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Mojopac: A Portable, Protected Virtual PC

Introduction

One of the hazards of using Internet cafes and other public Wi-Fi hotspots is that there is a good chance of getting infected, scanned, or both while you are online. Yes, you can run various protective measures such as a personal firewall, anti-virus and anti-spyware software. But these mechanisms aren't always perfect solutions.

Alternatives include installing and running a virtual machine that has its own protected workspace, using a U3 thumb drive that comes with its own software and password protection, and now Mojopac, an intriguing software solution that recently began shipping earlier this spring.

The idea behind Mojopac is elegantly simple: install a piece of software on an external USB drive. When the drive is attached to any Windows computer, it will automatically launch a protected, virtual session from the drive, complete with its own complement of programs and storage. Once you are inside this session, you don't have access to the host PC's resources, and so it is a little like the slogan for Las Vegas - any computing that you do inside the session stays inside the session, and you can't unintentionally harm the host PC. Another advantage is that you won't leave any trace of your activities on the host PC, because all evidence of your activities is stored on the external USB drive.

In the screenshot, you can see the status bar that Mojopac places at the top of the screen to indicate that you are running inside its protected session. You can switch between the protected and host session from here.

Click the image to enlarge

You can install any piece of software to the Mojopac drive - you can have your own browser favorites, an email and IM client, and other tools that you typically travel with. As long as your USB drive is large enough to store everything, you can take your computing environment with you. This is handy for consultants who don't want to take their laptops with them or are ultra paranoid that some cookie or temporary file will be left behind on a borrowed PC.

When you set up Mojopac, it comes with a bare-bones Windows OS already installed, so you don't have to buy another license to run your protected session. This is unlike what happens with the virtual machine solutions that do require you to install Windows once you have loaded the virtual session.

There are several caveats with using Mojopac. First, you shouldn't boot your PC with the USB drive attached - wait until the host PC is running before plugging it in. Second, if you want to copy a file from your Mojopac drive to your PC, first you need to switch into host mode and do it from there. While you are running inside your Mojopac session, you don't have access to the host's C: drive or any other internal hard drive or partition, although you do have access to other external USB thumb drives and the CD drive of the host machine (so you can still install software from the CD drive).

All USB v2 models work with Mojopac - I tried several flash drives and external hard disks. The sole exception is the iPod shuffle, but the remaining iPod models are supported. This is a nice advantage, and turns the iPod into a portable virtual computer, provided you haven't completely filled its hard drive with music files.

I found a couple of issues. First, when I ran Kaspersky personal firewall, it complained when Mojopac started up. That didn't stop Mojopac from running. It was just a warning. Mojopac doesn't run on Windows Vista and versions of Windows before XP. Finally, when booting from some older USB drives it takes a few minutes to bring up your desktop - although there are ways that are described on Mojopac's support pages to speed things up.

Mojopac is a great idea, and useful under the circumstances I've described. The $50 price seems reasonable for what you get. If you want to run it on more than one external USB drive, you will have to purchase additional licenses at $25 apiece.

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