MEMORY SPECIALIST Sandisk has for some years been pushing a 'portable apps' system called U3 that allows you to use any PC to run compliant Windows software sitting on a USB drive. Zinstall's Zpod software takes this idea a stage further by cloning an entire Windows system onto a USB flash or hard drive, and allowing you - in theory - to run your familiar set-up as a virtual machine on any PC with a minimum 2GB of RAM.
It supports all versions of Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7, which means that you could use it to clone your old 32bit XP PC and run it on a 64bit Win7 model without the hassles of migrating the XP applications. But the main attraction is the promise of being able to run the same environment in different locations, such as both home and office, without the need for a network connection.
Zinstall claims Zpod requires no technical expertise, which is a little disingenuous. The initial set-up is about as simple as possible but you do need to know how to switch off the source machine's anti-virus software and firewall before cloning can begin. You then plug in a USB drive with enough space to hold the cloned system, and run the Zpod software. This picks out the target drive, or gives you a choice if you have more than one attached, and when you click a Go button you are given the option of password-protecting the clone. You can also opt to filter out bulky file types such as video. Cloning took nearly two hours on a Windows 7 system with 70GB of storage used.
The clone will start to boot up as soon as you plug it into a host system, provided this supports autorun. Otherwise you click the Zpod launcher icon. Bootup takes about the same time as it does on the source PC, but you can then switch instantly between the host and virtual environments via the Zpod's taskbar icon. You can also use this button to access external drives. No changes are made to the host machine.
We ran the Zpod clone on two machines, both with fairly modest specs. It installed with no problems on a 2.2GHz AMD Athlon-based PC, although we had to adjust the screen resolution manually. This meant we had two instances of Microsoft code with the same licence number running on the same network, yet the software activated itself on first boot-up with no problems.
It ran Microsoft Office applications at an acceptable speed but when we stress-tested it by trying to run cloned Cubase music production software, Zpod fell at the first hurdle because it could not see the USB-based security dongle. Even if we had got round that problem, Cubase could not have seen the multi-I/O M-Audio sound card that was the default audio system in the host machine, since Zpod had ignored this and defaulted instead to the motherboard's less versatile Realtek AC97 sound module.
Curiously, when we plugged the Zpod-enabled drive into a Macbook Air, running Windows 7 under Bootcamp, the machine could not list the drive though it showed up in the Win7 disk-management utility. Zinstall insisted that Zpod was not to blame, which may have been the case, though the Air had previously used the drive with no problem. We finally managed to get Zpod running on the Air by, at Zinstall's suggestion, manually assigning letters to the drive's partitions.
Overall Zpod looks viable so long as you are making straightforward hardware demands. It can protect your PCs from virus attacks by restricting your work to a virtual environment, and may allow you to use applications that will not run native on a host machine. It is available from the UK Dell download store for £59.99 including Vat.
Zpod has the feel of a first edition of an interesting product that could get a lot better with further development. For a start it could do with a clearly flagged, foolproof way to synchronise the cloned and base systems. But it might have arrived too late to find a mainstream market in today's comprehensively networked world, when you can use online apps or run a base machine remotely from almost anywhere with no driver, configuration or synchronisation issues. µ
Easy to set up considering the complexity of its task, most useful in places with poor web access.
It's not foolproof.
Does not always see the hardware you want to use.