Remember floppy disks? Once ubiquitous, they have, to all intents and purposes, been replaced by writable CDs (CDRs) and USB Flash Drives or Thumb Drives or Memory Sticks or whatever you prefer to call them. CDRs are themselves being replaced by writable DVDs, but the flash drive market is just getting into its stride. With prices as low as $25 for 256 MB it's not hard to see why. But if you’re only using your flash drive for storing files then you are missing out on a big part of its usefulness. When properly set up it can become a portable computer...
Ok, I was exaggerating on that last bit. But you can store and run a lot of useful programs on a modestly sized USB stick, making it an ideal travel companion. All modern computers have USB ports and as soon as you insert a flash drive the correct drivers are automatically loaded and you can access it through My Computer just like any other drive. You can, of course, use it for storing files, but here I want to look at alternative uses that may not have occurred to you. All of the programs mentioned can be downloaded for free so there's no excuse for not giving them a try. And they are all nice and small so you’ll still have lots of room for saving files…
But just in case you don't actually own a USB drive (impossible, surely?) let me give you a few pointers for buying one. Firstly, 256 MB is about the smallest that's worth considering these days. Smaller capacities are available but they aren't that much cheaper. And you'll be amazed how fast you can fill 256 MB. So why not buy the biggest you can afford? Seems like a good idea, but bear in mind that they don't last for ever even though they have no moving parts. I have "lost" two so far: one got fried when I plugged it into a faulty PC and the other got bent in my pocket. If you spend $100 on a 1 GB flash drive and it only lasts a month you're going to be pretty miffed.
Try and inspect the drive before you buy it. Does it feel solid in your hands? Does the cap fit snugly or will it drop off easily? How big is the casing? - if it's too big it can be difficult to fit in to USB ports which are crammed too close together. For me, small is beautiful. Does it come with a mini-CD containing a driver for Windows 98? - not all do, yet you might want to use it on an older PC. And is there an extension lead included which you can leave plugged into a USB port round the back of the computer so that you don't have to go grubbing around every time you want to plug in the USB stick? - they're very useful.
Hot tip from Jan (thanks!): if you spend a bit more you can buy a USB stick with built in FM tuner and MP3 player. Take a look - you might decide that the extra cost and weight are worthwile.
By the way, USB is on version 2.0 now. What used to be called simply USB is retrospectively called USB 1.1 (don't ask me what happened to version 1.0!) and it’s much slower. I don't think that you can still buy USB 1.1 flash drives, but the USB ports on older computers will be version 1.1, which will slow down version 2.0 drives. But at least they’ll work, so you don't have to worry about compatibility at all.
A new implementation of USB - called U3 - is just arriving on the scene. Basically this is a tightly integrated hardware/software approach which will allow you to run specially configured programs from a compatible USB drive. In other words, what I am describing to you in this document will be common in a year or two...
Ok, let's dive in and install some software. It’s a good idea to create a new folder on your flash drive to put all of these programs in – call it “Utilities” or something like that.
Personal Information Manager (PIM)
Many people use Microsoft Outlook for email, contacts, scheduling etc. Some go further and synchronise it with a palmtop computer so that they can carry their data with them. Personally I find Outlook too big and clumsy and I don't own a palmtop computer. So I looked around for an alternative system…
Essential PIM is a nice, simple alternative which - as its name suggests - does just the essentials: Contact, Schedule, To-Do and Notes. It can import data from Outlook or Outlook Express to get you started, or you can enter data manually. Whilst you can install the program on your desktop PC, there's a portable version available which is designed to run straight from a USB drive. So instead of trying to synchronise two versions of your data, just keep the program and data on your flash drive at all times and run it from there.
Download the file EssentialPIMPort1.zip (careful - there are lots of files on this page) from http://www.essentialpim.com/?r=download and unzip it into a new folder called EssentialPIM on your flash drive. Open the folder and then double click on the Essential PIM icon to start the program. The first time it runs it opens a special demonstration file which gives you an idea of the program's capabilities. It's a good idea to play around with this data for a while to familiarise yourself with the program.
When you are ready to start using the program for real click File, New, and all the test data will disappear. Import your contacts, add to-Dos etc and then click File, Save. In the Save dialogue box that opens, give the data file a sensible name (yours?) and save it to the Database folder in the Essential PIM folder on your flash drive. The next time you open the program it will use your own data instead of the demonstration file.
Ok, if you are already a dedicated Outlook or Lotus Notes user you probably won't want to change to a "puny" little program like Potable PIM. But if - like me - you have more modest demands, you might find it an excellent alternative. It'll certainly help you stay organised and allow you to carry your essential data with you on the road. Highly recommended.
Although most people get by using web-based email such as Hotmail or Yahoo when they're travelling, wouldn’t it be nice to use your normal POP–based email account instead? No more painfully slow page refreshes or lost emails like you get when using Hotmail on a slow internet connection, and you can just carry on using your usual email address and have all you mails in the same place when you get back home. All you need to do is run a portable email client such as Popcorn from your USB drive.
