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Can I Run Programs From An External Drive?


Susan from California is looking to upgrade her OS, but has a question about freeware.  She writes: “I want to upgrade Windows XP Home to Windows 8. In order to save space on my current operating system, I have installed many downloaded (free) programs to my E drive rather than saving them to C drive. When I update to Windows 8, is there a way I can successfully transfer the E drive installation program files, or perhaps save them to an external hard drive and then migrate them to Windows 8? Thanks for your help.”

Hi, Susan. Thanks for the great question.

The first thing that I’d like for you to know is that every program, in order to operate with Windows has to be placed in the “registry”.


This is, among other things, so that the program can use any of the resources that Windows has that it needs.  Because of this, whether you store the program on your C drive or on an external drive, you will basically have to reinstall the program.  In my experience, some programs will run without being reinstalled, but not many and not perfectly.  Since they can’t use Windows’ resources, they are also prone to shutting down whenever they try, which can be a most frustrating experience.

But that’s not necessarily bad news.  By reinstalling your programs (and I would recommend the C drive for reasons that I’ll explain in the next paragraph), not only are you getting a fresh, clean install of the program, but you’re also getting the latest version.  In many cases, this means a version that’s designed to work with your OS.

The reasons that I would recommend installing them to your C drive rather than an external drive are twofold.  First, your program will run faster.  Even if it’s just by milliseconds, any program runs faster from your hard drive than from an external drive simply because of transfer speed (how fast the program loads from your media to your machine).  Since it’s already on your machine, transfer speed is virtually nil.  The second reason is because, if installed on your hard drive, the program is not prone to any problems that may befall your external media.

I hope that this helps!

~ Randal Schaffer

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2 Responses to “Can I Run Programs From An External Drive?”

  1. Trish says:

    Randal, I’ve been wondering for awhile, so I’ll ask a related question. Can you transfer a program -Photoshop Elements for example to an external HD in case of a computer failure. Then transfer it back to a repaired or separate computer? Would the program work. My computer is getting t/b senior age for computers and I don’t want to loose programs I coulda saved. Thanks for all your expertise. Trish

    • Tim says:

      Trish, in case Randal doesn’t check in here to see your comment, I’ll pop in a quick reply (as an un-affiliated party): Randal explained the registry thing – it’s exactly the same for your question. If you install to the external drive, your registry knows that. But if you take that drive to another computer or connect it to a repaired computer, the registry on the new/repaired computer does not have the information in it that the original had. So no, it won’t work. Think of it like matched parts: they don’t work without each other. (Back in the 90’s there were programs that would monitor installation steps when software was being installed, and create a method to do what you were asking about, but I haven’t seen that in decades.) The best bet is to keep good track of your original installation media and licenses, because in all reality I personally expect every computer to fail eventually. And the best fix is to have everything you need safely tucked away (with your current data backups, of course) so you can re-install them when needed.

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