Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

An external drive is just another drive to Windows. Setting up programs on a drive that can be removed, however, warrants some care.

Windows XP-Home is installed on my C drive. Will programs, games and so on run if installed on my external E: drive or do they have to be on the same drive as Windows?

The short answer is yes, but there are, as always a few caveats and clarifications I need to make.

If when you set it up a program allows you to choose a destination drive to install onto, it shouldn't matter if that drive is C:, your Windows drive, or some other hard drive internal or external. For the most part they're all just drives, and the fact that the setup program gives you the option means there shouldn't be an issue.

For the record, if the setup program doesn't give you a choice then it may be an issue and I'd avoid trying to circumvent it.

Now, many external drives are removable. USB drives, for example, can be removed from your computer either while it's not running, or after clicking a "safely remove hardware" for the device. In the later case, if a program on your removable drive is running, "safely remove" may fail. All files on the external drive must not be in use, and a program running from the drive is definitely "in use". You'll need to make sure that all programs installed on the external drive are shut down before attempting to remove the drive.

Now, that sounds simple enough but more complex packages often install software that runs automatically when you start your machine, either in the form of explicit start-up menu items, or as system services. You may not think you're running any software that's installed on that external drive, but in reality it may have installed something that is. You'll need to figure out what that is, and take steps to disable it, or shut it down before you remove the drive.

"You'll need to make sure that all programs installed on the external drive are shut down before attempting to remove the drive."

Along those same lines, if the drive is not installed when you boot your system, you may get error messages on start up if a prior installation of software onto that drive also added startup items. Without the drive installed, those startup items may not be found, and errors may result. Menu items and shortcuts relating to the software installed on the external drive may also revert to Windows defaults until some time after the drive is reinstalled.

Finally, don't expect application portability by installing it to an external drive. By that I mean that installing an application to an external drive, and then taking that drive to a different computer and expecting the application to work on that machine. This may work for simpler applications, but setting up a complex application is as much about setting up the Windows registry as it is about just placing files. The registry will have only been set up on the first machine. Theoretically it might be possible to set up the software on machine A, then set it up again on machine B if the drive letters are identical, but I'd expect that to be highly error prone. It's also quite possibly against many applications licenses or terms of use since you're technically installing it on two machines.

So there are a number of issues related to removable media, but if you're just installing your software to a second hard drive, and it just happens to be an external drive, I wouldn't expect that scenario to be an issue for you.

Article C2961 - March 13, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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27 Comments
Chuck Eglinton
March 14, 2007 5:04 AM

Excellent advice, Leo.

Some aapplications have been designed to run external drives, such as the MS Word compatible processor, "ABIword Portable," the Thunderbird Browser, and many Open Office applications.

Carrying these portable applications on an external drive or jump drive can be helpful if you're a student or you use various computers.

Simon
March 19, 2007 6:55 AM

Building on Chuck's comment, Wikipedia has a nice list of "portable" applications (ones that don't require any installation and so can be easily run from external drives) at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_portable_software .

Clive
March 26, 2007 10:01 AM

There is a program call MojoPac that allows one to install software on a USB drive, iPod or portable hard drive because it vitualizes the Registry. You can run MS Office and other programs like Adobe Creative Suite, and move the drive from computer to computer and use the installed applications. Very cool . Find out more here: http://www.mojopac.com

Pat
April 10, 2007 5:03 PM

Thankyou very helpful.

olivier
April 12, 2008 11:28 AM

would like to know if it is possile to install an antivirus on my external drive, and where can i get the software?which kind of software can i use?

Vik
July 19, 2008 11:43 PM

How to protect my data on my portable hard drive, from infections, while connecting to other people's pc ?
Thanks for any info.

Leo
July 21, 2008 9:20 AM

-----BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE-----
Hash: SHA1

If your hard drive (or USB thumb drive) has a physical
"read-only" switch to prevent writing to the device, use
that. Unfortunately, not many do these days for some reason.

- From a purely pragmatic point of view the answer is that you
really can't ... at least not with 100% certainty. The best
steps to take include:

* ONLY connect to PCs you absolutely trust

* turn off "auto play" on your own computer

* virus scan the drive immediately on connecting it back to
your own computer.

Leo


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Version: GnuPG v1.4.7 (MingW32)

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Syed
January 9, 2009 6:53 AM

I am tired of formatting my hard drive and installing all the service pack files and bunch of application each time my computer hit by a virus.

