Carry a PC in Your Pocket

A notebook PC is a handy thing to have, but lugging one around everywhere you go can be downright inconvenient. Fortunately, there's a solution that fits right in your pocket: The ubiquitous USB flash drive, often called a keychain or thumb drive.

With the right device and software, you can plug your flash drive into a computer at an Internet cafe, hotel business center, or elsewhere, and have all the tools and files you need to do your work--complete with your own personal launch menu. Sure, you can use online applications like Google Docs or Zoho Office (see Life Without Desktop Software for more on these), but a flash drive lets you carry a much wider variety of the applications, utilities, and other fun doodads you've come to depend on.

Here's everything you need, from hardware to software and beyond, to get going in the world of pocket computing.

Harness the Right Hardware

To get the most out of portable computing, you need a good flash drive. Here are some things to consider:

If you're not sure whether your old pocket drive is fast enough to run your mobile apps, use HD Tach to check its performance.
Take a drive on the reading edge. The faster your flash drive, the more smoothly programs will run. When shopping for a drive, look at the specs and try to find one with a read rate of 15 mbps (megabits per second; in megabytes, 1.9 MBps) or faster. If you already have a flash drive, you can test its speed with a free utility like HDTach for Windows.

Look for high-speed USB. A USB 2.0 flash drive will perform much better than USB 1.x. Make sure the drive you buy specifies USB 2.0 or "high-speed USB."

U3 LaunchPad comes preinstalled on many SanDisk drives, but there are now several good free alternatives for non-SanDisk drives.
U3 or not U3? Some flash drives (notably those from SanDisk) are labeled "U3," meaning they use a proprietary format to create applications for USB drives. Such drives usually come with a built-in pop-up program launcher called LaunchPad and a few programs, or they at least link to a Web page for downloading and installing free and for-pay U3 applications. SanDisk claims that only U3-compatible programs will run on such a drive, but I had no problem running U3 and non-U3 programs side by side on the same memory stick. (However, don't expect your non-U3 apps to show up on the U3 launch menu.)

With so many portable applications available from a variety of free sources these days, you don't necessarily have to get a U3-equipped drive. If you do have one, you can either take advantage of the LaunchPad feature and its various apps, or you can find utilities for removing U3 LaunchPad software from SanDisk drives and from non-SanDisk drives. And if you change your mind about such removal, SanDisk has a free tool for getting it back.

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