Build the Ultimate USB Thumb Drive Toolbox

Alex Castle

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What’s a USB key good for? Carrying files from one computer to another? If you think that’s all, then you’re missing out. USB thumb drives can be used in almost all the ways a regular hard drive can, including storing all sorts of useful apps. We think that this presents a great opportunity for savvy PC users to keep their favorite programs at hand, no matter what computer they end up using.

In this article we’re going to show you a number of different loadouts for USB “tools.” With these on hand you’ll be able to do everything from checking your email to recovering data off a damaged hard drive on any computer you find yourself sitting in front of. We'll also show you a couple of cool tricks, like how to run a virtual, encrypted drive from a thumb drive, so gather up some of those spare USB keys you have lying around and read on.

Tool #1: The Portable Office

There’s a big push for portability these days—witness the meteoric rise in netbook sales, for one, as well as the enormous popularity of smartphones like the iPhone—and there’s nothing as portable as a USB key. Now, we’re not going to pretend that a thumb drive can take the place of a dedicated mobile computer, but we will show you how you can load it up with enough cool apps to make any strange computer a digital home away from home. (Or office away from the office, as the case may be).

However, before we start setting up our portable office, there’s something that must be discussed…


Here's the problem: Using an unsecured USB key as a portable office represents a major security risk. After all, if you managed to lose your drive and some unscrupulous type was to find it, he’d have access to all your sensitive data, like your emails and saved passwords. Fortunately, there’s a way to secure our drive against this kind of threat: Encryption.

We’ll use TrueCrypt, an extremely powerful piece of free encryption software, to encrypt the data on our USB drive. TrueCrypt’s encryption is top-notch, meaning that as long as you choose a strong passphrase, your data will be safe even if your key falls into the hands of the world’s greatest hacker-slash-pickpocket. To get yourself secured, just follow these steps:

1. Download TrueCrypt

It can be found here .

2. Install TrueCrypt

Run the executable to begin installation. When you are given the option, choose Extract rather than Install. This is what will allow us to run TrueCrypt on a USB drive. Choose to extract to some location on your thumb drive.

3. Create a Volume

Start up TrueCrypt by running the executable from the directory you extracted to, and click on the Create Volume button. This will allow you to create a Truecrypt volume, an encrypted file which will contain all of your data. Once the TrueCrypt Volume Creation Wizard pops up, choose Create an encrypted file container and click next.

At the next screen, choose Standard TrueCrypt volume. You could pick Hidden TrueCrypt volume, which allows you to create a sort of decoy encrypted drive in case someone tortures you for your password or something, but since we’re more worried about petty thieves than the KGB, we should be alright with a normal volume.

On the screen marked “Volume Location,” click Select File… You’re then prompted to pick a file name and location for your volume. If you’re feeling especially sneaky you can disguise the file as something else, but (again) the encryption will almost certainly be enough security, so we just called our file “Portable Office.”

You’ll then be treated to a screen of encryption options. You don’t need to understand this stuff, the default settings will work just fine. After that, you get to select the volume size. This must be large enough to accommodate all the apps we’re going to put on this disk. We recommend making it at least one or two gigabytes.

Finally, you’ll be given the opportunity to enter your password. Follow the usual guidelines for strong passwords, of course (make it long, don’t use names or birthdays, include a mix of letters of both cases, numbers and symbols) though exactly how long you make your password is up to you, based on how sensitive the data you plan to store on the drive is. Once you’ve chosen your password, click next, wiggle your mouse in the window for a little while (for security and a good time) then click Format.

4. Mount the Volume

Now all you have to do is wait for the encryption to complete, then mount the encrypted drive. To do that, go back to the main TrueCrypt screen and click Select File… and choose the volume you just created. If you uncheck Never save history it will allow you to skip having to load the volume every time you want to access your USB key. Next, click on the letter you want to assign to the virtual drive you’re about to mount and click Mount.

