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U3 versus Portable Apps

Man, how times have changed; now you can have the presentation and the software to run it all on a piece of plastic the size of your thumb. I think that this article is well overdue, and we have received many hits in regard to this topic. This can be a very confusing topic for many people, even me when I was first dipping my nose into this sort of stuff. Here I will give you everything that you need to know about U3 Smart drives versus PortableApps.

First I want to mention that there are three major things that both drives have in common. First of all, both platforms have launcher software which allow the user to launch any software installed on their stick, and manage settings from a single ‘start menu like’ launcher. Second, most of the software on both drives do not leave a trace in the host computer. That means no registry junk left behind, and no temporary files, etc from Firefox or similar problems. Also, both platforms have a different selection of software. U3 has many commercial apps, while PortableApps only supports open-source applications.

U3 Smart Drives

The Good:

1. Auto launch, and auto close. When you insert your U3 USB stick, the launcher program automatically launches, without having to click on anything. And when you pull the stick out of the USB port, it will automatically close all open software.

2. Launch files and programs automatically. With a U3-enabled flash drive, you can set specific programs or files to launch on plug in. If you are on a business trip, you can set it to open the document you are working on, every time you hook it up to a computer. This can really save time if you working in multiple sessions.

3. Password-protect your U3 drive. If you have sensitive data on your U3 smart drive, you can assign a password, so that only you can access your data. The drive will then prompt you to enter the password every time you connect it to a computer.

4. Protect your data. You can get antivirus software packaged to run on your U3 drive. This can be handy if you are transferring files from an unknown computer to your flash drive i.e. an internet cafe.

5. Easier to use. This is a very important factor for beginners. With the U3 launchpad, running and setting up programs is a breeze. Even packaging your own apps is a breeze with a program called PackageFactory.

The bad:

1. U3 software is not very customizable. One of the problems that I have had is that you cant really

customizeť your U3 software. Until a recent patch, you could not disable the launcher from auto-run, which could be extremely annoying if you are transferring data to another computer. Another problem is that with the new patch comes a big red launch icon on the desktop. The problem is that this cannot be disabled. It may be cool and useful to a lot of people, but I dont like it, and I would like to disable it.

2. Creates multiple icons in My Computer. In order to perform its auto-run features upon connecting to your computer, your U3 smart drive creates a virtual CD, which mounts at the same time as the removable disk. This way you can access your files via the Removable Disk drive, but auto-run the launcher with the virtual CD. Unfortunately, this can get confusing, especially when you use other CD and USB drives. At times, I will have a DVD drive, a virtual ISO drive, my iPod, an external HD, and my U3 hooked into my computer at the same time. In these situations, it can be frustrating trying to find which drive is which among the other 7.

3. Sensitive data could fall into the wrong hands easily if stolen or lost. A problem with portable apps in general (not specifically U3), is that you are encouraged to do more work on the drive itself. Instead o writing that document on your computer and transferring it between home and work, you might as well just keep it on the drive. The problem with this is that if you lose your drive or it gets stolen, not only do you lose valuable work, but also your sensitive data could be discovered. Browsing history, saved emails, and documents could contain financial or other personal information that should be kept private. You can password-protect your drive to help prevent any issues, but it is still a notable risk.

4. Currently only PC support. Sorry people who are running OS X or Linux, U3 has only developed support for people running Windows :-( .


Portable apps


The good:

1. Bring your firefox with you. I was looking at our blog stats and I noticed that about 75% of readers use Firefox, so I thought this would be a real strong point to PortableApps. Now you can install Firefox on your PortableApps smart drive, so you will never be caught on someone elses computer without your bookmarks, handy extensions, and familiar interface.


2. You can use them on any drive. When I say any drive I mean literally any! Portable apps can run off of external thumb drives, external HDDs, even iPods! As long as the host computer and your drive support USB 2.0 (not required but highly, highly, highly recommended). Simply because the transfer rate of USB 2.0 is at a much higher speed. Also, these apps are not made for cross-platform usage, meaning that just because it’s on a USB stick doesnt mean that you can run them on a computer running Windows and a computer running OS X. So dont get deceived, the programs made for Windows will not work on a Mac just because it’s on a USB drive.

