Windows is great. The way Windows installs applications, however, is an out-of-date mess, adding local dependencies and unnecessary cruft to your system. In this day and age, there's no reason to stick with Windows' antediluvian default. What's the alternative? Using portable apps, you can install an app once, have all of the necessary files in one place, and even sync its settings across different machines with Dropbox. Handy, right? Here's how it works, and why you should do it.
Title image remixed from vectomart.
What Exactly Are Portable Apps?
Often, when you go to download a new program, you have a choice between two versions: an installer, or a portable version. The installer (often an EXE or MSI file) will add the program to your system, usually under C:\Program Files, then spread a few other system files out across your hard drive, including configuration files, DLL files and registry edits (for more on what those mean, check out our de-mystificaion of Windows' dark corners). Portable apps, on the other hand, usually come as an EXE or a ZIP file, and are completely self-contained. When you install them, you pick one folder, in which you'll find that program and all of the files necessary to run it. It doesn't put files anywhere else on your system.
You can often find portable apps on the same download page as their installer counterparts, though sometimes you may have to look through a portable apps database like the Portable Freeware collection to find them. Some great examples of popular apps available as portables include:
- Firefox and Chrome
- VLC Media Player
- Pidgin Instant Messenger
- Thunderbird Email Client
- Foobar2000 music player
- And lots, lots more
The idea is that you can run these portable apps from a flash drive, thus taking your favourite browser or password program with you without having to install it on a computer that isn't yours. It's a great little invention for those of us on the go... but it has a lot of other uses, too.
Why You Should Use Portable Apps All the Time
Even though they're called "portable" apps, their self-contained nature has a lot of advantages on any computer, even your home machine. Here are a few reasons you may want to ditch installations and go portable with as many apps as you can.
No Installation "Cruft"
Traditional installers leave files and tweaks all over your system when you install a program. Usually this is done for speed purposes, but it comes with its own share of problems. Windows' built-in uninstaller is slow and annoying, and some uninstallers are just poorly coded and leave files on your system (thus necessitating separate uninstallers like Revo). Not only that, but a given program's settings can reside in multiple different places on your system, from its folder in Program Files to your Documents folder (talk about clutter).
Any of this making your head spin as much as it does mine? Portable apps do away with all of this. All you do to install a portable app is extract it to the destination of your choice. The application, its preferences and every file it needs is stored right in that folder. If you want to uninstall it, you just delete the folder — that's it. No fuss. Need to edit a config file or replace a specific file? You know exactly where to find it.
Use The Same Settings On Multiple Computers
Since the apps are completely self-contained, you can put them in your Dropbox folder (or something similar) and run the same copy of an app on multiple machines — with all of your settings completely intact. If you change a setting on one computer, you'll see it reflected on all your other computers, which is awesome. In addition, you'll only have to update each program once; you won't have to update it on each machine (more on how updates work later).
Easily Migrate Your Programs to a New Machine
Lastly, and in the same vein as the Dropbox tip, this setup is great for migrating to a new machine. Even if you do a completely fresh installation of Windows, you can just copy all of your apps over, and they'll have all the same settings as they did before. Essentially, you'll never have to "set up" a new installation of that app ever again — even on a fresh copy of Windows.
How To Integrate Portable Apps Into Your Workflow
Now, you may notice that after installing a portable app (either to your Dropbox or any other location you choose on your hard drive), it doesn't "integrate" with your system as well as a normally installed app does. That's because it's meant to run separately, without interfering with your system. However, there are a few tweaks you can make to get it working with your desktop as seamlessly as any other app.
Add Them to Your Start Menu
The first thing you'll probably notice is that the apps don't show up in your Start menu. You can add them to your Start menu manually, though — just find your portable app, right click on it, and choose "Create Shortcut". Then, open up Windows Explorer, type
Start Menu into the address bar and hit Enter. From there, you can head to the Programs folder, and copy your app's shortcut anywhere you want. It'll show up in your Start menu instantly.
This can get pretty tedious though, since you have to do it for every app you install. Instead, just make sure your portable apps folder is in Windows search's index (if it isn't there already). That way, you can just open up the Start menu, start typing the name of the program, and it'll show up. Or, alternatively, you can...
Add Them to Your App Launcher
If you use an app launcher like Launchy, it's really easy to add your portable apps folder to the program's index, so you can launch it with just a few keystrokes. The process is a tad different for every launcher, but we'll go through the steps for Launchy here to give you an idea of what it entails.
Open up Launchy, right-click on its window, and choose Options. From there, head to the catalogue tab and click the plus sign at the bottom of the window. Add the folder in which you install your portable apps, and in the right-hand pane where it says "File Types", click the plus sign and add
*.exe to the list. Be sure to check the "Include Executables" box, too, or it won't recognise them. After hitting Rescan catalogue and exiting the Options window, you should find that searching for your app in Launchy brings it up just like it would a normally installed program.
Setting Up File Associations
Lastly, portable apps won't automatically set themselves to open certain types of files (this can be seen as a plus, since most programs are so eager to hijack your file type associations when you don't want them to). Adding file associations is easy, though. We'll use SumatraPDF as an example. Say you already have another program set to open PDF files, and you want to make your portable version of Sumatra the default. Just right-click on a PDF file, go to Open With and pick "Choose Default Program". SumatraPDF won't appear in the list, but if you click Browse and navigate to your portable Sumatra EXE, you can add it to the list. Make sure the "Always use the selected program" box is checked, and click OK. From now on, your computer will always use Sumatra to open PDF files. You can repeat this process for other file types to associate them with portable apps as well.
It's also worth noting that certain programs have context menu integration that won't show up if you install the portable version. However, if you look around, there are usually ways to add it — here are some instructions for adding 7zip's context menu option, for example. Again, I see this as an advantage, because it means I don't have to deal with context menu options I don't want — I get to add the ones I use and not the ones I don't.
The Disadvantages of This System
Obviously, this system isn't without a few disadvantages — otherwise everyone would be doing it! But, the disadvantages are quite minor, and usually pretty easy to get around.
The two main reasons apps install themselves the way they do is for desktop integration and speed. We've already solved the desktop integration problem, but there isn't really a way out of the speed problem. You may find that these portable apps are a little slower to start up, depending on the overall power of your machine. I personally don't notice a huge difference, but that could very well be because of my super fast solid state drive — it makes apps launch fast enough that even portable apps are near-instantaneous.
Portable apps won't update themselves automatically, nor will they usually notify you of when new updates are available. So, you have to be a bit more diligent in keeping up with the developers — I've personally found that Twitter is a great way to do this. Most portable apps will update fairly soon after the regular version does, so just re-download the portable version and install it over your current version to update it.
Lastly, not all programs are available in portable flavours. Many of our favourite media players (like Winamp and MediaMonkey) are not portable, and neither are most games. Sometimes, you can make an app portable with something like Cameyo, but your mileage can vary from app to app, so we won't go into too much detail on it here. Just know that not every app can be portable, but I've found a very large portion of my apps were available in portable flavours, just begging to be put into my Dropbox. So search around portablefreeware.com and Google for your favourite programs, and you should find enough to keep you pretty happy.
Got any of your own favourite portable apps, or tricks for using them on your regular day-to-day system? Share them with us in the comments.