What Is A ''Portable'' App and Why Does It Matter

Portable applications offer some definite advantages over their traditional counterparts. They’re lightweight and they allow you to move between computers while taking your applications and settings with you. Here’s why they’re different and why they’re sometimes but not always a good choice.

A portable app is a computer program that you can carry around with you on a portable device or cloud drive and use on any Windows computer. When your USB flash drive, portable hard drive, iPod or other portable device is plugged in or your cloud drive is synced, you have access to your software and personal data just as you would on your own PC. And when you unplug the device, none of your personal data is left behind.

To understand what makes an app portable, it might be helpful first to take a quick look at how traditional apps get installed in Windows. When you install an app in Windows, the installation files go to several different locations. The bulk of the app’s files are usually copied to a single folder somewhere in the C:\Program Files folder. Files that contain settings applying to all users of the app may get created in the ProgramData folder.

Settings that are particular to different user accounts on the PC are stored in files created in the hidden “AppData” folder inside each individual accounts user folder. Most apps create entries in the Windows Registry that may also hold various configuration settings. And many apps take advantage of shared code libraries that get installed with things like the .NET framework and Visual C++ Redistributables.

There are distinct advantages to this separation of functions. Multiple apps can share information contained in Registry entries or shared code libraries, preventing unnecessary duplication. Storing user-specific settings in one place and system-wide settings in another means that apps can take better advantage of lots of different Windows features designed for a multi-user system. For starters, each user can rely on their own settings being loaded when they start the app just because they are signed in with their own Windows account. Features like file and share permissions are built on this structure. And, having all program settings saved to designated areas makes backing up your system more reliable.

So, What’s a Portable App and Why Would I Use One?

A portable app is simply one that doesn’t use an installer. All the files required to run the app reside in a single folder, which you can put anywhere on the system. If you move the folder, the app will still work the same. Instead of installing a portable app, you typically download it as a ZIP file, extract that ZIP to a folder, and run the executable file for the app. If the app allows you to save settings, those settings are saved in files right inside the same folder.

Portable apps can be nice even if you aren’t moving between computers, though. For one thing, they leave a smaller footprint on your PC. They tend to be lighter weight than most installable apps just by virtue of not having to be installed. You can sync them (along with their settings) to your other PCs using something like Dropbox. Or, you can just use an app once without having to worry about it leaving cruft on your system.

Sure, there will always be apps that you need to install. Either they’re just too big or sophisticated to run as a portable app, or they really need to take advantage of Windows’ multi-user or security capabilities. But many apps come in both flavors, which means you can choose between an installer and a ZIP when you download it.

Of course there is a  downside when it is comes to portable apps which is that they’re not typically built with multiple users in mind. This is likely not a big deal since you’re probably creating a portable drive that you can carry around just for yourself. But if multiple users do need to use an app, they’ll either all have to use the same settings or you’ll have to have several copies of the app folder on your portable drive.

Also, if you’re running portable apps from a USB drive, you’ll want to take extra care to eject the drive properly instead of just pulling it out. Otherwise, you can corrupt the apps or cause settings to not be saved properly. You can even run into this problem on PCs that don’t handle USB drives well when they enter sleep or hibernation. It’s less of a problem on modern PCs than it was in the past, but there are still PCs today that don’t handle sleep well.That said, the advantages of portable apps usually outweigh the disadvantages particularly if you move around to different PCs a lot.

Can I Make Regular Installable Apps Portable?

It is often possible to make a regular app portable, but it can be a bit finicky and usually takes a bit of work. If the app is a very simple one—say a utility that obviously doesn’t need to be an installable app—it is sometimes possible to extract those files from the installer and transform them into a portable app using these instructions. This is by no means a method that’s guaranteed to work, but it may be worth trying.

No matter what method you choose, it’s worth exploring what portable apps have to offer. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of freedom and flexibility you get from knowing that with the USB drive hanging from your keychain, you can run all the important aspects of your computing life.


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