate its many options. Our portable package for Windows is more up to date than others.
SyncEXP synchronises files and folders within a single computer or within an intranet setting. Small, reliable and very fast with a lot of versatile options to compare source and target files. Copying actions can be previewed and synchronization tasks can be saved. Download SyncEXP freeware, not SyncEXPnet.
7-Zip is a light but very effective open-source archiver for Windows (though there is a limited port to Linux called p7zip). Easy to use interface belies powerful compression performance. On Windows, download 7-Zip Portable.
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PeaZip is an open-source archiver for Windows and Linux which handles a huge range of archive formats. Many features and supports theming, though has a rather quirky interface. Download the portable versions.
Notecase Pro is a powerful multi-platform outliner which can also use tags to organise information. Data, which may include images and any type of attached file, is stored in HTML or SQLite formats, with optional encryption and compression. Extensible with plugins and Lua scripts. With excellent support and a responsive developer. Commercial software, but can be used without charge in Lite mode. Optional portable installation.
TreeLine for Linux and Windows is an outliner with a database manager twist. Each node in the data tree can contain fields of different types, forming a mini-database. Supports a wide variety of import/export options. Portable setup for Windows is described here.
Personal Knowbase is a freeform note organizer for Windows which uses flexible keywords rather than fixed data trees. Well crafted, documented and supported with many uses. Commercial software and proprietary data format, although the Personal Knowbase Reader to view databases is available for free. Portable if installed with the -portable switch. Runs on Linux via Wine by following these guidelines.
SQLite Manager is a surprisingly lightweight yet fully featured add-on for various Mozilla applications (such as Firefox and Thunderbird) to manage SQLite databases. Also features easy access to the profile databases of the host application. Available as an XULRunner application too.
SQLiteSpy is a very fast and compact SQLite database manager. Excels at exploring databases but only has cell editing. Uses a single portable executable. For Windows but runs reasonably on Linux via Wine.
TrueCrypt is free, open source, on-the-fly disk encryption software for major platforms. It can create a virtual encrypted disk within a file and mount it as a real disk, encrypt an entire partition or storage device, and much more. Fully portable so ideal for encrypting flash drives, etc. Comprehensive documentation.
Image for Windows/Linux/DOS is a reliable and no-nonsense drive backup and restore utility that creates or restores an image of an entire drive or individual partition. The images can be written to local, network or optical drives. Commercial software, though several supplementary utilities are available for free. Well-documented and good support. Textual and graphical interfaces available. Run portably from a bootable CD/DVD or USB drive.
LastPass stores strongly encrypted passwords online, with all encryption and decryption occuring locally on your computer, not on the LastPass servers. This is achieved via extensions for most popular browsers and platforms (note special versions for Chrome and Firefox Portable). Can also store secure notes and form filling profiles. Although the browser extensions have offline support, there is a portable standalone program LastPass Pocket to provide independent backup capability and offline access to your LastPass vault.
Password Safe is a well-established open source password manager for Windows and Linux (though the latter lags behind). Uses the same encrypted password database format as Gorilla. For portability on Windows, download the 'bin.zip' package.
Password Gorilla is an open source and cross-platform password manager, producing encrypted password databases compatible with Password Safe 3.2. Although a Tcl/Tk application, standalone executables are available. For portability, use the --rc command line switch to specify where the configuration is stored.
ClamWin is an open source manual virus scanner (no on-access real-time scanning). Download ClamWin Portable on Windows, or the similar ClamTk on Linux.
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KeePassX is an open source and cross-platform password manager, which uses the KeePass 1.x password database format. For Windows only, KeePass Portable is available (KeePass 2.x is not portable).
PassPack is a tiny but highly secure manager of passwords and confidential information, featuring data import/export and strong resistance to brute-force password search attacks. Single portable executable for Windows.
Executor launches Windows programs, URLs, etc, individually or in groups, by way of keywords which may be auto-completed or located by substring. Multi-purpose with a vast array of useful options and functions; sets hotkeys and is skinable too. Check the extensive documentation regarding portable use, especially the $D$ drive variable. Download the 'no installer' zip file.
Qsel is a small and fast, but very flexible, launcher for Windows programs, documents and URLs. It can automatically handle movable drive letters and stores its configuration data in easily-edited text files. Simple to set up windowed menus of icons and/or text.
AkelPad is a lean but very capable open source editor for plain text. Features include multi-window modes, column text selection and plugins support (syntax highlighting, scripting, etc). Runs on Windows or on Linux via Wine. To avoid registry entries, in its options save settings to INI file and set 'Recent files' and 'Search history' to 0.
PMeter is an attractive and flexible desktop pixel ruler with various useful features, including a magnifier, color picker and coordinate display. For Windows but also runs well on Linux via Wine.
UPX is a multi-platform program which compresses a variety of executables to a fraction of their original size, with practically no performance or memory overhead. This speeds up application loading and minimizes disk reads. For example, on Windows, compress all .exe and .dll files within the current folder using a command like:
for /R %i in (*.exe *.dll) do \path\UPX --best --compress-icons=0 "%i"
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PStart is another launcher for Windows, offering some additional facilities such as searches, notes, reminders and hotkeys. Its configuration data is stored in a single XML file. Select the portable setup during installation.
μStart is possibly the smallest and most minimalistic program launcher for Windows programs, opened from a tray icon. Very easy to configure, using relative paths and text menus. Can also autostart programs. No longer being developed, but source also provided.
The Portable Freeware Collection: Comprehensive listings of free portable applications and utilities for Windows, with systematic notes on downloading, file extraction and portability limitations.
PortableApps.com: Popular and extensive collection of free portable applications for Windows, all packaged using PortableApps' own open source wrappers. Note that each package must be installed from an executable file.
TinyApps.Org: Blog which highlights all kinds of compact and portable software for various platforms. Also links to an older catalogue of tiny applications, mainly for Windows. Note the Green Award () criteria.
Freeware-Guide.com: Enormous catalogue, updated daily, of free software, some of which comprises portable applications and utilities.
Pendriveapps.com: Lists free portable applications suitable for running from flash drives.
NirSoft: Provides a wide collection of original freeware utilities for Windows developed by Nir Sofer, all portable and very compact.
Dirk Loss Windows-Tools: Old but still useful catalogue of small, portable software tools, ideal for system and network administrators.
Dariusz Stanislawek: Miniature, portable freeware for Windows, including encryption utilities and the excellent text editor Edxor. Development appears to have stalled.
Sysinternals: Powerful utilities to manage, troubleshoot and diagnose problems with Windows systems and applications. Now absorbed by Microsoft.
Pendrivelinux.com: Describes ways of booting and running Linux from flash drives.
Wine HQ: Wine is a compatibility layer capable of running Windows applications on several POSIX-compliant operating systems such as Linux, OS X and BSD.
Free Software Foundation: Promotes the development and use of truly free software.
Archives of outdated Apps To Go pages, in PDF format.