Note: This is for people who want or need to use shared Windows-based computers at work like I do. I personally use a Mac, but I am forced in some situations to work on Windows in my classroom. I will do a post some time on tips for Mac users.
If any of you work in various rooms and offices like I do, you find it frustrating when you move from computer to computer only to find that certain things are not available on one machine or blocked on another. Also, adding programs to computers that are locked-down is a pain. In many of the places I have worked at, it takes days, possibly weeks, to get anything installed on your computer only to have to do it again on a different machine once you move rooms.
My solution has been to make use of online tools, but that isn’t always ideal and if the network is slow or goes down, you are stuck. Many years ago, I came across the website PortableApps.com where legal, open-source / free software has been adapted to run off of a portable drive such as a USB thumb drive. I have made good use of this site over the years and I thought it might be helpful to some of you if I was to give you a rundown of what portable apps are, why they are helpful, and what apps I have found to be especially useful.
How to install an app from PortableApps.com
- Go to PortableApps.com and click on ‘Apps’ at the top of the page.
- Look through the apps list to find something that you think would be helpful to you. Click on the link on the name.
- Read through the description and/or view the screenshot to see if this might be something you would like to install. If you are happy with it, click on the big, green ‘Download Now’ button near the top of the page.
- You will be taken to a Sourceforge page and your download should start in about 5 seconds. If it doesn’t start after five seconds, click on the small ‘direct link’ near the top of the page. If you are using a browser that prompts you about a place to download, select a place to download and start the download.
- The file you have downloaded is an installer you need to run. Find where the installer was downloaded to and then double-click on the file.
- Once the installer starts up, follow these steps:
- Click on ‘Next >’
- Choose your destination folder (best to select your USB drive or any other external drive) and click on ‘Install
- Once it has finished the installation process, click on ‘Finish’
- If you have installed it to your portable drive, find the drive on your computer and you will see a new folder labelled by the name of the app. Inside that folder will be the program you can run. Just double-click on it to start it up!
- You can also install to a shared network folder if you have one at your workplace. This makes it easy to access without having to take a portable drive around with you.
- Save any files you make to the drive as well so you have them with you.
- Browser plugins such as Adobe Flash can also be installed as per usual.
- Make sure you eject your drive before removing it.
My favourite portable apps
- VLC: If there was one program that I think should be installed on every computer, it is this one. VLC is the Swiss Army Knife of media players. It plays basically any type of audio and video files and can even create files as well. You can rip an audio CD to MP3 files to carry with you for class, you can play podcast audio and video files, you can create playlists and bookmarks for your files, you can adjust the volume much higher than most players, and so on. Once day I will do a post on how I use VLC in the classroom. For now, just know that if there is a video or audio file to play, use VLC since it is virtually guaranteed to work.
- Audacity: This is an audio player, editor, and recorder. This is great for the language classroom. You will need to install a few plugins to make certain files such as MP3 play or record, but that is pretty simple to do.
- CamStudio: While I tend to use Screencast-O-Matic for screencasting, some schools don’t allow access to Java and with slower internet speeds, it can be a pain. This is a simple tool to make a video of your screen as you work on your computer. It is great for creating video tutorials or mini lessons.
- Lightscreen: While the Snipping Tool included with Windows 7 and 8 works fairly well, Lightscreen works with older versions and also is a slight step faster than the Snipping Tool. Basically, it allows you to take a screenshot of a section of your screen and automatically saves it as an image.
- Foxit Reader: While most computers have Adobe Acrobat Reader to read PDF files, Foxit is an alternative. It looks and feels like an Office application and I like the annotation tools better than Reader.
- PDFTK Builder: This is the PDF Toolkit and it is great for removing pages from a pdf and combine pages as well. If I have a really long PDF and I only want to have a version with a few pages, I use this to pull out the pages I want and then combine them into one document.
- Gimp: This is a fantastic photo editor along the lines of Adobe Photoshop. I use it to edit photos instead of the standard programs in Windows.
- Peazip: I have no idea why some computers do not have a file decompressor installed. Windows can handle some files like Zip, but if I come across something else, such as a RAR file, this works wonders.
- NVU / KompoZer: This is WYSIWYG HTML and CSS editor. I use to to create tables and so forth for blog posts. Works fairly well, but I am not sure how many people would make use of it other than me.
- VirtualDub: This is a video capture/processing program. It isn’t very user friendly, but if the computer I am using does not have even a basic video editor, this does the trick.
- Open Office: This is a Microsoft Office compatible office suite to create and view documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. I am not in love with the program since it isn’t the most intuitive, but it does the job.
- Jarte: This is tabbed word processor that works well for me as a notetaker. It is smaller to open than Open Office and I can keep it running in the background whenever I need to jot something down.
- Artha: This is portable thesaurus. It works well and doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles. I use it lots in my writing classes.
- Mnemosyne: This is a flashcard creator and player. I have a mixed relationship with flashcards, but it is handy sometimes. I still prefer online versions such as Quizlet, but this works well for something simple.
- Google Chrome / Firefox: I actually have both on my USB drive since some sites play differently with different browsers. They are portable versions of the popular browsers. Why? Privacy. Everything stays on my drive. I don’t need it as often with cloud-synching, but some computers don’t have anything but Internet Explorer installed (gasp!), so this is my backup plan.
- Skype: The popular audio and video chat program in a portable app when the computer I am using is without it. Nothing more to say here. Works well.
- Tweetdeck: Portable version of the popular Twitter client that I use at home. Much better than using the browser based options.
- Cook Timer: The most simplistic program on this list. Nothing more than a countdown timer. Great for keeping students on task. I often use online versions, but this works well.
I know some of you have other preferences, so feel free to share them in the comment sections below. Feel free to ask questions and I will do my best to answer them for you.