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Review: Go to work on a USB stick drive

by Bob Crabtree on 22 March 2006, 15:31

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Is it really possible to create a practical working environment on a USB stick drive? Seemingly so - and easily, too, with no need to get down and dirty with Linux, according to Bob Crabtree

There's been a lot of talk - and quite a bit of action - about using Linux-based OS and self-booting stick drives that let you take your work and working environment with you in your pocket where ever you go.

Trouble is, when you arrive where you're going, this way of working requires a pretty modern PC that's able to boot from a USB stick drive, plus someone willing to let you invade their space and reboot their PC this way.

And there's an even more worrisome downside (for most of us, at any rate), you've also got to get your hands dirty with Linux - in setting up the bootable drive, the apps on it and in running those apps.

A rather less invasive (and less scary) alternative is to use a stick drive (or any write-enabled external drive) and so-called portable Windows applications - programs that have been tweaked to run directly from external drives. That way, there's no need to learn anything about Linux and no need for you to take over a PC by rebooting it. Oh, and the programs are free - though donations to help pay for their upkeep are welcome.

If you are to have no impact at all on the host PC, then there is a downside to this way of working - it requires that the host PC is running a version of Windows that natively supports USB stick drives, and, really, that means Win XP. It is possible, of course, to take with you a floppy disk or CD containing mass-storage drivers for other versions of Windows - and install them if the PC owner is willing - but using an XP machine means your stick drive will be instantly seen by the PC and you can work without having to install anything that might have an untoward effect on the host PC.

No USB stick drive support native in Win98 SE
Win98 SE has no native support for USB stick drives, so would
require you to take with you suitable drivers - and for
the owner of the host PC to allow you to install them

Of course, the PC also needs a socket suitable for the drive. Staying with the idea of a thumbstick drive, this would mean USB - ideally USB 2.0 since this is much faster than USB 1.1 and allows apps to run more speedily.

This method of working can be extended to other types of external drive - FireWire, SATA or SCSI - if they're supported natively by the host version of Windows or if the PC's owner is happy for your to install suitable drivers.

From our viewpoint, though, a USB stick-drive attached to an XP PC is the elegant way of doing things, so we thought we'd give that a go.