3. Takes up less memory. One huge advantage PortableApps have over U3 apps is that Portable apps take up less memory on your stick. With U3 being as new as it is, this is due to inefficiencies in the U3 format and platform. The .u3p package is essentially a renamed zip file while the Portable App package is a more efficient 7-zip self extractor. Another Inefficiency is that on a U3 drive, when you install a .u3p package, it installs the content onto your U3 drive and it keeps the .u3p package which equals almost duplicates of every app which equals wasted space.

4. Free platform, with open source software. Well, what can I say? It’s free! Can’t beat that.


The bad:

1. Limited to open source apps. There are a very limited amount of portable apps out there. Because of licensing issues, all of the parent apps that are turned into portable apps are open source. Dont get me wrong, there are tons of excellent open source apps out there but some must-have programs are shareware. You dont get this problem with U3. This is one major drawback for portable apps.

2. Client app takes up space. You will find that when downloading the client program it takes up about 100 Megs on your drive. Depending on how big you drive is, this may be a hindrance.

3. Harder to install. This program is definitely for the more technical savvy as it is harder to manage. Even I had a little trouble trying to install it on my first attempt.

Final Verdict

If you are looking into buying a new USB drive anyways, and you are relatively shy with computers, you should stick with U3. If you already have a USB drive, or you are tech-savvy, consider PortableApps as a good USB launcher.

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31 Responses to “U3 versus Portable Apps”

  1. nanobreaker says:

    As your statement of the customizability of u3, i would beg to differ.

  2. [...] be U3 or if you don’t want to shell out the extra clams, you can go for PortableApps.  In my previous post I described the difference between the two.  This is especially important if you work on [...]

  3. FB says:

    Just a minor correction, Firefox is also available for U3, as is Opera.

  4. Troy says:

    Good article, it answered my questions about the difference in “app” size between the two platforms… I have a suggestion, why not get a U3 drive and utilize both platforms? I do, and both launchers work just fine side by side giving me the best of both worlds…

  5. Daniel W. says:

    Did I say (or infer) Firefox wasn’t available for U3? My apologies

    I was thinking the exact same thing a couple days ago :)

  6. Mike says:

    It seems like the only software you are using are from am I right? I just want to let everyone know about the huge amount of portable apps out there. Portable appications refers to any application that is portable… thus not leaving anything behind on the host computer. There are many other portable apps that are not hosted by or in the same format as that created by John Haller (the guy) though he has made portable some very awesome programs.

    Here are a few that I never leave home without, literaly.

    TrueCrypt: Disk encryption tool.. All of my important files on my thumb drive get encrypted with 256x256x256 encryption (3 256 bit encryptions layered on top of each other) so even if I loose it no one will EVER see what I don’t want them to see.

    Blender: 3d editing software (as good or maybe better than 3d studio max and Ohhh so much smaller.. and FREE)

    Ad Aware SE Core: Anti Ad/Spy ware application. This is a commercial shareware application that is completely portable. It doesn’t have a time limitation but you don’t get the live scan option.

    Trend Micro Cleaner AV: Free and Portable version of a commercial Anti Virus. (requires a more computer savvy person to setup)

    The list goes on and on…. cPicture (compact image viewer), CDEX (CD ripping software), xchat (mirc client), Foxit PDF reader (the best PDF reader, better and smaller than adobe), Notepad++ (Tabbed Notepad replacement plus hex editor plus multiple language editor plus….), Uniform Server 3.3 (great WAMP server), uTorrent(yes… uTorrent), the list goes on and on. Note that not all of these are open source, but they all are free and portable. I use PStart as my portable apps start menu and created an autoexec.bat that will run it whenever I insert my drive, it also changes the name of the drive to “Portable Apps and Servers” and changes the icon to a USB Icon I made.

  7. Mike says:

    Oh and if you don’t care about being “traceless” the list of programs keeps getting bigger. Mail readers, CAD, CD/DVD/ISO Burners, Anti-virus’, Audio samplers/editors, Media players/editors, Games, Registry cleaners, FTP/IRC/Web/Mail Servers, Programing Environments, ect. I have 48 seperate, free portable programs allowing me to do anything I need to do on any computer with a windows OS and a USB port, and a few Linux applications that I sometimes use, taking up 615mb of a 1gig USB stick. It is it’s own computer on the go. Portable Applications far dominate U3. Spread the word.

