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What Is The Difference Between Portable & Installable Apps?

When downloading apps, you might have been presented with the option to download the install or portable version of the same app. If it’s the first time you’re hearing of apps being ‘portable’ you might wonder if there’s a catch to it. You might also question why all apps aren’t developed to be portable since it is very obviously possible. We’re addressing the pros and cons of using a portable vs. installable version of the same app and why some apps simply do not have a portable version when others do.

A portable app is an app that you simply run without it installing anything on your system. It runs as a single instance of itself, requires no setup, and can be used right-away. Think of it as a light bulb that you can plug into any standard holder.

An installable app requires set-up. Set-up might take just a few minutes or maybe even an hour depending on the app. The app can only be used once setup has successfully completed. Think of it as a special bulb you’ve bought that might require a special holder, or maybe some new wiring to be installed before you can use it.

Portable Apps Installable Apps
All files that the app needs to fully functions are kept in the same folder as the app’s EXE file. An installable app will save files to different locations such as its own dedicated folder inside the Program Files folder in your C drive, the App Data folder in your user profile, and other locations.
A portable file will not modify the Windows registry in any way. An app that you install may, or may not, modify the registry. When such an app is uninstalled, the registry changes aren’t always reversed.
You can move a portable app to any drive or even to an external storage device and it will continue to work. Moving an app that’s been installed on your OS isn’t easy. Normally, you have to uninstall and reinstall it again. Simply moving its files is not enough and will result in file paths and links breaking. The app, if it is still able to run, might be unable to find some of its components and show random errors.
A portable app will not remember you personal preferences and settings. These may include recent or frequently accessed files and directories among other things. One of the biggest advantages of installing an app is that you can customize it to work how you want it to. Photoshop is an excellent example of an app that you will set up to function in a certain way. If you had to set it up over and over again, it would be time consuming. The install version remembers which tools you use and which toolbars and windows to show you when you open it.
A portable app can be run from an external source. You can run it from a USB without needing to copy it to your local disk. An installable app cannot run unless you install it first. It cannot be installed on an external storage device. Some apps will insist they be installed to the same drive as the one you have installed Windows on.
A portable app is unlikely to damage critical files on your system. There is always the chance that a malicious file might be bundled in the EXE file but that comes down to the app itself coming from an unreliable source. A portable app isn’t going to modify anything in the registry so there is less chance of things going wrong. Installing an app may result in damage to critical files on your system simply because the app is allowed to modify them and does so in order to be properly set up. There isn’t a way to opt out of it.

The differences between the two app types makes it seem as though portable apps are just better but it’s important to remember that apps that need to be installed have this requirement because they need a much broader framework to run. You can’t reasonably think of an installable version of the Android Development Environment to be portable. Even the portable version of Photoshop is labelled ‘Lite’.

For tools that are meant for simple, quick actions and little to no processing, a portable app works but anything that is going to be processor intensive, an installable version is what is normally developed. Perhaps in the future, portable apps will become the norm. At present, web apps are increasingly becoming more powerful and they run inside browsers so it could happen. It depends to a great extent on whether it’s worth it to make an app portable and if it can still perform as well, or better. Windows 10, when it was still in the Beta version, had a feature that allowed users to move installed apps from one drive to another one. The feature didn’t make it to the final stable version and was instead postponed. It’s a testament to how such a function, while useful, is difficult to execute.


  1. Portable applications are ideal for single user systems (no matter how much accounts this user created on that system).

    For example:
    Firefox works fine in any account, but if another user logs in and wants to use Firefox, he/she cannot. The portable version of FF wants to start with the same default profile and it can’t. There are more portable applications that have a similar problem.

    But most haven’t, so it very handy to use portable applications. Say you have a Windows PC and you use Virtual Machne software to enable different versions of Windows on that same machine (for compability, to test, for fun, etc.).

    Most if not all VM software packages allow to create links to folders and/or partitions on the hos and the activated VM sees these links as drives/partitions. This allows you can use one instance of a portable application to run in the host and the VM at the same time.

    As I keep my portable applications in a separate folder on a separate partition, I can use the same application with multiple operating systems at once. No (extra) configuration necessary in any of the operating systems. Saves a lot of storage space this way too.

    Making a backup of your portable applications is easier/simpler too. And if you put the backup back, you won’t lose no time re-configuring your portable applications.

    • Gerold Manders says:
      January 2, 2016 at 11:49 pm

      Portable applications are ideal for single user systems (no matter how much accounts this user created on that system).

      For example:
      Firefox works fine in any account, but if another user logs in and wants to use Firefox, he/she cannot. The portable version of FF wants to start with the same default profile and it can’t. There are more portable applications that have a similar problem.
      – – –

      This is simply not true, and here’s why…

      If one has multiple users on one OS, then a portable browser folder can be duplicated for as many users as the OS has, and each portable browser folder can be named, for example, Firefox_Kevin, Firefox, Jane, and so on.

      Shortcuts from each folder can be pinned to each unique user’s taskbar, and all of their actions are properly recorded in their respective folders and kept separate from others.

      Finally, if portable apps are kept on an external drive of any kind, then it is vital to make the drive letter of that drive permanent, and give a letter further along in the alphabet (i.e. Drive M or X,Y or Z), so that when plugging it into another OS, the risk of the drive letter already being taken is reduced. Configurations depend on the same drive letter path to function upon reconnecting to an OS, otherwise links will be dear and pull and error.

  2. Portable apps usually DO remember settings and data, but all of ir keeps on the portable folder, whereas the installable version does the same but on local folders. Whether a portable version preserves preferences and data or not is a matter of how it’s programmed and what kind of program it is.

    • The debate on the pros and cons of portable apps should be defined as to which portable app one is talking about, for example, the practicality of installing 7zip as compared to GIMP.

      In my experience, only apps worth installing are apps that require system resources to function, or are for the purposes of continually monitoring system functions and changes (i.e security purposes).

      Other than this, the final blow to the defense of “installing apps being better than portable apps” is where the user forks over a few dollars to purchase a large sized external drive (or two) and makes regular backups of files, folders, images, videos… in other words, personal things “That Cannot Be Replaced” by a software manufacturer, or a fresh re-install.

      The whole purpose of having a PC, IMHO, is to create unique things… and then to be able to back those things up, to be reapplied to a suitably replaced/repaired OS in the event of disaster.

      A good backup is like having stored food and water, because the store shelves may not always have food, or the banks may go under. Don’t depend on installers and “The Cloud”… which is simply another person’s “computer” and they are the “God” Administrator of all your information.

      Sorry for digressing… but portable apps are definitely the way to go, to reduce bloat and allow for an easy bi-annual or annual re-install of a system, and not have to re-install everything at that time.

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