Portable apps, as the name suggests, are lightweight versions of applications – either in size, functionality or both – that don’t use an installer. Executables and any files associated with their operation are contained within a single folder, meaning you can run them directly from a USB drive or a cloud folder synced across PCs. Portable apps don't modify the Windows registry or leave behind configuration files on the host computer. This is especially handy in situations where you may not have administrative rights to install software, like on public computers at a library, university, or at work.
While smartphones allow us to be productive on the go when needed, it’s not always as glamorous as it sounds. It may be technically possible to do things like hammering out a document for your boss, touching up a photo, or editing some code thanks to the cornucopia of mobile apps on the market, we find we’re most efficient when we have the right tool for the job, and often times that tool is a bona fide computer.
A laptop is the logical solution that most users will arrive at in terms of flexibility but did you know that you can effectively carry around a comprehensive suite of productivity software, handy tools, media players and even games complete with user preferences intact and use them on virtually any PC?
Portable apps are available as standalone solutions – meaning you grab only the ones you need – or as part of a bigger platform or suite of apps that offer a variety of software to choose from -- the most popular of which is the PortableApps suite.
For the purpose of this article, we’ll be focusing on some of the best standalone apps out there across a variety of categories. We started by taking an internal survey among TechSpot staff members, what we use to be productive, and then researched more available portable titles that could be useful to carry around with you. We are using this initial list for a new portable apps section on TechSpot downloads that will be kept up to date regularly and as usual we're accepting your suggestions and recommendations to grow this list.
A quick and dirty list of all the apps mentioned in this article is below. Click to download or scroll further down for more information.
|App (click for download)||What is it?|
|Firefox Portable||Popular web browser|
|Chrome Portable||Popular web browser|
|LibreOffice Portable||Free MS Office alternative|
|Lastpass / Lastpass Pocket||Password manager|
|Keepass Portable||Password manager|
|Ditto Portable||Clipboard manager|
|VLC Portable||Media player|
|Media Player Classic Portable||Media player|
|Audacity||Audio recording and editing|
|Sublime Text Portable||Text and code editor|
|Visual Studio Code||Microsoft source code editor|
|IrfanView Portable||Image viewer|
|Winamp Portable||Music player|
|CamStudio Portable||Record your screen|
|SumatraPDF Portable||lightweight PDF viewer|
|Foxit Reader Portable||PDF viewer, editor|
|GIMP portable||Image editor|
|SpaceSniffer||Disk space analyzer|
|WinSCP||SFTP / SCP client|
|WinMerge||Text comparison and merging|
|Rufus||Create bootable USB drives|
|Zip2Fix||Salvage corrupt ZIP archives|
|GeekUninstaller||Remove stubborn programs|
|Free Download Manager||Accelerate downloads|
|Eraser||Secure delete files|
|Stickies Portable||Sticky note utility|
|A Dark Room||Text-based role-playing game|
|Big Solitaires 3D Portable||40 solitaire games|
|Sudoku Portable||Number puzzle game|
|The Legend of Edgar Portable||Platform game|
|More portable apps|
Chrome Portable / Firefox Portable
We prefaced this article with a focus on productivity and we stand by that. Web browsers may seem like the gateway to procrastination but the truth is, having Internet access is absolutely advantageous when attempting to get stuff done. From research and collaboration to blogging or learning something new, it all starts with a connection to the outside world.
Portable versions of both Chrome and Firefox are readily available, allowing you to run your favorite browser and surf the web without leaving behind any personal information. Both have a small footprint and are light on their feet, stripping out unnecessary bloat while maintaining support for useful features like extensions and themes.
For most, a suite of office applications is absolutely essential for productivity and in the world of portable apps, there are few better options than LibreOffice Portable. This full-featured OpenOffice successor features a word processor, a spreadsheet tool, a presentation tool, a drawing package and a database management solution that is compatible with Microsoft Office, Word Perfect, Lotus and several other popular applications. Best yet, it’s free to download and use. If you can’t hop online for Office 365, this might be the next best solution.