  8. [...] The Portable Freeware Collection U3 U3 Software Central U3 versus Portable Apps Nessun Commento finora Lascia un tuo commento RSS feed dei commenti a questo articolo. [...]

  9. Terry says:

    FYI… The red desktop icon has been easy to disable in the last two versions of U3 Launchpad. Thanks for the Portable Apps tips, Mike!

  10. dave says:

    My first visit to your site and I have not had time to go through all of the posting so my apologies if I am repeating already stated facts or opinions.

    I would agree with much of your analysis but have a few points of disagreement. Firstly open source is a vast reservoir of programs and for every U3 application I have found pay or free I have found 50 for portable apps in fact I have only came across on photo slide show program in U3 that I did not find the same or better in portable apps/p-app. There are websites which list well over 150 apps for P-apps a good start is wikapedia, main thing is to look beyond the official P-apps site ass many programs not designed for P-apps run on it anyway.

    Secondly most of the applications leave no trace but not all. I for one no of no way a virtual drive to be created without righting to the registry but will consider it is possible some apps will tell you when they install that they do right to the registry of the computer they are used on.

    I believe that U3 claims to auto close but have yet to see it happen without creating problems ether on the host computer or the drive its self. This also raises the question that unless the U3 drive uses a RamDrive to host its virtual CD or ISO then it must have put temporary files onto the Hdd of the host computer in order to run a shutdown of the U3 software. After all how can it run from the portable drive if it has already been unplugged? I am not aware the portable apps claim to be able to shut down. Closest I know of to this is a technical thing where almost all portable disks you can disable right behind cashing which enables a drive to be unplugged from the operating system improperly without risking corrupting data or disk sectors but this is an operating system function not part of ether U3 or P-apps. Since P-apps is not running from the host this means windows will shut it down if its source is removed.

    Although I am computer literate and a bit of a tech I would also disagree with the easy use of the U3 in comparison to the P-app most programs designed for portable apps install automatically those that aren’t usually require a simple copy and paste or unzip but manly it is when things go wrong that U3 is a nightmare where as P-apps is easy a good example of this is if you are on a shared network with limited resource such as here at the university U3 will crash every time leaving itself full of errors as well as freezing up the computer it is hosted on. As most people who would use these apps would do so as they are going to be using multiple computers this is an overwhelming point in favour of portable apps. You did touch on this when you said that P-apps was less memory Hungary, this is also how I know U3 actually leaves a lot of temporary files because I am always cleaning them of our university computers after someone has tried using a U3 drive. Students are allocated 40MB of space to run programs in the temporary files even when they have nothing else running U3 overwhelms this allocation meaning U3 writes more than 40Mb of temporary files without starting anything but the user interface. This also explains why they also crash when removed without being properly shut down.

    In the other direction I did manage to disable that big red button on U3 it was simply in the right click menu although this was a very new version so it may be something they have repaired. I found how to disable the button when trying to uninstall the U3 app so I could replace it with P-apps.

    Sorry but client apps take up space on U3 as well as p-apps unless the programmers have found a way of storing software on a disk without it taking up space, but U3 seams to use some compression which although saves space it also slows things down.

    I would agree that U3 is good for the beginner simply as it comes pre installed so absolutely no need for any technical skills but if there are any compatibility problems you will wish you went with portable apps

  11. Nathaniel says:

    Combine U3 and portableapps in a different way: since their just zip files, fire up 7-zip and extract the files from the .u3p file and find the main executable. It works on at least some U3 apps…

  12. Stacey says:

    I seem to be able to use both U3 and Portable Apps on my U3 enabled flash drive.

    Am I missing something here? Is there any reason why it might not be a good idea to use both?

