Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Turning Another Computer Into Your Own

Most of us know the frustrations associated with using someone else’s computer — whether while traveling for business without your own laptop, pausing in the computer lab at school or just fiddling around on our sister’s PC during a visit. Using someone else’s computer offers a temporary solution, but you’ll most likely find yourself hunting around the foreign PC for your favorite programs, grumbling under your breath about why a newer version of Microsoft Word isn’t installed and wondering why a 35-year-old still has teddy bears on her desktop background.

What if you could use another person’s computer with the settings, applications and data from your own PC? You would have your files and could use your applications to open and work on those files, along with the convenience of your personalized settings, favorites and desktop designs.

This week, we tested a new product from RingCube Technologies Inc. called MojoPac. This software program gives you a way to pack up your computer’s digital “mojo” and take it with you on any USB storage device, including a small thumb drive or even an iPod. You use the hardware, operating system and Internet connection of the host computer, but run everything else from your USB device.

A view of the computer screen before MojoPac takes over your host computer.

A few other products, including one called Migo, offer similar functionality. But, unlike Migo, MojoPac lets you carry around your own programs, not just data files.

MojoPac sounded too good to be true, but for the most part, it actually worked as promised. Privacy is a big plus for MojoPac, as your files remain on your thumb drive or iPod, and never transfer to the host PC’s hard disk. Similarly, your entire browsing history and all cookies remain on the portable device.

There is a catch, however: A few aspects of this program are a little too geeky for the average person, it is slow to perform some tasks, and it crashed one of our computers during a test. Also, it doesn’t support making Microsoft Office portable, unless you have a corporate or institutional license.

But the company claims it is hoping to make the geekier parts of MojoPac more user-friendly in its next software update, and is working on allowing average consumers to carry their copies of Office with them. MojoPac only works with Windows XP programs as of now.

Another limitation: the storage space available on a portable device. A small thumb drive is unlikely to hold many programs, or a lot of space-hogging data. A large-capacity iPod would be roomy, unless it is crammed with music and videos.

MojoPac can be downloaded from using a free 30-day trial period. Before Nov. 16, MojoPac costs $30 with up to three additional licenses for $15 each; after this introductory period, the cost goes up to $50 and each of the three additional licenses is $25.

We tested MojoPac first by using one of the most common USB storage devices available: an Apple iPod, specifically the two-gigabyte nano. Your iPod must be formatted for manual use, which is easy enough to do in iTunes. The idea is to use the leftover space on any iPod, the part not occupied by music and other media, to store your portable programs and files.

But RingCube also suggests that you optimize, or speed up, the iPod for use with MojoPac. Though this adjustment only needs to be done one time, it’s a five-step process of digging through menus on your PC that most normal people would be too intimidated to open. We couldn’t even find our iPod listed to optimize it in one test.

After entering some data about ourselves on the MojoPac Web site, we downloaded a copy of MojoPac, making sure to save it onto our iPod rather than the computer’s hard drive.

A Data Copy feature walked us through a straightforward process of deciding what we could copy over to the MojoPac device; we simply check-marked files that we wanted to copy. The transferable data included browser settings for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox, as well as common files and folders for My Pictures, My Music and My Videos. Files and folders that weren’t listed by default could also be transferred.

As we checked off the files that we wanted to copy to our MojoPac device, a small pie chart showed how much space was taken or still available for storage. Even without music, our iPod filled up fast, preventing it from holding our large My Music folder.

When we tried this with a two-gigabyte USB thumb drive, we also had to ditch any thoughts of carrying our music. But we were surprised when the program warned us that the 1.2 gigabytes of programs and files we planned to copy was a “HUGE” amount of data and could take a long time to transfer. Indeed, the copying process took 12 minutes.

Things were speedier on the iPod, which had been stripped of its normal music files for this test. In just five minutes, we copied just under two gigabytes of data onto our iPod nano. We entered our username and password for MojoPac and in a few seconds, the whole screen was taken over by a new desktop with the MojoPac “M” label. A special toolbar at the top of the screen read “Switch to Host”; when selected, we suddenly flashed back to our old desktop where the toolbar read “Switch to Mojo.”

The MojoPac view is meant to look and feel like a different computer from the normal look of the borrowed machine, and it does. Instead of the machine’s usual stuff, it held our own familiar data, including the My Pictures folder and Internet Explorer settings. And you can add new stuff to it without affecting the underlying computer. While in MojoPac view, we downloaded and installed the Firefox browser.

When you exit MojoPac and remove the thumb drive or iPod on which it resides, the borrowed computer returns to normal, without any of your own programs or files.

But there were a few downsides to MojoPac. Because space can be a problem if you have a lower-capacity USB drive, it would be helpful if the program offered a quick-glance view to show how much space you’ve used and how much remains.

Another issue sprouts up whenever you plug an iPod into a PC with iTunes installed because iTunes will automatically open. Therefore, to start MojoPac, you must dig into your My Computer folder, open the drive and open the MojoPac file. An automatic work-around would be much easier for most users.

At one point during testing, MojoPac crashed our computer. While it rebooted without a problem, this isn’t a good thing. In another instance, on a different host computer, MojoPac refused to quit. After 15 minutes of waiting for it to exit, we physically removed the thumb drive on which it was loaded. But that corrupted some files and made it work poorly thereafter.

Also, we found it annoying that the company bundled a program we didn’t want, a messaging application for gamers, placing it on our iPod.

If you have any security programs like Zone Alarm installed on your host PC to warn you whenever a program wants to go online, you’ll get pop-up warnings from the host, even when you are in MojoPac’s environment.

The core of this product is smart and quite useful, but it needs some work to be as simple and reliable as it should be.

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