Clipboard managers make it much easier to re-enter text or anything else that you've recently copied and pasted, adding an array of new capabilities to the default Windows clipboard. Ditto is a straightforward solution that is also portable, if you want a solid clipboard manager.
Sublime Text Portable, Visual Studio Code, WinMerge
If your work involves writing and editing code rather than Word documents, you’ll want a copy of Sublime Text Portable to run on your borrowed Windows PC (Alternatives: Visual Studio Code, Notepad++ Portable). This code editor is compatible with multiple programming and markup languages, offers handy features like split editing support for widescreen monitors and is highly customizable via simple JSON files.
Sublime Text Portable is free to download and evaluate but the company says you’ll need to purchase a license for continued use. Curiously enough, there is currently no enforced time limit for the evaluation period. Individual licenses start at $80 and are per-user rather than per-machine so you can use it on as many computers (and operating systems) as you want.
If you're working with a lot of text files, WinMerge can be a godsend to visually differencing and merging text files. And if you need to securely upload files to a server, WinSCP is the best tool for the job.
GIMP Portable, IrfanView
LibreOffice Portable mentions a drawing package but if you’re doing serious photo manipulation, you’ll likely want something like GIMP Portable. This full-featured image and photo editor can accomplish tasks like photo retouching, image composition and image authoring.
IrfanView Portable is also handy for viewing a multitude of image formats (the list of supported formats is huge), it also lets you quickly crop or rotate images or save them on a different file format.
Foxit Reader Portable
Being able to create, sign or annotate PDF documents is a daily requirement for millions but having a computer handy with the necessary tools isn’t always a given. Fortunately, there’s Foxit Reader Portable, a powerful yet free PDF viewer and creator that’s fast and comes equipped with comprehensive protection against security vulnerabilities. SumatraPDF is even more lightweight PDF reader that is open source.
LastPass Pocket and Portable, Keepass
Password managers are an invaluable tool for governing login credentials across the web, allowing users to employ an array of complex passwords while only having to memorize a single master password. Two of the most popular choices on the market are LastPass and Keepass and you may be surprised to learn that there are multiple usage options available should you not have installation rights on a particular PC.
The easiest way to work with Lastpass is to install the add-on on your portable browser (Firefox or Chrome above) and it will work as usual.
LastPass Pocket is a standalone app for Windows and Linux that can be run as a non-browser option. This means you can run it from a USB drive and effectively carry around your LastPass data on the go. It also offers backup capabilities and even lets you access your Vault offline so you can tap into things like Secure Notes without an Internet connection. The only issue here is that data on the USB drive may not be entirely up-to-date with the mothership, especially if you haven’t synced over a web connection in a while.
7-Zip is a popular compression utility for Windows that’s been around since 1999. It uses its own 7z archive format but can read and write several other archive formats including ZIP, TAR, RAR and ISO, just to name a few.
And if you're dealing with compressed files, also having a copy of Zip2Fix can help you deal with corrupted files or salvaging what's left in good condition from a given archive.
Both are handy assets that you’ll likely want in your traveling toolbox.
CamStudio Portable is a screen capture program that can be used to record all screen and audio activity on a PC. This handy app can be used to create demonstration videos of software programs, tutorials for presentations, troubleshooting videos that can be passed along to IT for resolution and more. It turns out standard AVI video files and like many of the apps featured here, is free to use – even for commercial use.
SpaceSniffer Portable, Eraser
SpaceSniffer is a graphical disk use analysis tool that helps you visualize how files and folders are stored on a drive through a minimal interface. Specifically, it utilizes the treemap concept developed by Ben Shneiderman. The freeware analyzer offers drag and drop support, zoom elements, filtering, support for NTFS Alternate Data Streams and more. I just ran it on my backup hard drive and if nothing else, it affords a fascinating look at the structure of the disk and may even make it easier to discover files and folders buried in areas that I might not otherwise look.
