The USB hard disk was a great invention when it came to adding capacity to a local PC, or doing backup, or moving data around. But it was only a data-store, so it had its limitations.
In particular, it was hard to install applications there - because most modern apps spread their junk all over the system drive. Plus, a hard disk needed mains power, all of which meant it didn't work well as a portable personal workspace.
So for those of us who need to work at different locations but don't want to - or can't - do everything on the web, there hasn't been much alternative to carrying a laptop. Indeed, it seems that many laptops rarely if ever get used on batteries - they are simply a way of moving one's workspace from office to office, or from office to home.
All that is changing now though, thanks to technologies such as software virtualisation and the development of small form factor (SFF) drives that need less power. It means you really can take a hard disk and turn it into a 'portable desktop environment' - and that's what Seagate has done with the FreeAgent Go.
What you get is a pocket-sized enclosure, holding a 160GB 2.5-inch hard disk, spinning at 5400RPM and connecting over USB2. It can transfer data at over 10MB/s, which is several times faster than a USB Flash drive.
It does require a fair bit of power, and not all USB2 sockets will be able to supply enough. Seagate therefore supplies a cable with two USB plugs - if the main one is not enough (one was sufficient on our desktop PC, but the laptop needed two), you can plug the secondary into a spare port.
Once powered up, one end of the drive glows orange - if it is flashing, it's not getting enough power. Then, if your PC supports autorun for this type of device - and as long as it's running Windows 2000 or newer - up pops a menu with the first option being to start its Ceedo interface. If you don't have autorun enabled, you can go in manually and start the software.
This is where it starts to get clever. The Ceedo software, which Seagate has licenced from its eponymous developer, creates a virtual area within the system - you can install and run apps, and sync data onto it, all without any permanent effect on the host PC. Then when you dismount and unplug FreeAgent, it cleans up after itself and is ready to run on a different PC, with all your apps and data just as they were.
You can also install a small agent on the PC which automatically starts Ceedo, password-protect the drive, or install Seagate's FreeAgent tools - these let you define which directories you want synced onto the drive, encrypt files (using 256-bit AES), run diagnostics and so on.
Apps are installed from Ceedo's website and are specially packaged to install and run on a removable drive. Several categories are available, covering most needs, such as web browsers, FTP clients, instant messengers and email, and FreeAgent gets its own quick-launch bar on the screen, listing what you have installed.
Of course, most commercial software vendors still expect you to install their app on a specific machine. Ceedo gets around that by concentrating on open source and shareware, with its less restrictive conditions - although it also supports some widely installed apps such as Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, which it runs from the host PC but using data stored on the FreeAgent.
There is a range of apps available, but they weren't always the latest versions, and running that supplier's standard update process did not always work on the FreeAgent. For example, I was unable to update the Opera web browser from version 9.1, which Ceedo supplied, to the more current 9.24 release.
You can add some extra apps via a packaging tool called Argo; this is an extra purchase but it's not expensive. It could be used to install a library of technical support tools for those times when you need to do some work on a PC's installed software, for instance.
There is a notable category missing, though - there is no option to install Open Office or another office suite. Instead, Seagate assumes that the PC you're using will have one installed, and relies on its software to clean up the traces you'd otherwise leave behind when you use Office to open files stored on FreeAgent.
Still, this is a very interesting answer to the question of how to use your apps and data on more than one PC. As you would expect from a modern USB2-connected drive, performance is excellent - it's certainly good enough to run apps from. It's also a nice price per GB, and for temporary use the need for a second USB port on some PCs should be OK.
There are cheaper and faster portable hard drives out there, but what sets this one apart is the concept of the portable personal workspace. It's not perfect - nor is it the only way of providing such a thing - but it's certainly thought-provoking.