PocketDesktop (16GB) Review
The PocketDesktop offers a portable, bootable secure Linux desktop and a full complement of programs and tools, but savvy users will realize there’s not much here that isn’t already free.
- Flash drive is convenient
- Not very user friendly
- Rough-around-the-edges design
- Uses entirely free software
Though our technological world may be getting more mobile and more personal, there’s still a lot out there that is neither. Whether it’s a shared PC at work or school, or a stranger’s desktop, there are plenty of instances where you might want a portable, secure, personal computing environment. Enter the PocketDesktop, a USB flash drive small enough to put in your pocket, but filled to the brim with tools to let you safely and securely work on public and shared systems. It’s one part bootable OS-on-a-stick, one-part USB software toolkit. And while it may not appeal to everyone, it’s an easy solution for those who may need it.
The PocketDesktop is an unassuming flash drive—our review unit was 16GB—measuring 2.6 by 0.25 by 0.6 inches (HWD) and measuring 0.3 ounce. It’s small enough to add to a keychain without adding any appreciable bulk. Unlike most flash drives, however, you won’t be buying the PocketDesktop for the storage capacity, but for what’s already on the drive.
The drive is pretty plain as far as hardware goes, with a USB 2.0 connection, an aluminum body with a blue PocketDesktop logo, and a black plastic cap. There’s a tether point on the back end for a lanyard or key ring, but nowhere to store the cap while the drive is in use. In all honesty, the PocketDesktop looks a whole lot like the generic 1GB to 2GB drives given away at corporate events. However, the hardware doesn’t need to be particularly amazing, since the main functionality is software-based.
Our 16GB review unit sells for $59.95 (plus $7.95 shipping and handling), working out to roughly $4.24 per GB. This is pretty steep for a 16GB flash drive, even with the included software. For comparison, the Kingston DataTraveler Workspace (32GB) is a similar product—offering a bootable version of Windows 8—which sells for $2.80 per GB. And for more specific uses there are more affordable alternatives, like the Victorinox Swiss Army Slim Flight, which offers private zero-footprint Web browsing. And plenty of drives offer password protection and secure partitions for keeping private data private, including both the Victorinox Slim Flight and the Editors’ Choice SanDisk Extreme 3.0 (64GB).
Features and Performance
The main feature of the PocketDesktop is a bootable secure desktop environment. The Pocket Desktop OS is a tweaked Linux distro, but because the OS is read-only and operates in a closed environment, it does offer a measure of security that the average bootable copy of Ubuntu or Puppy Linux won’t offer. It also offers security for the owner of the PC—once you’re booted into the Private OS, you won’t be able to access the host PC’s local storage, and will be operating entirely outside of the installed operating system. It’s also usable on nearly any PC, regardless of operating system—any Windows, Mac, or Linux PC that allows booting from a flash drive should be supported.
Also found on the bootable drive are a few dozen applications and utilities. Included on all models are Firefox, Avast, Thunderbird, Pidgin, Open Office (Writer, Math, Base, Draw, Impress), Adobe Reader, Skype, Dropbox, Transmission (Bit Torrent Client), Rhythmbox music player, Totem video player, KeePass password manager, along with a generic calculator and a file recovery manager.
The 8GB and 16GB models—including our review unit—get two scoops of goodies, adding GIMP (Image Editor), Bluefish (HTML Editor), Efax, GNU Cash, Home Bank, Planner, Scribus (Print and Page Layout), Epiphany Web browser, Ekiga (Net Meeting and VoIP), Xchat (IRC Chat Client), GMud (MUD and MU* Client), Vinagre (Remote Desktop Viewer), Amazonmp3 (Downloader), Brasero (CD/DVD Burner), Dasher (Predictive Text Entry), Filezilla (FTP Client), Gdesklets (Desktop Widgets), Gnome Scan (Scanner Utility), Grip (CD Player and Ripper), Orca (Accessibility Screen Reader), and Tomboy (Note Taking).
Now, it is definitely worth pointing out that all of these programs—all of them—are available for free, in USB executable form, through sites like PortableApps.com and PortableFreeware.com. And if you don’t need the PocketDesktop’s read-only version of Linux, there are plenty of DIY alternatives available as well. For some of our readers, putting Linux and freeware on a bootable flash drive is an afternoon diversion—but those readers aren’t the intended market for this product. PocketDesktop is aimed at folks who want those tools, but are willing to pay $20 to $60 to get it in a ready-to-use form factor.
Using the drive is fairly straightforward, if a bit underwhelming. Plug the drive into a USB port and fire up the system, pressing F2 or F6, (or whichever key your system uses for the boot menu) and select the device labeled “Private OS.” Booting from the drive, it will open up a desktop environment—that looks like a kludgy refugee from the late 90s. If you were hoping for the slick graphics of modern Windows or Mac operating systems, you will be disappointed.
Once you’re booted into the desktop, you’re good to go. The remaining storage space on the drive is mounted as the system drive while the hard drive of the host PC will be inaccessible (it won’t even show up). Using the included tools and programs, you can now do all of your Web browsing, document editing, and other sundry activities safe from any viruses or malware that might be on the host PC. When you disconnect the drive, you won’t have to worry about leaving any digital breadcrumbs behind or forgetting to log out of sensitive web services like your banking or insurance accounts.
I did run into two odd quirks while testing, however. The first was network access; while I was able to access my network in PC Labs, I couldn’t connect to my home network during off-site testing. Also, once the PocketDesktop is booted up, the audio control reverts to its default setting, namely maximum volume. Given that I usually mute my speakers to reduce distractions, the unexpected volume change was something of an unwelcome surprise.
If you’re the sort who looks at the PocketDesktop and scoffs that you can do the same for free, it really isn’t meant for you. It’s meant for your in-laws, your boss, your kids, anyone who may want those same tools in a convenient prepackaged device. Unfortunately, the end result is underwhelming, and the very folks that would need it will likely opt to use the more familiar—and potentially insecure—operating system already on the host PC. Ultimately, while the idea is a good one, the final product is a little too opaque and unpolished.
Compare the PocketDesktop with several other flash drives side by side.
By Brian Westover, PCMag