What Is a “Portable” App, and Why Does It Matter?

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Portable applications offer definite advantages over their traditional counterparts. They are lightweight and allow you to switch from one computer to another while carrying your applications and settings. Here's why they are different and why sometimes, but not always, a good choice.

How regular applications are installed

RELATED: What is the ProgramData folder in Windows?

To understand what makes a portable application, it may be helpful to start by taking a look at how traditional applications are installed in Windows. When you install an application in Windows, the installation files are in several different locations. Most of the application's files are usually copied to a single folder somewhere in the C: Program Files folder. Files containing settings applying to all users of the application can be created in the directory. ProgramData folder.

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The settings specific to different user accounts on the PC are stored in files created in the hidden folder "AppData" inside each account user folder. Most applications create entries in the Windows registry that can also contain various configuration settings. And many applications take advantage of shared code libraries installed with elements such as .NET Framework and Visual C ++ Redistributables.

This separation of functions has distinct advantages. Several applications can share information contained in shared registry entries or code libraries, thus avoiding unnecessary duplication. Storing user-specific settings at one location and system settings at another means applications can better leverage many Windows features designed for a multi-user system. For starters, each user can rely on loading his own settings when starting the application simply because he is logged in with his own Windows account. Features such as file and share permissions are built on this structure. In addition, saving all program settings in designated areas makes the backup of your system more reliable.

So, what is a portable application and why would I use one?

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A portable application is simply an application that does not use an installer. All files needed to run the application reside in a single folder, which you can place anywhere on the system. If you move the folder, the application will always work the same way. Instead of installing a portable application, you usually download it as a ZIP file, extract that ZIP file to a folder and run the executable file of the application. If the application allows you to save settings, these are saved in files located in the same folder.

The most important advantage of using portable applications is obvious: they are portable. Paste them on a USB drive, for example, and you can transport them from one computer to the other. They will leave no trace on the PCs on which you run them. Everything, including the settings you have saved, is saved directly to the folder of the portable application on the USB drive. This is very similar to the way things worked in the days of MS-DOS and Windows 3.1.

Portable applications can be useful even if you do not switch from one computer to another. On the one hand, they leave a smaller footprint on your PC. They tend to be lighter than most installable applications simply because they do not have to be installed. You can sync them (with their settings) to your other PCs using something like Dropbox. Or, you can simply use an application once without having to worry about leaving it badly on your system.

Of course, there will always be applications that you need to install. Either they are too big – or too sophisticated – to function as a portable application, or they have to take advantage of the multi-user or Windows security features. But many applications exist in both versions, which means that you can choose between an installation program and a ZIP file when you download it.

RELATED: Understand the user account control in Windows 7

Of course, the use of portable applications has some disadvantages. Windows & # 39; User Account Controls (UAC) Do not work for both portable and installed applications, which means they are more subject to non-administrative processes. You might consider this one both an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that if you need a portable application, you can probably run it even if you are on a network, for example at work, where you can not install a normal application. The downside is that the IT department and the security protocols they have created might be less effective.

Another disadvantage of portable applications is that they are generally not designed for multiple users. This is probably not a problem because you are probably creating a portable player that you can carry only for yourself. However, if multiple users must use an application, they must all use the same settings or you must have multiple copies of the application folder on your portable drive.

RELATED: Do you really need to safely remove USB sticks?

Finally, if you are running portable applications from a USB drive, you must take extra precautions. eject the player properly instead of just removing it. Otherwise, you can corrupt the applications or make sure the settings are not saved correctly. You may even experience this problem on PCs that do not handle USB sticks properly when they enter sleep or hibernation. This is less of a problem on modern PCs than in the past, but there are still PCs that do not handle sleep well.

That said, the benefits of portable applications generally outweigh the disadvantages, especially if you use a lot of different PCs.

What types of portable applications are available?

RELATED: The best free portable apps for your Flash Drive Toolbox

If you think that portable applications are mainly system utilities, the technical support that you carry, you may be surprised to discover that there are all kinds of portable applications. You can read about a lot of them in our guide to the best free portable apps for your flash drive toolbox. You will find system utilities, but also applications that meet almost all your needs: productivity, communications, visualization of images and images, and much more.

In addition to all these stand-alone applications, you can also download suites of applications that you can install on a USB drive. These suites usually provide you with a launcher-style menu to access applications, and some also coordinate the application settings for you. Many of these suites offer hundreds of free portable applications, essentially allowing you to create a complete portable workspace. PortableApps, CodySafe, and LiberKey are among the most popular suites.

Take the time to look at the different portable suites if that is what interests you. In some cases, portable applications are only available through a software suite like this one. For example, PortableApps.com provides access to several hundred portable applications that you can download and install on your PortableApps drive. Many of these applications can only be installed on the PortableApps suite and do not have a portable version that you can use without following. PortableApps offers the advantage of being able to choose exactly the applications you want to include. All portable applications are included in the main download in other suites, so it's an all-or-nothing perspective. But each suite can provide specific tools that you can not find for other suites, so review the available applications before making your decision.

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You will also find that when we recommend third-party utilities in many of our articles, we often choose to offer portable applications to installable applications.

Can I make regular installable applications portable?

RELATED: Transform installed applications only into portable applications

It is often possible to make a regular application portable, but it can be a bit difficult and requires a little work. If the application is very simple (say a utility that obviously does not need to be an installable application), it is sometimes possible to extract these files from the installer and turn them into a portable application using these instructions. It's not a method that works, but it may be worth trying.

RELATED: Use Portable VirtualBox to take virtual machines everywhere with you

Another option to make an application installable portable is to virtualize it. This usually requires a little more configuration, but you need to create a portable virtual machine that can run the necessary operating system and the application (or applications) you need and then load this virtual machine on the portable medium of your choice. VirtualBox Portable is the most common tool for this, and we have an excellent guide to using it take virtual machines with you everywhere. VirtualBox itself is a free Oracle virtual machine offering that can be applied to just about any desktop operating system. Portable VirtualBox is a wrapper for VirtualBox that turns it into a portable application that you can install on a USB stick or external hard drive.

RELATED: How to create portable versions of applications under Windows 8.1 with the help of Cameyo

Cameyo is another interesting virtualization option. Instead of running a complete virtual machine from your portable drive, you create a virtual machine on your desktop system. You then use Cameyo to save the installation of an application on this virtual machine. Once completed, Cameyo creates a single executable file that you can drag to your portable player and run anywhere you want. Cameyo is also free for individuals and small businesses. If you are curious, we also have a guide on use Cameyo to create portable applications.


Whichever method is chosen, it is worth exploring what portable applications can offer. Nothing like the feeling of freedom and flexibility you get knowing that with the USB key hanging on your keychain, you can perform all the critical aspects of your computing life.

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