I don't know what I'd do without my USB flash drives. Over the years they have evolved from being a mere storage device where I dumped files that I wanted to take with me when I was on the move into a platform in their own right. With the aid of a few software applications and utilities (some free, some not), you can do the same to your USB flash drive.
The first thing that you need is a USB flash drive that has decent capacity. The more capacity you have the better, really. You can probably get away with using a 512MB drive but I think that 1GB is better, while 2GB is ideal. This allows you to have plenty of storage space for applications while leaving you with enough space for files and backups. My current flash drive of choice is a 2GB Kingston Data Traveler Elite Privacy Edition. I like this drive because everything I load onto it is password protected and encrypted using 128-bit hardware-based AES encryption.
OK, so you have your flash drive, what applications can you load onto it? There are plenty to choose from!
My main email client is Microsoft Outlook, so there's no chance of installing that onto a USB flash drive and making it portable. However, I have found a great software utility called DmailerSync Plus which allows me to clone my Outlook data (emails, contacts, tasks and so on) and access them from the USB drive. On top of that, DmailerSync Plus also allows me to create a copy of my Internet Explorer and Firefox favorites and also any files that I select and take these with me too. Everything I need to access my data and even send and receive email is stored on the USB drive.
For added piece of mind, everything is password protected and encrypted using 128-bit AES.
The great thing about DmailerSync Plus is that it's not just confined to USB flash drives - you can install it onto memory cards, iPods, PDAs and even the Sony PSP - so there's no excuse not to have your Outlook data with you all the time!
DmailerSync Plus costs $39.95.
When it comes to having a portable browser, you have two to choose from. Portable Firefox or OperaUSB. These are both tweaked versions of the desktop browser, having been modified so that they don't store files or modify anything on the host PC. Both of these are free to download and use.
Which you choose is a matter of personal preference, but there's nothing (other than storage space limitations) stopping you from having both installed on your USB drive.
I don't know about you, but I handle a lot of PDF files. On my main PC and my notebook I have the industry standard Adobe Reader installed, but this is a big, cumbersome and clumsy program that demands a lot of system requirements. It also can't be installed on a USB flash drive if you want to have a portable PDF reader.
This is where the Foxit Reader comes in. Foxit Reader is a free PDF reader that's small, fast and can be stored on a USB flash drive so that you always have access to a PDF reader.
When it comes to keeping in touch with your chat/IM buddies, there are two popular options for people on the move. You have Trillian Anywhere, which involves tweaking an existing Trillian installation so that it will run off a USB flash drive, or Miranda IM, a small but fully-featured multi-protocol instant messaging client.
Of the two, Trillian has the most features but Miranda IM is quicker and easier to install onto a USB flash drive (that's because it doesn't need installing - you just copy the executable file over to the USB drive and you're ready to go).
As I said earlier, my Kingston Data Traveler Elite Privacy Edition automatically encrypts all data stored on it. But not all drives to this, so it might be useful to have a separate encryption utility.
A good utility that allows you to take it on the move is Crypto Anywhere. If you are an existing PGP user then Crypto Anywhere will be of added benefit to you because it is based on the OpenPGP standard and is compatible with PGP.
A license of Crypto Anywhere costs $39.95.
Don't even think about trying to install Microsoft Office applications onto a USB flash drive - it just won't work! However, there are a couple of applications that will allow you to create, open, and edit Office documents.
The first is AbiWord. AbiWord is a free program that allows you to work with Microsoft Word documents. This is a great tool for those who are on the move but want to be able to continue to edit and save Word documents on systems that don't have Word installed on them.
Another alternative is OpenOffice. This suite will take up a lot more space on your USB key and is a lot slower to run that AbiWord, but it will give you the ability to work with a whole range of Office document formats, not just Word. Just like AbiWord, OpenOffice is free to download and use.
Without a doubt, the best password storage utility that I've come across is called PasswordSafe. PasswordSafe is a simple yet secure password storage utility that can be used to organize all your user names and passwords. It can also be used to create good, random passwords.
PasswordSafe is also free!
Portable File Compression
You've been sent a compressed file by email and want to see what's inside it. Unfortunately you don't have anything to decompress the file on the PC you are using. If you have Portable7zip installed (a portable version of the free 7zip compression tool) then you can handle a multitude of compressed file formats.
The page I've listed for Portable7zip is in French but rest assured, the utility itself is in English.
Take antivirus with you where ever you go with ClamWin Portable - this is a free stand-alone virus scanner that the security conscious can take with them on a USB key and use to scan files before they run them. This could prevent you infecting your host computer with files that you download and run.
It's nice to be able to take tunes with you when on the move. Using XMPlay you can play a whole host of different formats (OGG / MP3 / MP2 / MP1 / WMA / WAV / MO3 / IT / XM / S3M / MTM / MOD / UMX audio formats).
XMPlay is free and requires no installation.
Want to run a web server from a USB drive? That's no problem with WOS Portable - a fully-functional Apache web server on a stick which comes complete with PHP and MySQL.
WOS Portable comes in two flavors - a normal version that 's 200MB and a small version that's 20MB.
WOS Portable is a super tool that allows you to have all the benefits of a web server without the hassle of having to carry a PC running the software with you. I love WOS for things like PHP development and for trying out new things in WordPress before I roll them out live.