Meanwhile, Eraser is a security tool that lets you delete data from your drive without leaving a trace. It works by overwriting data several times using specific patterns so it cannot be recovered afterwards with other tools.
Wise Disk Cleaner Portable, GeekUninstaller
Disk cleaners are a dime a dozen but finding one that’s portable, free and comes highly recommended is a bit of a tougher task. Since we last reviewed a bunch of them, we have kept an eye on Wise Disk Cleaner which comes recommended, CCleaner Portable is pretty good, too since it bundles nothing and System Ninja is also worthy of consideration.
Wise Disk Cleaner does the sort of basic things you’d expect from a disk cleaner – erases temporary files, history, cookies and auto-complete forms but also includes handy features like a “slim down” mode that removes excess junk from Windows installations like sample photos, videos, music and help files – stuff that you’ll likely never use that’s just taking up space.
GeekUninstaller Portable is a good complement to the aforementioned clean up programs, it takes a different approach is helping you uninstall programs without leaving leftovers on your PC.
VLC Media Player Portable / Media Player Classic
VLC is a popular open-source, cross-platform media player that supports multiple audio and video compression methods and file formats. The portable version can run from a cloud folder, a local folder or an external drive. It’s free and works great, making it a must-have for most portable software collections.
Optionally, you could try Media Player Classic – Home Cinema Portable, an extremely lightweight media player for Windows that supports nearly every common audio and video file format. Note that the official version is no longer being supported but an unofficial version maintained by clsid2 is being used as the basis for this app.
Winamp Portable is a bit of a legacy app in this list but at just 2.7MB, it’s not exactly going to take up a ton of space on your drive. And if you’re like me, music can go a long way in helping to create a more relaxed environment. Foobar portable is also an alternative.
Winamp was one of the most beloved music players during the pre-streaming era when Spotify and YouTube hadn’t even been conceived. With this portable app, you’ll have playlists, support for plugins and skins, libraries, time markers and more. Just remember to bring along some of your favorite MP3s as well.
A Dark Room Portable
Doublespeak Games in 2013 released an open-source, text-based role-playing game for web browsers called A Dark Room. Gameplay starts out innocently enough with the user awakening in a dark room and having to tend a fire. As play progresses, you take on more responsibility, collecting materials and interacting with characters in the text-based world. Soon enough, you’re enveloped in what eventually became a runaway success for Android and iOS devices.
A text-based adventure game might sound as if it’s a better fit for an 80s computer game but just like a good book, it’s easy to get lost in the words. And now thanks to this portable app, you can dive in on virtually any computer.
The Legend of Edgar Portable
Those looking for a bit more visual stimulation may want to give The Legend of Edgar Portable a try. This 2D platformer is more like an adventure game you might find on a 16-bit era console. It pits you in the role of Edgar who embarks on a quest to search for his father who he believes may have been captured by an evil sorcerer.
The game checks in at around 100MB, featuring large levels with varying environments, an extensive weapons system, boss battles, gamepad support and more. A new version was just released in August 2019 so you can be sure you have the latest release available.
Big Solitaires 3D Portable
Solitaire is arguably the go-to time-waster for PC users of a certain age. Most Windows machines have some iteration of the classic solo card game pre-installed but if for some reason they’ve been removed – or you’re just really into solitaire – then perhaps Big Solitaires 3D is worth a look. This portable app delivers a collection of 40 different solitaire games featuring multiple decks and background images as well as the ability to undo or redo a move. Full-screen and windowed mode in any resolution is supported. And of course, it’s open-source and free.
More Utilities + Your Suggestions
We have included a few more utilities in our portable app shortlist. Free Download Manager does well what most "accelerators" do, splitting files into several sections and downloads them simultaneously which usually results in resumable faster downloads on spotty internet connections.
Finally, Stickies Portable essentially lets you keep sticky notes on your desktop that you can take with you everywhere. Did we miss anything truly useful? Please comment and let us know so we can add to this list.
This article was originally published in September 20, 2010. We've since revised it, added more applications and bumped it as part of our #ThrowbackThursday initiative.