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What's on your flash drive?

Posted by on March 26, 2010

It seems that everyone has a few USB flash drives nowadays. Whether you call it a flash drive, a thumb drive, a stick, or something else, it’s likely that you have some sort of portable storage in your pocket or bag. The question is, what do you have on that flash drive? And what apps could you have, but maybe haven’t thought of putting on your drive?

An informal poll of my fellow php|architect bloggers on what they currently have on their flash drives garnered some interesting responses, ranging from (ahem) “time-shifted” television programs to a full-on OS X client capable of running from a USB drive. But, after doing some digging, I’ve come up with my own suggestions on what you might consider putting on your own drive.

Things that aren’t applications

First, let’s talk about some things you might want to keep on your drive that aren’t applications. Included here are things like database backups (I keep a MySQL dump on my drive for those times when I need to do work from home), configuration files, document templates (say, invoices and the like), perhaps your PGP/GPG key, and things of that nature. Essentially, this category includes anything that might help you set up some sort of working environment given that the necessary applications are in place.

You might also consider things like a slide deck (or PDF equivalent) of talks that you gave at a conference or seminar, or conversely the same for a talk that you attended—so that you always have that information with you.

Finally, in a similar vein, if you’re an ebook-reading type of person, and you have PDFs of your favorites, you might toss those on the flash drive as well. Of course, if you have a dedicated ebook reader, then you probably have this item covered.

Operating systems

As I mentioned earlier, one of my fellow bloggers mentioned having OS X on a flash drive. It’s a fairly straightforward process to get Leopard on a flash drive, but know that you’ll need one with a lot of space—at least 8 GB.

If you’re not the OS X-type, then perhaps Linux is more your speed. Here, though, I’ll point you at the Wikipedia article on creating Live USB systems, since there are myriad ways you might put Linux on a USB drive.

And if you’re a Windows XP user, you might find this guide useful on installing XP onto a flash drive and running it from there. (A quick search didn’t yield useful info on Vista or Windows 7, but it’s certainly possible that there’s something out there.)

Applications (yes, finally!)

“Portable application” is the term for an application that leaves zero (or nearly zero) footprint on the host system; does not require itself to be installed on the system to run; and carries its settings along with it on the USB drive or other such medium. Here, again, Wikipedia has a great list of portable software, but I’d like to mention a few standouts. Note that some of these come from, which might be right up your alley if you’re a Windows user.

  • Mozilla Firefox, Portable Edition: One of the member applications, this portable version of Firefox just might come in handy.
  • Eclipse: Using Eclipse as your IDE? Then this guide ought to be of use if you’d like to run it from a flash drive.
  • GIMP Portable: Another of the apps, the fairly lightweight GIMP image editor is a great choice for tweaking graphics and whatnot.
  • EasyPHP: Want an alternative to XAMPP? Try EasyPHP instead, which claims to offer the ability to run from a USB flash drive.
  • Notepad++ Portable: Also on the list, the Notepad++ text editor is a great alternative to other editors.

What else?

Since USB flash drives seem to be a dime a dozen nowadays (well, nearly so), you could even have USB flash drives set aside for single purposes rather than carrying them around in your pocket all the time. It seems that Microsoft is going to allow USB storage on its Xbox 360 console, so you could pop your drive into a USB port there and just leave it. You might also have a few lying around within things like the ATV USB Creator, which lets you do things like prep your Apple TV for a Boxee install, and just leave that drive in a safe place always ready for use (rather than having to copy the data off, wipe it, and replace data later).

Whatever use you find for your flash drive, I hope that these suggestions have at least whetted your appetite. Let us know in the comments what other uses you have for your flash drive!

Image credit: USB Flash Drive by Flickr user Ambuj Saxena.

Carl works for Michigan State University's National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory as an Applications Programmer. A Zend Certified Engineer, Carl uses PHP in creative ways to solve some of the lab's interesting software problems. He's interested in PHP, human-computer interaction, and all manner of "shiny new things."
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Responses and Pingbacks

I’ve tried to use portable web browser, IM, web server etc. so I always have access to the history but it was kinda painful. Now i prefer to use my smartphone to transfer PDFs, podcasts or media and flash drive to transfer data.

Honestly, nothing. I don’t even carry a flash drive around much any more. I’ve got boxes on the internet, a VPN back home, and depending on the laptop I’m running either Ubuntu or MacOSX so that covers web servers when I’m offline.

I’m with @Chris on this one. I used to carry one around when I had to use a work machine, or locked down Windows box. Nowadays I find that I’m always working on my own laptop, so no need to mess with Apps on USB keys. Although was awesome when I was.

@Chris That’s right, I preffer online storage space; Web browser on a flash drive is a PITA

I like to keep a Live USB Linux as well as a “linux in a box” type (Colinux or VirtualBox). That way, I’ve got a Linux that I can use in nearly 100% of the machines I’d be likely to ever sit at. (I have no idea if Macs can USB boot these day, but I assume most can … but I don’t know any Mac users where I’d be sitting at their computer…)

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