If you go back to your My Computer screen, you’ll now see a new drive. This is our virtual, encrypted drive. We can use it exactly like a normal drive, and when we’re done we just unmount it (or exit TrueCrypt) and anything in that drive is completely inaccessible to anyone until we mount it again by inputting the passphrase. Now that’s security.

Setting Up Your Portable Office

Installing the PortableApps Platform

Now it’s time to download the PortableApps platform. At the PortableApps download page , there are three options, which allow you to download just the platform, the platform and basic apps, or the platform, the basic apps, and Portable. You’re free to pick up whichever suite you want, though in the following section we’re going to showcase a bunch of the apps we like best, complete with download links, so you’re also safe just picking up the platform and then individually installing whichever apps you think you’ll use.

Once you've picked your package and finished downloading, simply run the PortableApps executable and choose to install it on the root of your virtual drive.

Installing Additional Apps

There are two ways to get PortableApps to play nicely with new applications. The first, which only works on officially supported Apps, is to download the .paf.exe application file. Then run PortableApps, click on Options -> Add a New App -> Install and then select the file you just downloaded. PortableApps will automatically install the program.

Even if the app you want to use isn’t on the official list, you can still get PortableApps to recognize it. All you have to do is install the application to a folder on the virtual drive at the same hierarchical level as the PortablAppsMenu folder. If you did a standard install, the path to your new app should look like this:

[virtual drive letter]:\ PortableApps\[New App Name]\[New App].exe

Once the app is in the right place, click Options -> Refresh Apps Icons in PortableApps and it should find your new program.

The Applications

When choosing apps for our portable office USB key, we should keep in mind the two main advantages that the portable office is meant to provide. The first advantage is that it allows us to make sure that we always have the apps we want on hand, even if we’re on a strange computer. Based on this, we want to include any apps that we find useful that might not be on any given machine.

The second advantage to a portable office USB key is that it allows us to keep all our settings intact, no matter what computer we use. Because of this, it’s wise to include apps like Portable Firefox. Even though almost any computer you use will have a web browser, bringing your own version of Firefox with you means that you can always have access to things like your bookmarks, plugins and saved passwords.

That said, which apps you should include on your thumb drive is a matter of personal preference. We’ll include a list of some that we consider essential and leave the rest up to you.

Read on to find out what apps we recommend! Portable

If you’re much of computer user at all, you’ve surely heard of, the open source alternative to Microsoft’s Office suite. It may lack a little bit of the polish of the MS suite, but at zero dollars it’s a hell of a deal, and it’s preconfigured as a Portable App. is included in the full PortableApps package, or you can download it here if you got one of the smaller packages.

Mobile Mozilla

Here we’re grouping up the three portable offerings from Mozilla: Firefox , Thunderbird and Sunbird . Firefox is, of course, the browser you know and love. As we discussed earlier, the main advantage to having Firefox on your drive is that you have options to all your personal settings anywhere you go. Thunderbird and Sunbird combined give you Outlook-style email and schedule management. If you’re a webmail user, you can go ahead and leave these two off the drive.


Anyone who does much instant messaging knows that being on a computer with no IM client feels like being cut off from your lifeline. Fortunately, Pidgin—the popular multi-service messaging client—is available in portable form . At the PortableApps Pidgin page (where you can download the .paf.exe) there are also links to encryption plugins, allowing you to keep your correspondence secure, no matter where you are.


Torrents are great; they’re fast, stable and plentiful. The only problem? You have to have a BitTorrent client to download them, and most non-power users don’t. But that’s not really a problem when you can bring your own client with you, and although it doesn’t come preconfigured as a Portable App, our favorite client uTorrent works just fine installed on a thumb drive.

And speaking of torrents, it's time for our second USB tool: the media stick. Read on to find out more about how to play any media anywhere.

Tool #2: The Media Tool

If you’re like us, one of the most indispensible uses of your computer is as a media HQ. We use ours to view, edit and organize pictures, videos, and audio. Unfortunately, not every computer has the set of sophisticated media-manipulation apps that ours has, which means that when we’re away from our home machine we’re sometimes left high and dry. There are solutions to this, of course—we could download and install what we need, as we need it, but this requires an internet connections and patience, and we’re not guaranteed to have either of those things.