  13. GMBudwrench says:

    Stacey, the only problems that I can think of would be the lack of space if you have a small sized flash drive. I’m not familiar with U3, but PortableApps can get quite hefty if you install a lot of different Apps on it. Also, I fouled up my
    pc installed version of Firefox by tinkering with my Portable
    Firefox. Be sure to remember to keep your versions separated so that you don’t lose your bookmarks, favorite extensions or settings etc. Also, there is the issue of wear on the drive, I don’t know if this would increase the write wear of the drive. This affects the life of the flash drive because of the solid state circuitry. HDD’s aren’t as susceptible to this problem as flash drives are.

  14. CJR says:

    Not sure if this is legal or not, but couldn’t you just copy an entire installed application with all it’s bits and pieces from the HDD of your pc and place it on the drive. And then open the folder and use the program anywhere?

    I don’t actually know if that would work though seeing as I’m a Mac user and don’t get to use pcs all that often.

    Seriously u3…. where’s the mac support??

  15. French Toast & Syrup says:

    Stick to using Portable Apps. Let alone other platform compatibilities, some versions of U3 Launchpad are not compatible with Vista, particularly SanDisk U3 Cruzers with device versions 2.17, 2.18, 2.19, 2.20. A look under Properties in Device Manager under Details Tab and select Bus Relations will reveal this information. A fix will be available eventually, but it can be a headache if you purchase a new flash drive with U3 and it does not work.

    U3 is only available for U3 Smart Enabled drives. Another words, if it did not come with U3 pre-installed on it, good luck installing U3 on the drive. U3 can also be removed and reinstalled at a later date. Removing U3 would have to be done if you bought a drive with U3 and it did not work on Vista, or you wished to use the device on your Mac. U3 can only be removed on a compatible computer to the best of my knowledge. Portable Apps works great on any flash drive I have tried installing it with, and have had no problems with it working on any computer running Windows XP, 2000, 2000 Server, 2003 Server.

    Another con to U3, is the fact that many CD burning software like Nero, Roxio, even MusicMatch can conflict with U3 and the whole CD partition of the drive. This can cause system freezes and other various issues with your computer. The fact that it mounts two drives when connected also can create drive letter conflicts. The simplicity factor of U3 for new users? LOL yeah the two partitions also confuses people and wonder why they can’t save anything to the U3 System partition because its marked as Read Only and the actual storage partition is the Removable Disk partition. Good luck explaining that to a very new user or someone 65 years or older.

    Make sure you eject your U3 software from the Launchpad before removing your drive.

    If many of the programs you prefer are open source stick to Portable Apps flavor of programs, they tend to be updated more. Look at the version of Open Office for Portable Apps compared to U3 version of Open Office.

    I am not saying U3 is totally horrible. It does have its perks. For the most part, it is easy to use and comes preloaded which is nice. The encryption and protecting the data is nice. I’ve used both on a regular basis, and handle many support issues regarding U3 software. With any flash drive, make sure to back up your data to another source as well. The amount of people that just update something and then it fails or their drive fails and their data is not backed up is mind numbing. Especially when it is someone telling me they are in grad school working on a PhD and all their course work is now gone.

  16. Ali says:

    Sandisk and Microsoft have recently announced a partnership to develop a new line of portable USB-based hardware.This series, purportedly named StartKey, is expected to replace U3 by the end of 2008, making the U3 format obsolete.[source:wikipedia]

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  18. John C. Reid says:

    I have just started using a U3 drive, and like the fact that I specifically can carry my Firefox 3 and Thunderbird 2 with me profiles and all. Yes this includes all extensions, themes, etc. Just copy your profile to the correct location on the drive (/system/apps/{app folder}/data/profile)

    The U3 version of Firefox is still only 2.x so your extensions must support this, but I am a very heavy extension user and only a couple of mine would not work.

  19. John C. Reid says:

    I just discovered a 3.0.1 version of Firefox at

    Also if you have a need to sync your profiles in Firefox or Thunderbird because you are doing things that change them (POP3 mail, remembered passwords, installing extensions, etc) the Allway Sync app works nicely.

    The best method I have found to have my E-mail and status everywhere while still using a thick client like Thunderbird is to use IMAP, but profile syncing should work for POP3. Just close Firefox and Thunderbird before you try to copy or sync the profile folders.

