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October 3, 2012

How To Work From A USB Drive

Do you find yourself having to work on computers that aren’t yours throughout the course of your workday? If this is a common situation for you, then you know the problems that go with it: from software to settings to various irritations, there are plenty of hurdles that are likely to dampen your efficiency.

Most Common Problems

1. The software titles you use aren’t installed. We all grow fond of particular titles in carrying out our daily tasks. Not having access to it and needing to use a different program can really throw us off balance. While I can write on any word processor, for instance, things just go much smoother when there’s a copy of OneNote on board. Same with browsing on Chrome, which works way better when I have my favorite extensions installed.
2. The settings are tailored to the machine’s owner. Even if your preferred software is installed, the owner more than likely has customized it to serve his work processes, throwing in a slight learning curve before you can be comfortable with the software. And don’t even think about changing the settings — that’s the quickest way to make enemies of other computer users. Basically, you’ll have to learn to work around the user’s settings, which can be a hassle if you’re used to working with a personalized system, as well.
3. They have software running things from the background. One of my pet peeves about using other people’s computers is just the amount of crap people allow to run on the background. From multiple antivirus software┬áto update checkers to programs that launch themselves on startup while hiding in the tray, a lot of computers just aren’t set up for efficient work. Not only are these resource drains annoying, they can end up interfering with your work, too, especially if you have no idea what the heck they’re supposed to do.

Learning Curve

Seriously, using other people’s computer requires some amount of learning curve that can really slow down your productivity. The good news is, there are ways to streamline this so that you’re not dealing with the same problems every single time you fire up a different machine.

Using Web Apps

One of the growing ways to handle this problem is to use web apps rather than client-based software. With web apps, all you need is a browser to use the exact same software with the exact same settings every time. Problem is, most web apps just aren’t as well-equipped as regular client-based programs. More significantly, you’ll be stuck doing nothing when internet isn’t available in the area.

Running From A USB Drive

One of the best solutions for this problem is to set up your own work environment in a USB drive. There are, generally, two ways to go about this:

1. Run a portable OS from the drive. There are many Linux flavors that can be launched from a USB drive (from small ones like Puppy Linux to big ones like Ubuntu), as well as some hacked versions of Windows (over the last week alone, I’ve seen people run XP, Win 7 and Win 8 off a thumb drive). Using these, all you need to do is set the computer to boot from the USB drive and you’re in your own environment, with all your software and settings intact.
2. Install portable versions of apps on a flash drive. In this version, you use the host machine’s OS, but run your own applications from USB. Not all software titles offer portable versions, but a lot do, so there’s a good chance you’ll have everything you need covered if you know how to do your homework. If you use plenty of open source programs in your own computer, there’s a good chance they’re offered in portable form, so make sure to check for that.

Portable Oses

1. Windows. There are dozens of tutorials on YouTube that show users exactly how to install Windows to run from a USB drive. Yes, many of them will work. Do note, a lot of the tools you will use for this (including the OS itself) are likely not sanctioned by the original publisher (Microsoft), so consider that if you’re concerned about piracy and intellectual property rights.
2. Linux. While this required some work just a short while ago, installing Linux on a USB drive is now as easy as it can be. Free software like LinuxLiveUSB can literally do all the work for you, installing any of the several hundred Linux distros it’s compatible with in just a few clicks.

Portable Applications

The bad news: most of the big software publishers don’t offer their software in portable form. Personally, I’d be persuaded to buy a new version of Photoshop if it had the option to install in a flash drive, instead of using the same four year old copy I have. But, alas, it isn’t, so I stick with the old.

If you use a particular software that you’d like in portable form, you should contact customer support to see if one is available. The worst that can happen is they’ll say no, at which point, you can probably turn to the shadier communities for a portable copy (note: not legit, so use at your own risk).

The good news: Despite that, there are still plenty of portable applications out there covering almost every major software category. Sure, you may not be able to get a portable copy of Microsoft Excel but Open Office, LibreOffice and Star Office all provide portable versions of their office suites. Need portable 3D modeling? Try Anim8or or Blender. Need a portable Photoshop substitute? Try Gimp or Inkscape. Browsing the web? Chrome, Firefox and IE are all available for the purpose. Remote desktop? Try RealVNC or TeamViewer. Telnet client? Get WinSCP or PortaPutty.

While you probably won’t get 100% of the software you want in portable form, you can, at least, stabilize your work process by finding a portable alternative and learning to work with it. That way, you get access to a familiar set of tools at the exact settings you like regardless of any computer you end up working in.


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