So, instead let’s discuss how we can put together another USB tool for our toolbox—this time a media tool, which will allow us to fulfill our usual media needs on any system. Because of the size restraints of a USB thumb drive we can hardly schlep around every single media program we use, so we’ll have to make some smart picks to maximize our functionality while minimizing our storage requirements.

To organize our apps, we’ll use the platform again. Of course, we're only grouping these seperately for the sake of having specific tools with specific purposes, there's abolutely nothing keeping you from installing these apps on the same USB thumb drive as the last section.

Now, we’ll start filling out the drive with apps.


Normally we prefer the deliciously minimalistic Media Player Classic over VLC, but for our purposes here VLC’s ability to open nearly any file without having to install any codecs makes it a better fit. Beyond that, there’s not much to say about VLC. If you want to play a video or audio file in just about any format, VLC’s got you covered. That means that if you’ve got a (legitimately, of course) downloaded HD H.264 mkv file you want to show your buddy, you can just pop it onto one of your myriad thumb drives and take it to his house, without having to worry that his computer doesn’t have the necessary software to open it.

There’s a PortableApps version of VLC available here .


Google’s Picasa is our weapon of choice when it comes to organizing, viewing and touching up photos. By including it on our thumb drive media tool, we’re insuring that it’ll be a snap to retrieve family photos off of mom’s old machine.

There’s no PortableApps version of Picasa. Instead, download the installer from the Picasa website and install it following the instructions for adding new apps.


Speaking of pictures, we want some way to edit photos and images for our less technologically-forward friends and relatives. Sure, Photoshop’s nice, but it’s expensive and at about 300MB is an absolute heifer when compared to GIMP’s svelte profile.

GIMP is available as a PortableApp right here .

Next, we'll put together a tool to keep PCs in top condition.

Tool #3: System Tuner

A lot of times, being the computer nerd of the family means being the de facto computer technician. When it comes to time to play repairman, there are a couple of simple apps that can help to clear up the vast majority of normal users’ computer problems. By combining these apps onto one convenient USB thumb drive, you can fix your loved ones' maltreated computers without even breaking a sweat (or connecting to the internet).

Spybot - Search & Destroy

Spybot - Search & Destroy is one of the best malware-removal tools available right now. The program has an excellent set of features, is upgraded very frequently, and, of course, is totally free. If someone you know has a computer that’s gotten slow, The first (and sometimes only) step in your repair efforts should be to install Spybot on their system –to both clear off existing malware and help steer them clear of it in the future. With programs like this, it's best just to keep the installer on the USB thumb drive, rather than actually installing to it.

Revo Uninstaller

You’d be amazed at the crap some people will install on their machine. If you’re trying to clear up space or get someone’s machine to run faster, the Revo Uninstaller does a better job and is easier to use than the traditional Windows Add/Remove Software tool. One of its handiest features is a so-called “Hunter Mode,” which hides Revo Uninstaller and makes it so that a contextual opens for over any program window you click on, giving you the option to uninstall or stop the program from running at startup. In short, this allows you to uninstall applications without having to know a single thing about them.


PassMark DiskCheckup is a hard disk diagnostics application. Once installed, it monitors the SMART (Self Monitoring Analysis & Reporting Technology) data reported by your hard disks. It can show you statistics about the drive and tell you what they mean in terms of overall disk help. Also, DiskCheckup can be set to automatically email you if any of the SMART attributes fall below a certain threshold.


Although the built-in disk defragmenters in Windows XP and Vista do a fine job of getting your hard drives in order (as discussed), they’re a bit bare-bones. With Defraggler , a free program from Piriform, you get a powerful defragmenter, as well as a nicely informative GUI, which shows you a graphical representation of your drive’s contents. Plus, Defraggler allows you to defrag individual files, a feature lacking in many similar products. Also, like the other Piriform apps included in our toolkit, Defraggler a single, compact executable, which means you can just drop it onto your thumb drive and run it from anywhere, without any installation.


