A Guide to Portable Applications


Portable applications are becoming increasingly popular, but what makes an application portable?  Why are there some applications not specifically written to be portable, yet there are versions available that are?  This article explains the ins and outs of portable apps.


A:  What are Portable Applications?
B:  What makes an application portable?
C:  Why are some applications portable while others are not?
D:  I saw a download for a portable version of a non-portable program. What is that all about?
E:  What are the advantage to using portable applications?
F:  Are there any risks in using portable software?
G:  Where can I find portable versions of non-portable software?
H:  References

What are Portable Applications?
Portable applications are programs that are fully functional without having to install them on your PC.  You simply copy the file to your selected folder or drive, and then run it.  Portable programs do not store program settings and options in the Windows Registry.

What makes an application portable?
An application is considered portable if it fits the following criteria:

  • It will execute without being formally installed onto a computer's permanent storage device, and can be stored on removable storage devices, such as USB flash drives, CDs and DVDs, which enables it to be used on multiple computers.
  • Settings are stored with, and can be carried around with, the software (i.e., they are written to the removable device).  If the registry is used to store settings, the application's configuration isn't portable, and must be set up on every PC on which it is to be used.
  • It leaves a zero (or near-zero) "footprint" on any PC it's run on after being used (i.e., all temporary files/registry settings should be removed once the program has exited, and files created by the user can be saved directly to the same removable media on which the application is stored).

Why are some applications portable while others are not?
Some programs are written in such a way that they need certain operating system files to run correctly.  They may even modify specific operating system files during the installation process.  Also, programs for modern computers can store a user's options and preferences in a number of different places.  The place where most programs store these settings is in the Windows Registry.  Programs that do this are not considered portable because they must be able to find the needed files and/or registry settings in order to run properly.

Portable applications get around this by making sure that all files and settings necessary to run, are stored locally in the same directory (USB flash drive) as the application.  They still use operating system files, but only those that are common to every computer.  This means that, in order to run properly, they don't have to look in a directory on the hard drive or find a system registry entry.

I saw a download for a portable version of a non-portable program.  What is that all about?
Some very clever programmers have found a way to modify popular programs (like Mozilla Firefox or OpenOffice) so that, instead of using or modifying some operating system files, they use local copies instead.  They also store all program settings in locally-found files, as opposed to the Windows Registry.  The end result is that these previously classified "non-portable" applications are now portable and can be used on any compatible PC.  NOTE:  Programs on this web site have a criteria called, "Portable version available" which will tell you if the software we review here has any kind of portable version.

What are the advantages to using portable applications?
With the advent of inexpensive, high-capacity storage (USB flash drives and portable hard drives), the possibilities for portable computing have grown as never before.  If you are on the move, you can now take many of your favourite software applications along with you on a flash drive or miniature hard drive and simply plug it into a USB port on just about any modern host computer. You can set up your applications the way you like them, and need not worry that the computer you intend to use will have missing files or be set up differently.

Are there any risks in using portable software?
Portable applications pose no risks in and of themselves.  However, there are always inherent risks when you use a portable application on a PC other than your own.  These include viruses, malware and spyware.  Also be aware of the system requirements for the portable application you are running.  Most modern PCs today will be fine, but not all will be compatible. 

Where can I find portable versions of non-portable software?
The following links are sites where you can download software adapted to be portable:


This article was contributed by software editor, Joe Bennett.  Registered site visitors can contact Joe by clicking here.

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