Popcorn does not work in quite the same way as a typical mail program. In reality you're reading mail directly from your POP3 server, without downloading it to a local mailbox on your PC (although you can save mail messages to your USB drive if you want to). You can use it to read email headers only, which makes it ideally suited for checking mail over a slow internet connection and deleting the junk. Since all your account information is saved with the program you can easily move between locations. And if you are carrying a notebook PC with you then you can write all you mails in Popcorn, nip to the internet cafe, plug in your USB stick and click send. Convinced?
Start by downloading version 1.48 of the program from http://www.woundedmoon.org/win32_freeware.html. This is an older version of the program and the last free version which allows you to use multiple accounts - very useful for some people. If you only ever use one email account then you can download the last available free version from http://www.freedownloadscenter.com/Email_Tools/Mail_Clients/Popcorn.html
Create a new folder called Popcorn on your USB drive and extract the installation files in the into it; double click on the Popcorn icon to start the program. You will be asked if you want to create a new profile, so if you are ready you should go ahead. Click New and then give the profile a name such as " Yahoo". You will need to enter a few essential bit of information: your email address, your POP server, your user name and your SMTP server, so make sure you have all this information to hand before you start! You can get it all from your existing email program, probably under the heading "accounts". For example:
Although there's a place to enter your password and even the option to save it, I suggest you leave this blank and enter the password each time you run the program.
Once you've entered the information in the appropriate places, make sure you are connected to the internet and then try it out. Click the red tray icon to get all headers from the server. If everything is working then any mails on the server will be listed in the top part of the program window. Click on any one of them and the contents of the mail will be downloaded to memory and displayed in the bottom area. If you want to save the mail to your USB drive then click File, Save and save it as you would any other file. To write a mail just click on the yellow envelope icon, enter the email address and then compose your message as normal.
Not all ISPs allow you to use their smtp server unless you are actually connected to the internet via their lines. In other words, you might not be able to send mail when you are sitting in an internet café rather than at home. If yours doesn’t work then you can use the Yahoo smtp server if you have a Yahoo account:
- in the SMTP Server section enter smtp.mail.yahoo.com
- tick “my server requires authentication” and click Settings
- enter your Yahoo user name and password and click OK
Give it a try – you might never go back to Hotmail.
For some people – especially young people like me(!) – instant messaging (IM) is more important than Email. But when I’m on the road I’m reluctant to put my account details into IM clients in an internet café because of privacy fears – lots of computers are set up to remember passwords by default and sometimes you can’t delete the account when you’ve finished. Luckily there is a nice IM client that can run straight from a USB stick – Portable GAIM. It’s fairly basic but has the advantage that it can connect to MSN, Yahoo, ICQ and AOL accounts all at the same time, as well as keeping all your account details within the program – cool.
Download the installation file from http://portableapps.com/apps/internet/chat/portable_gaim and extract it to a folder called Portable GAIM on your USB drive. Double click on the Gaim icon to run it. On first run you will need to enter the log-in name and password for each service you wish to use. You do this from Tools, Accounts. If you want, you can tell the program to remember your password and log you in automatically, but I’m not keen on doing this in case I lose my stick!
That’s about all there is to it. Using Portable Gaim is pretty much like using any other IM client, but it doesn’t have all the advanced features such as video conferencing which the “real” clients have. Still, it doesn’t have their complexity either, and it doesn’t shove annoying weather forecasts and stock quotes in your face, so for me the simplicity is a bonus.
I know that most programs have got spell checkers built in these days, but if they are web-based (such as Hotmail) they can be pretty slow and they definitely won’t know all the words in your custom dictionary; hence they’ll keep flagging “dunno” as a spelling mistake! And no IM client has got a spell checker as far as I know.
You can get round these problems by using a USB-based spell checker called tinySpell which checks your spelling as you type. If you make a mistake it beeps at you and you can then choose the correct word using the keys. And you can train it to remember the unique words you use and take those customisations with you.
Download the program from http://www.snapfiles.com/download/dltinyspell.html; extract the files to your hard drive and then double click setup.exe to install it. The program is really designed to run from your hard drive but works equally well on a USB drive, so make sure you install it to your stick. The install will add a few entries to your start menu, but you can delete these.
Once you’ve finished, open the tinySpell program folder on your USB stick and double click the tinySpell icon to start the program. The only thing you’ll notice is a tinySpell icon in the system tray; right click on the icon to set configuration options etc.
Using the program is simplicity itself. Just type. If you hear a small beeping noise (which indicates a word the program doesn’t recognise) then press the Ctrl and ; (semicolon) keys at the same time. A small window will pop up offering alternative spellings or the option to ignore or add to the custom dictionary. Make your choice and continue typing.
Carrying private information around with you and using other people’s computers is potentially less secure than computing at home. Next up are four utilities to help keep you safe on the road.
Not everyone has an up-to-date virus scanner installed on their PC, so when you are practicing portable computing you run the risk of catching something nasty from a computer outside your control. I've been looking around for a while for a virus scanner which would run off a USB drive and recently stumbled upon Portable WinClam. Never heard of it? Neither had I, but it seems to do the job. Download it to from http://tinyurl.com/q7gts and install it directly to your USB drive. Accept the prompt to download the latest virus database and you're all set.