TweakUI is a PowerToy (read: app) from Microsoft which allows you to customize a whole host of settings in Windows XP that would otherwise require changes to the system registry. You won’t be making any really dramatic changes with TweakUI, but there are a lot of little things (several of which are discussed in this feature) that you can do with the programs to help get a system running just like you want it to.

Glary Utilities

Glary Utilities is an all-in-one tweaking and optimization tool package. Many of its functions (such as its disk cleaner and defragmenter) are already covered by other apps on this list which we like a little better, but it’s worth installing Glary Utilities for the many other handy utilities that it comes with. For instance, it can permanently delete files, find duplicates files, manage shell extensions and more. For a full list of features, check out the Gary’s Utilities website, where you can also download the package.


ZoneAlarm is the best-known and best-performing free software firewall currently available. Whatever your personal feelings about the necessity of firewalls for secure web-surfing are, it’s something that any computer novice should have on their system. By installing both Zone Alarm and Spybot S&D, you’ll ensure that even your dopiest friend won’t break his computer again as soon as you leave.

We haven't even adressed one of the scarist computer problems: Hard drive failure. Read on to check out our Hard Drive Repair Kit tool, which will include apps to diagnose, maintain and repair hard drives.

Tool #4: Hard Drive Repair Kit

We've already covered some minor hard drive-related tasks (such as defragging) on the system tuner tool, but we think there's enough high-quality hard disk apps to warrant grouping them into their own tool. On this stick, we’ll install several programs for analyzing and performing maintenance on your disks, as well as a sophisticated, bootable data recovery suite.

Of course, when it comes to hard drive troubleshooting, the be all and end all of advice is this: Backup! If you back your files up frequently and thoroughly, you’ve got nothing to fear from hard drive failure. However, not everyone is as clever as you are, so having this tool around might just make you a hero in the eyes of one of your less data-prudent friends.

This tool is a little unique in that it includes a bootable, Unix-based operating system called Knoppix , which is especially good for data recovery. To do this, we’ll be installing the Syslinux boot loader on the drive, so make sure you have that downloaded as well.

There’s an in-depth guide to this process available here , as part of our guide to installing Ubuntu on a netbook. If you have trouble following the brief instructions we’ll provide here, reference that guide for a more thorough description.

Making a Bootable Thumb Drive

1) Format your thumb drive

No, it’s not always necessary, but it’s quick and it might help you avoid later problems. Right click your USB drive in the My Computer window, select the FAT32 file structure if it’s not already selected, and hit Format.

2) Install Syslinux on the drive

First, open the Syslinux archive you downloaded and extract the contents to a file on your desktop. Then, open a command prompt and navigate to the win32 folder inside the directory containing the files you just extracted. Then enter this command: syslinux –ma E: substituting the drive letter of your thumb drive, if it’s not E:

3) Copy the Knoppix files over

Using a program like 7-Zip, open the Knoppix ISO you downloaded. Copy all files it contains over to the root of the USB thumb drive. Next, copy the contents of the folder called Isolinux to the root of the thumb drive as well. Finally, rename the files isolinux.bin and isolinux.cfg to syslinux.bin and syslinux.cfg, respectively.

Congratulations, your thumb drive is now bootable. But before we get into how to use Knoppix, we’ll load up a couple of additional Windows apps onto the thumb drive to make our hard drive tool more versatile.

Create a folder on the USB drive called Apps. This will contain the following software:

Disk Space


The first step to cleaning up an unruly hard drive is to clear off the useless data that accumulates like dust on a heatsink. CCleaner is a free app that goes through and automatically clears out all sorts of temp and cache files on your computer. It’ll also clean up your registry, and includes an uninstaller (though we’re going to put a better one on the drive) and a tool for choosing which programs launch on startup.