  20. Todd says:

    Just found this post and I just wanted to point out one thing. PortableApps applications are not limited just to windows, even if they are natively Windows apps. I run notepad++ and other apps from my PA stick on my Ubuntu box all the time, the only limitation is a small font glitch. If the font that the proggie uses isn’t on your box then it shows garbled boxes.

  21. Bo says:

    One very importing thing PortableApps i missing, is Password-protection of the drive. This is the only reason I use U3. One could use an encryption program for datafiles, but that is a hassle. When using U3 I don’t have to think about it, everything – datafiles, programs etc. is automatically protected.


  22. anonymous coward says:

    Only the Sandisk Titanium Cruzer Plus has hardware encryption of data. The U3 password app simply prevents you from mounting the volume. Using dd or any other low-level disk access program will let you lift off the unencrypted U3 partition. Your data is NOT encrypted.

    All your pr0n are belong to us.

  23. Bo says:

    Ok, but is there then a way (by PortableApps software) to protect the content of a PortableApps drive (both data and programs) so I don’t have to worry to much about loosing it ?

  24. josh says:

    Bo-using truecrypt to encrypt it (or any single-executable encryption on would give it (possibly) ample protection.

    truecrypt for sure, but I remember hearing that there are administrative dependencies. So good luck!

  25. paris says:

    any review on thunder p2p
    adn qvod player?



  26. Wumi Olaiya says:

    Thank you all for the great info. More pls………

  27. Zach Thibeau says:

    the problem is that u3 has no real standard for their apps and they tend to leave information behind in the Application Data folder in Windows, apps make sure that is never left behind :) and for people using truecrypt (hope you use it on your home computer because if you use it on say a library computer, you will need admin privelidges to mount the drive ;) )

  28. iCode says:

    I tested your statemet about the U3 apps leaving information behind in the Application Data folder but only found (2) executables in the \TEMP folder – cleanup and LaunchPadRemover. The other files and folders that are created when using U3 get deleted.

    You say U3 has no real standard for their apps. Could you elaborate? The U3 versions of Firefox, Thunderbird, TeamViewer, Shutterfly, BlackBox Password Manager, etc work the same way as the ones installed on my hard drive.

    Both the U3 and PortableApps platforms have their pros and cons. I’m all for hacking and tweaking (been debugging since the ’80′s) but I’m partial to the simplicity of the U3 model:

    Security -
    The option is available right off the top. Anonymous Coward states that using dd or a low level disk access program will lift the unencrypted U3 partition. Yeah, like your average Joe would know that? If you want to protect your partition, use TrueCrypt for U3. If you want to protect a file, use Portable Vault for U3…
    Package Factory for U3 -
    This is a Windows app that allows you to convert a small program to the U3 format. I converted my licensed copy of Winrar to U3 and it works fine.

    U3 for Ubuntu would be cool.

  29. marcel says:

    u3 sucks thebig one!!!may work one day then not the next. maywork on one computer but not the next one, oh ya dont fourget to eject or your drive is trashed!!! i have yet to see any of the bugs, & problems of the u3 with the protable apps. portableapps rocks!!!

  30. Deathmaster8 says:

    yeah .. portbleapps really rocks! And if you are some IT pro (like I am ;) ) you can make nearly EVERYTHING work on Portableapps. And don’t tell me there is Adobe Photoshop for U3 …

  31. paulo says:

    Portable apps without a doubt. You will not find the tools you need with u3, end up searching from them on the internet and getting them from unknown sites. These will come packed with virus! Forget about it… just go with portableapps and everything is clean!

  32. Kacamak says:

    Portable apps without a doubt. You will not find the tools you need with u3, end up searching from them on the internet and getting them from unknown sites. These will come packed with virus! Forget about it… just go with portableapps and everything is clean!

  33. Mark says:

    Use both – Just install portableapps within U3 and get the benefits of your base pc desktop and encryption from U3 along with the more up to date applications from portableapps. That’s what I did and I can open docx Word files from the newer OpenOffice version. For syncing, I would recommend synctoy from microsoft if you’re just interested in data sync back to your base pc.

  34. Russell says:

    How do you install PA within U3