The next time you are working on an unprotected computer you can scan any files you download to make sure they are clean. Simply choose the drive, folder or files you wish to scan and click the Scan button. Note that Portable WinClam doesn't run in the background like a "normal" virus scanner installed on the PC does - you have to specifically tell it what to scan. Still, for most purposes this is more than adequate. Just remember to update the virus signatures before you use it
Did you know that when you delete a document it’s not really deleted at all? Instead the operating system just labels the file as deleted and marks the bit of the hard drive that it occupies as available again. Until another document gets written to that area of the drive, your old file is still there and easily recoverable. Ultrashredder is a small utility which overwrites selected files with random characters (up to 20 times), which makes them effectively unrecoverable. There’s not much more to say about it really; it’s small, simple and gets the job done.
Download the installation file from http://www.xtort.net/xtort/ultra.php and unzip it into a new folder on your USB drive. Double click the Ultrashredder icon to start the program and set the number of passes you want – use 20 for maximum security. Open a folder containing files you want to delete and drag the files onto the Ultrashredder window. Click the Shred button. You’ll get one chance to back out and then that’s it, gone for ever.
How about keeping your files safe from prying eyes in the first place? While many USB drives come with free encryption software, all of them seem to require you to install the software on your PC, as well as on the stick. So if you want to read your encrypted files on a different PC you have to install the software on that too. Duh! Remora USB Disk Guard is a free utility which installs and runs directly off a USB drive and which can encrypt either files or complete folders.
Download it from http://www.soft32.com/download_121611.html and double click the file to begin the installation. Select your flash drive (e.g. F: drive) as the destination and ignore any warning about the directory already existing. Once complete you will see a folder called Remora USB Disk Guard and a red icon labelled usbdiskguard – double click on the latter icon to start the program. Nothing much seems to happen, but a small red padlock icon appears in the system tray; right click on it and choose restore. A small window appears asking you to choose a password to gain access to the program and then another password to actually encrypt files. Input some good passwords that you can remember and then you are all set.
Anytime you want to encrypt or decrypt files or folders, start the program and then right click the icon in the system tray and choose Restore. Type in your access password (the first one you entered) and a small USB drive-shaped window appears. The first two icons are for encrypting/decrypting files, the second two for folders, and the last one for configuration. Using the program is quite straightforward; for example, click the Encrypt selected files button, select one or more files (hold down the Ctrl button while you click) in the dialogue box, then click the Open button. The files are instantly encrypted (using the second password you entered earlier) and replace the original files; test.txt becomes test.txt.~s for example. To read the files again you must first decrypt them: click the Decrypt selected files button, select the encrypted file(s) in the dialogue box and then click Open. This time you will be asked for the password, so enter the second password; the files are decrypted and replace the encrypted ones. Encrypting and decrypting complete folders works in the same way.
Ok, it sounds a bit complicated but it’s very easy in practice. Just remember your two passwords as there’s no way of reading encrypted files if you should forget them…
Talking of passwords, how many do you have? And are they good, long ones which are impossible to guess or crack? If they are then there’s a good chance that you have them written down somewhere since good passwords are difficult to remember! The easiest way out of this dilemma is to use a good password manager such as Keepass in which you can enter all your user names and passwords and secure them with a single passphrase.
Download the program from http://prdownloads.sourceforge.net/keepass/KeePass-1.04.zip?download
and unzip it into a folder called Keepass on your USB drive. Make sure you download the .zip version for the above address; there is a .exe version which adds items to your Windows Start menu, but since we’re installing on a flash drive we don’t want to do that.
Start the program by double clicking on the Keepass icon. The program window appears – empty. Click on File, New Database, and then enter a master passphrase. This should be long and difficult to guess; but don’t forget it or all your other passwords will be inaccessible. Next, click on a category on the left (Email, Home banking etc) and then right click in the empty space on the right and select Add Entry. Fill in your account details and then click OK. Add your other accounts in the same way. When you’ve finished, click File, Save Database, and save the database in the Keepass folder on your USB stick. Close the program.
To use a password, start the program and enter your passphrase. Select a category on the left and all the accounts in that category will show on the right. If you entered the URL (web address) for an account then you can double click on its entry to open your browser at the appropriate web site. Make sure you can see the Keepass window and then drag your user name from Keepass into the user name field on the web page. Do the same for your password. Simple and effective.
If your Keepass database gets corrupted for any reason (mine hasn’t, but you never know) then you’re going to lose all your passwords. Not good. So to forestall this disaster, use the Export function in Keepass (File, Export to) and save a copy of the information as a text document in a secure location – you might want to encrypt it!
Well, I think that’s enough to be going on with. I’d just like to mention that there are portable versions of quite a few mainstream programs such as the Firefox browser, Thunderbird email client and the Open Office office suite. They’re all excellent programs and if you’re wedded to them on the desktop then you might want them on your USB drive as well. Download them – and others - from http://portableapps.com.
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