1) From the above comments it is clear that we can install Application on separate drive internal or external as long as the apps get installed on that separate drive.
Is it possible to create partitions of my current internal hard drive C i.e. install operating system on C and install all the apps on the partition drive and if I have to format my C drive will the apps still work with that operating system when it gets reinstalled on C drive.

2) How to make a complete copy of C drive that includes boot and license files and all the apps to put it on DVD or multiple DVD's so in case of formatting hard drive I can just put the DVD and install everything.

Any comments will be greatly appreciated.

Thanks

Syed

Installing on an external drive doesn't somehow prevent viruses from attacking what's installed out there - they're just as vulnerable. Taking a full backup image once you've set up a clean machine is one way to have something you can restore to so as to avoid having to reinstall all the time.

But if you're constantly getting re-infected, that simply shouldn't be, and I'd re-evaluate your security software and/or your safety habits.

- Leo
09-Jan-2009
not_a_numbers_guy
May 17, 2009 9:03 AM

I currently have a desktop PC and laptop setup on my wireless network. I have recenly added an external hard drive, which I have also made available to both computers on the network.

I am curious to know, if I install applications onto the external hard drive can both netwroked computers run that application?

Thank you!

Typically, no. Installation also sets up information on the machine you're installing it on, most notably in the registry, which won't be set up for those other machine. A few apps can work as you describe, but almost all that use a setup program do not.
- Leo
18-May-2009
Jake
November 9, 2009 4:16 PM

REALLY need help with this one
When I download games, I am able to choose to Install to my external hard driev (g drive)
However, when I open the file, it starts to Install the game by extracting files to my normal hard drive..
I ran out of space on my internal (c drive) and the installation was cancelled.
How can I get files to extra to my external drive, or not extract at all?

-please help its really frustrating

cpd
December 21, 2009 6:36 PM

copied a program folder to an external drive as a backup and realized after a while that the program is booting from the external hard drive now... how do I correct this?

Imparadoxical
January 3, 2010 1:39 AM

I have two drives; (:C)and (:D) and it's a partition. I tried to install Microsoft Office in drive (:C) because it is more spaceous than drive (:D). Unfortunately, when I did install, why does it takes drive (:D)'s space too?

Kieran Hamilton
May 29, 2010 3:31 AM

I recently purchased an external hard drive (1TB) and i was wondering if there is any way i could make a new user on my computer and only use it for playing games. If i installed the games on to my external hard drive would i still get errors when i start up my computer even although no other programs are installed on that user.
Sorry if thats hard to understand.
Basically can i make a new user on my computer that is totally hard drive based (apart from operating system of course.

kcmartz
May 30, 2010 11:23 PM

Hello. I a few months ago bought a Microsoft Freelancer PC game from amazon with cd, brand new. Is it possible to portablize this game? Thanks!

John Anderson
June 29, 2010 5:46 PM

I have a problem. I use Steam for my games. (It is an internet system to download and file games. I plugged in my external hard drive to my computer, and the space on it jumped from 300gb to 14000gb. I installed a game, but when I tried to run it, it told me that it was missing maps. How can I fix this? It dosn't give me a file location to put it or anything.

Satish
July 13, 2010 11:13 PM

I have a Laptop which has only 80GB internal drive. This is an official laptop, where I canít install any other software other than our company purchased software.
I have purchased recently WD 500GB Passport External drive in which I want to install my new software in the external drive. New software should not get reflected in my laptop or in registry. I want to run new software from external drive when it gets plugged to laptop or any other PC, all its registry entry and relevant files to be present in external drive.
Please advice on how to implement it.
Thanks & regards,
Satish

The vast majority of software will either require changes to the registry in order to work, or make changes to the registry when they are used. If no registry changes are an absolute requirement, then I have no general solution for you.
Leo
14-Jul-2010

TeeJay
August 23, 2010 10:03 PM

I installed adobe master collection CS4 on a hard drive and then the hard drive broke and i got a new one and now i cant install adobe master collection CS4 again.

Adobe's copy protection scheme can be somewhat painful at times. You should be able to contact Adobe customer support for assistance, though.
Leo
23-Aug-2010

Melody
December 20, 2010 5:44 PM

I want to install wordpress on my external hard drive. Can I do this and how? Thank you.

