For the past year I’ve been toting around a USB drive that has a folder full of portable applications, such as Thunderbird and Firefox. That way I can run these applications (with all of my data) on any machine I plug the key into. (I set this up following PC Magazine’s instructions on creating the ultimate USB key.) The problem is that these apps are a bit tricky to configure, and upgrading them can be a pain.

Solution: The U3 standard, which greatly simplifies installing and maintaining a set of personal, portable apps on your USB drive. Several drive makers now offer U3-compatible drives; I’ve been testing a 1GB model from Kingston for the past few weeks and it works beautifully. It’s like adding a second “Start” menu to your computer: Just click on the U3 icon in the system tray and you can launch or install applications from the popup menu. That way your favorite apps (top of my list: Putty) are always there with you. Additionally, if you want to check your email or browse over a financial site from a borrowed PC, using a U3 mail program or browser is a lot more secure, since it won’t leave messages and/or browser history on the borrowed computer.

The limitation is that U3 drives only support apps that have been specially configured to plug into the U3 standard. Also, the apps only work on Windows (though you can still view your data when the key is plugged into a Mac). On the other hand, the list of apps is pretty long, and includes Firefox, Thunderbird, FoxIt PDF Reader,, Putty, and many more free programs, plus a selection of for-fee software. And once you’ve installed the app on your USB drive, you can take it (and all its data) everywhere you go. Pretty convenient.