Making use of a USB Thumb Drive
Go to a conference lately? Any conference, tech or otherwise, and you're likely to walk away with some incarnation of a memory stick with some vendor's sales pitch on it. They're passed around like candy, pretty much every chip company makes one - they're everywhere. But to be honest, I didn't really keep one until recently because I really couldn't find a use for them.
Sure they're good for holding documents, but my computer does that. If you work on your own desktop every day, your thumb drive begins to collect a lot of dust because it's tough to remember to plug the thing in periodically to synchronize it. Honestly, I just had a hard time justifying the cost. Tough to justify free? No - the space. In order to have the opportunity to use it, you have to carry the thing around with you all the time, and I carry enough crap I barely use, I didn't need anything new to pack in my pockets.
But after I was forced to purchase a large thumb drive to save my documents from a crapped out Windows installation, I was stuck with a 1gb drive and no way to return it. I set out on a quest to find alternative uses for the thing to see if I could find a reason not to sell it on ebay. I've succeeded.
I'm going to briefly go over what I've stuffed into my thumb drive along with a description of how I use it and why. If you have any questions or would like more details, please let me know in the comments. Some of these programs will eventually get their own article because they're so complex but this should get most of you started.
The Obvious - Backing Up
SyncBack is a little freeware program I use that allows me to backup a number of different folders. I use it to copy most of my 'My Documents' and my Outlook database files. What makes this program so powerful is it's ability to backup only selected sub-directories, and do two-way synchronization. This way, I don't have to backup my entire Music and Videos folders which would throw me WAY over my 1GB limit before I even got started.
Thumb drives are inherently in-secure. After you backup all your files to it, what if it falls into the wrong hands, like a competitor? All your documents have now been compromised. Enter: TrueCrypt. This is a free open-source program that instantly gives you NSA-grade encryption. The program works by creating an encrypted volume on your drive. This can be either a separate partition, or simply a file that is mounted with TrueCrypt.
I don't put all my files in such a volume because my files aren't particularly critical. BUT, I have scanned in critical documents such as my and my wife's passports, our birth certificates along with a couple of other irreplaceable documents and a list of our bank accounts. This way, I have them available in case of a fire, or if we get robbed while on vacation.
The last pretty obvious thing I keep on the drive is what I call my 'Family Emergency Kit'. This is basically a collection of program installs which include:
- Firefox-always the evangelist
- Ad-aware SE-#1 support call problem. ;)
- AVG Free-#2 support call problem.
- Hamachi-to add them to a secure network for future remote troubleshooting.
- Ultra-VNC-allows easy-secure remote troubleshooting for future problems.
- Java VM installer - more on this later.
These are all great to have around in case something comes up and I need to take care of a problem and I don't happen to have my Tablet around.
The Not-So-Obvious - Portable Apps
Now that you've backed-up, secured your important files and collected some useful programs to give to your friends/family, it's time to set things up so you can plug-in to any public computer and use the things you want to use. The big portable apps I recommend are:
The portable version of Firefox is great because with some work, you can set things up so you don't leave a trace on the host computer. Everything from cookies to the cache and history can be saved to the thumb drive, so you can browse confident that your confidentiality is secure. There's an extension called 'Bookmarks Synchronizer' that allows you to upload your bookmarks to an FTP server automatically so you can keep the portable version up-to-date with any number of other installations, so you're never without your favorite sites.
I like having Filezilla with me because of this website. I never know when I might have to upload or update something, so it's great to avoid putting my FTP info in someone's FTP client or even worse, being without an FTP client entirely.
Trillian is nice to have simply because of the immediacy of instant messaging if you need a quick answer.
Open Office is absolutely awesome, and the main reason I recommended having an installation file for Java around because it's required to run. This open-source office suite can create and open files that are completely compatible with Microsoft's Office programs, so if you need to use a computer that is stuck without Office, you can still get some work done in a pinch.
An added bonus to this portable version of Open Office is that you can simply drag it to a person's computer and give them the programs. My father-in-law recently got a new computer, and couldn't justify spending an extra couple hundred dollars on Office because he's retired, so I just dragged the Open Office folder off my thumb drive and registered it. Easy as pie, and it saved him a bunch of money.
Finally, to organize all these programs, I recommend Pstart. This is a tiny program that acts as a portable 'Start' menu for all the apps you've installed on your thumb drive. I have even created an autorun file on the drive to launch Pstart when it is inserted into a computer so all my programs are right there in the task bar.
The "Are you kidding me?" - Bootable OS
I'm still working on a good way to do this, but with some work, you can setup a bootable partition on your thumb drive and install a fully functional version of Windows using BartPE. (You could alternatively install a number of Linux variants if you prefer. I have tried Puppy OS, and really like it.) This would be particularly helpful in the case of a corrupted registry or crashed hard drive. It would allow you to potentially save critical files you forgot to backup in section #1. :)
Now you have to make sure you actually use it. I went to a hardware store and found a great key chain attachment that allows me to quickly detach the drive when I need it. This way I have it wherever I go, just in case there's a computer emergency or I need to do some work at a moment's notice.
This article is far from a complete look at everything you can put on a thumb drive, but I hope it makes a couple of people think about that dusty little thumb drive in their drawer. If you're interested in finding more portable programs you can find a bunch of free ones at PortableApps.com.