Wordpress is something you install on a web server, not typically on your PC at all.
Leo
21-Dec-2010

Sondra
January 14, 2011 4:04 AM

I am reformatting an older pc with the orignal windows xp. c drive it very little ram ( runs slower now with all the updates). I have an internal hardrive with 2 gig...can I install xp on here and pc will run? also, do I have to have all the service packs installed? Plus, I looked up all the drivers to update and there are 78. Not sure which ones I really need as they all say "optional" on them. (dell pc 4300)

Thank you!

Val Seaton
January 19, 2011 4:14 PM

Hi There Leo - Thanks for the help. Okay there is this product "USB 2.0 to IDE/SATA Cable with Power Adapter -here's the link: - http://www.ultraproducts.com/applications/SearchTools/item-details.asp?EdpNo=3276554&Sku=ULT40112
Question is can programs be run with this from external old xp hard drive connected with usb to new machine with new windows 7 professional? This could be so fantastic for so many if possible.

It depends on the program. If the program would work under Windows 7 without needint to have its setup program run, then sure, it'll run no matter what drive it's on. How the drive is connected or what OS the drive used to be used for does not change the fact that you're running the program under Windows 7, and doesn't aleviate the need for a setup program to be run for many applications.
Leo
20-Jan-2011

Phil
February 15, 2011 3:27 PM

Does it work for online gaming programs? Since it doesn't have limitations on how many hardwares I can install it on, and logging in process comes up after the program starts running..? If specific game type is required to know, it's mmorpg.

Androw
March 24, 2011 5:08 AM

Actually Ive installed several games on my external and they run fine from different computers i hook it up to. Relatively new games like Cod4 - Modern Warfare for instance.

LaTrice
September 13, 2011 3:07 PM

Thanks Andrew, that is the exact game i want to put on my external and you guys have definitely helped me.

Arthyr
February 21, 2012 8:53 PM

all of my program files are installed on alternate drives. just in case my windows wants to crap on itself. which it did after 3 years and 2million files (literally) later. Upon angering myself, I tried something odd, I did a tiny lil fresh install on a junk HDD, and added my other windows library's, directory's to it, and BAM! everything worked again. I BS you not. RAGE3D, Crysis1,warhead,and 2. Rfactor, Abelton live,, Reason, AVA. All of the programs that I was dreading to re install worked. Some random programs would say cant find yadda file, but if that was the case, just use the original .exe on that drive to launch it. *just make a short cut to it and move it to where you like. :D

Antoinette Jackson
June 24, 2012 1:48 PM

Do you think I dare chance it? I want to put my e mail programme on my external HD for the very reasons that LaTrice said. My awful HP desktop after 4 or 5 new motherboards and the HD finally was even corrupted and I lost all my years of EVERYTHING! I love Incredimail (I know many people don't) anyway. I really want to try to put it on my external drive, note it does NOT give you the choice of what drive you want to install it on. And it puts it's files for folders places I can not find anymore. That would be the main thing the folders files that take up so much of my HD space. But the whole programme needs to be on my external drive. Do you recommend putting all my WINDOWS files from C:/WINDOWS onto the external drive? Is that what it needs? Now does that mean COPYing them or transferring them? I don't think my C:/ drive will operate without having them on it will it? So who ever posted they put the WINDOWS directory on their ext. HD and all the programs worked was not totally clear. I DO want to give it a try. I have my emails all over 4 different programmes and can't find a thing. Thank you very much for your time in considering this request. Antoinette

connie
June 24, 2012 3:36 PM

@Antionette
That sounds very scary! External drives can also break, so even if you go to all the trouble to do that... you are still risking everything. Seems like you'd do better to try to find the source of the computer problems (poor ventilation, dust, dirt, electric surges?), and also do regular backups. No matter which drive goes out you won't lose everything if you do not have it in one place.

You should start by watching Leo's backup webinars. That will give you a good foundation in backups, and an idea of how to move forward:

Backup Webinar

Ingrid
April 20, 2013 9:15 AM

Antoinette,
did you try installing and running Incredimail on an external hard drive?

I save my Incredimail data (mails etc.) to ext hard drive, but since I travel alot, I would like to have the Incredimail program itself on the ext hard drive too - to have exactly the same view on my PC and laptop.
Is there someone out there who has tried?

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