WinDirStat , short for Windows Directory Statistics is a hard drive space analysis tool. It provides you with a graphical breakdown of how the space on a hard drive is being used, and allows you to delete up files you don’t want. WinDirStat (or other, similar visualizers) is an excellent tool for identifying space-hogging programs. Then if you can live without these programs, it’s time for…



Recuva is a compact, simple undelete tool. It’s small, and doesn’t require installation, so we can just drop the executable on our thumb drive and run it from there. When run, it can scan your system for all deleted files, or only those which match certain search terms.

We should note that recovery tools like these are far from guaranteed to find your deleted files, so don’t go promising your friend that you’ll be able to get back anything they’ve ever deleted. Still, it’s worth a shot.

PC Inspector File Recovery

Now it’s time for the big guns. If one of the drives on your system goes down, but your Windows drive is intact you can use File Recovery to attempt to salvage the data. File Recovery must be installed on a disk other than the target disk, and runs in windows. It provides a simple to use but powerful GUI for recovering damaged or deleted data.


What about the worst-case scenario, though? What if the drive containing Windows goes down and you can’t get past the boot screen? That’s where Knoppix comes in. Using your new USB tool, you can boot directly to Knoppix, a Unix distro that we’ll use for data recovery. This is generally accomplished by pressing f12 as your system boots and selecting the USB drive, but this varies by BIOS.

Once you’re in Knoppix, minimize any windows that opened automatically and check out the desktop. You should see icons representing all the partitions in your system. Click on the icons to explore them one at a time until you figure out which one represents your Windows partition. Hopefully, Knoppix will be able to explore and retrieve data from your corrupted drive. If it cannot, your best bet is to send it to a data recovery specialist.

Kepp reading, because we've got one more tool for you to try out!

Tool #5: Windows Installer

We’ve already showed you how to install an OS on a USB key, but what about installing one from a USB key. Fortunately, it’s actually a relatively simple matter to transfer the Vista installation disc onto a thumb drive. Doing this poses a number of advantages: First and foremost, the faster USB 2.0 transfer speeds allow for a noticeably faster Windows install. Also, having a Windows installation USB key means easy installation on the growing population of optical drive-less PCs like netbooks. Finally, USB drives are less fragile and more portable than CDs, which is not a huge deal for OS installation, but it’s still nice to help someone set up a new computer and be able to bring all your tools with you in one pocket.

Using Vista, the process is much simpler than the Knoppix install we performed for the hard drive repair key. First, we’ll format the USB drive. This will require a series of command line commands, but we’ll walk you through them step by step. (Also note that these steps are the same as those used to install the Windows 7 beta from a USB drive, as in Norm’s guide right here .)

Ready the Thumb Drive

Enter the bolded commands, in this order:

List disk

This will show you a list of disks connected to the PC. Determine which disk is the thumb drive you want to install from, based on its size. Remember its disk number.

Select Disk # (Use the number from the previous step)


Create Partition Primary

Select Partition 1


Format FS=NTFS

Assign (Write down the letter assigned to the key)


Make the Drive Bootable

Next, we’ll need to make the USB key a bootable device. To do this, we’ll use code contained in the Windows Vista install CD. Insert the CD and explore it, navigating to the boot directory. Hold shift and right-click in this directory, selecting Open Command Window Here from the menu that pops up.

In the command window, enter the following:

Bootsect.exe /nt60 L: (But replace the “L:” with the letter assigned to your USB key.)

This will put code on the USB drive needed to boot from it. Note that bootsect will NOT work if you attempt to run it off of the Vista 64 bit install CD on a 32 bit Vista system or vice versa.

Copy Over the Install Files

All that’s left to do is to copy over the install files from the Vista install CD. Simply drag all the files from the root of the Vista CD into the root of the USB drive. And that’s it. All that’s left to do is boot from the USB drive. Assuming you’re on a computer that’s capable of booting from a USB drive, all you have to do is get to the boot menu (usually achieved by pressing f12 or f2 during startup), and select the USB key.

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