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Cell phones have revolutionized the way that we use the phone system. No longer are we tied to using our home phone and missing important messages or phone calls. We can use our cell phones anywhere, anytime. Unfortunately, we are still well behind this curve with e-mail. Sure, we can get some basic stuff on our cell phones but we still can’t do everything that we would like on them. We are still tied to a specific computer, especially if we want all of our contacts, old e-mails, etc. Many people turn to web clients as the solution to this problem. Unfortunately, web clients are usually restricted to some basic send/receive situations and do not allow you to store a lot of e-mail at one time. Thus, if you need to check something that was stated in an e-mail from three years ago, you are probably out of luck. Once again, I turned to the trust USB drive as the solution. I have combined an e-mail client (which also does RSS feeds), a portable SMTP server, and a small launcher application together with a customized autorun.inf file to create a complete portable mail system!

Get The Software There are a number of applications that you will need to download individually in order to make this solution work: Thunderbird Portable (Zip version) from PortableApps.com mini-Relay from NetVicious (Note that NetVicious is in Spanish. Google Translate has auto translated it into English.) DCoT Mail System Wrapper by Daily Cup of Tech

Set Up The USB Drive Now that you have the three application, extract the contents of each zip file to the root of the USB drive. When you are done, on the root of the USB drive you should have the following: miniRelay - this is the folder containing the miniRelay application ThunderbirdPortable - this is the folder containing the Thunderbird Portable application Autorun.inf - this file controls how the USB drive acts when you plug it into the computer MXWrap.exe - this file is the main launching application for the system

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Your system should now be ready to go. You can unplug the USB drive and plug it back in.

Configure Your Portable System You should now be prompted with something like this:

Click OK to start your portable mail system. In your system tray, you should see an icon that looks like an envelope with a couple of arrows around it. This is the interface for miniRelay. You can manage all of its functions from this icon. You should not need to make any configuration changes for the system to run. The only thing that you would do with this icon is exit miniRelay by right clicking on the icon and selecting Exit. When Thunderbird Portable starts, you will immediately be prompted to set up your e-mail account.

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Select E-mail Account and click Next.

Enter your name and e-mail address and click Next.

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Enter your incoming mail server (you should have gotten this information from your Internet service provider) and enter localhost for the outgoing server. It is very important that you enter localhost because this tells the mail client to use the miniRelay for sending e-mail. Click Next.

Enter your incoming user name as provided by your Internet service provider. The outgoing user name does not matter. Click Next.

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Enter a name for the account. This can be anything you want it to be so enter something descriptive. Click Next.

The final screen summarizes your account. Click Finish to complete the wizard. That is all there is to setting up the portable mail system!

Things To Watch For From time to time, depending on who you are sending e-mail to, you may receive an error that your e-mail was rejected. Some mail servers do not allow them to receive e-mails from mail servers on dynamic IP addresses. This will cause your e-mail to get bounced back to you. Before unplugging your USB drive, make sure that you have closed both Thunderbird Portable and miniRelay so that you do not have any data loss or corruption.

Conclusion Within a few minutes, you can have a fully functioning mail system that you can carry in your pocket! And all for free! Please feel free to comment on this article and your success/challenges/failures with it.

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24 Responses to “Build a USB Drive Mail System” 1. Mystech Says: October 31st, 2006 at 11:33 am

Another great, clear and concise article, Tim. Thanks again. I’ve been considering something like this myself. I generally love and endorse Gmail, but the lack of offline access and encryption can be a real deal breaker for some folks. Speaking of the later, any thoughts on Enigmail http://enigmail.mozdev.org/ for Thunderbird? Btw, Dugg! 2. Jeff Says: October 31st, 2006 at 11:34 am

You should mention the compact folders option. Thunderbird folders can get rather large with it turned off. 3. Tim Fehlman Says: October 31st, 2006 at 11:47 am

Mystech, Thanks for the Digg update (and kind comments on Digg). As for Enigmail, I actually use that on my USB drive mail system. I like the ability to encrypt my e-mails because it is so easy get e-mail account information. (Aside: When I give presentations to groups about security or the internet, I do a “Get Your E-mail Account Username and Password in 30 Seconds or Less” trick to scare the crap out of them. If I’m feeling particularly devilish, I will even have the username and password text messenged to my cell phone!) Tim 4. dave Says: October 31st, 2006 at 11:48 am

I’ve been using Portable Thunderbird for almost a year now… 5. Tim Fehlman Says: October 31st, 2006 at 11:51 am

Jeff, Good observation. When disk space is at a premium, it is always good to turn this option on. For those of you who are interested in doing this, it is available in Thunderbird under Tools -> Advanced -> Offline & Disk Space. Simply select the Compact folders when it will save over and fill in the amount (100 KB by default). Please be aware that this may slow down the startup of Thunderbird a bit but it is probably worth it. Tim

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6. Joe Jackson Says: October 31st, 2006 at 12:13 pm

From time to time, depending on who you are sending e-mail to, you may receive an error that your e-mail was rejected. Some mail servers do not allow them to receive e-mails from mail servers on dynamic IP addresses. This will cause your e-mail to get bounced back to you. Actually, this is most of the time. The line should read, “MOST mail servers do not allow them to receive e-mails from mail servers without a MX Record.” When sending email using this method, the receiving mail server will conclude that mail is being sent from a spam relay and either bounce or black hole the email. Only when you are sending email to a recipient “on the same system/network” is this likely to work. In the realm of “Sending” email, this construct is to limiting to be of practical value. 7. Tim Fehlman Says: October 31st, 2006 at 12:22 pm

Joe Jackson, Your experience seems to be different from mine. I have used this solution (or variations thereof) for about three now and I find that only about 3-5% of my e-mail is rejected. This could be a result of the type of people I send e-mail to regularly or the type of ISP or business that they work for. It is hard to say. I would be interested to hear from others experiences to see what amount of mail gets rejected by such a system. Tim 8. Rassi Says: October 31st, 2006 at 12:56 pm

If I were to use such a system here, it would be blocked as our ISP blocks all port 25 connections. That is a smart anti-spam decision, and I can only see it becoming more common in the future. Why would you not just send thru your ISP’s secure port via TB or from like a Gmail account (via smtp)? I have been running my email on a portable drive for 6+ yrs. I started out on a Zip disk, progressed to removeable HD, then to flash memory card, and now I use a USB memory stick. It is a great way to do things, but I don’t understand why you’d make it more complicated than necessary using the other SMTP method. 9. Tim Fehlman Says: October 31st, 2006 at 1:06 pm

Rassi, I came up with this solution to resolve a problem I had when working as a consultant. I would be at various different offices each with different ISPs. It was a real pain to reconfigure my e-mail each time I was connecting via a different network. The Gmail idea is a good one but it is not available to everyone in all areas (I just tried to create a Gmail account and was told “No way!”). But, for those who do have an account, I think this could definitely be a viable alternative. I also like the secure port option but that is not available for all ISPs (Just checked mine and no luck). Again, if you have this available, you may want to look at it as an alternative. In general, Rassi, very good information. Thanks for your contribution! Tim 10. Amir Says: November 1st, 2006 at 4:11 pm

Great application! However, one thing is incomplete and took me a few minutes to figure out - SMTP setup. You need to complete the set up of the SMTP server as follows: 1. Tools->Account settings->Outgoing server 2. Select the server you defined (localhost) and click ‘edit’ 3. Uncheck the “Use name and password” box 4. Select “No” for the “Secure Connection” option 5. Click OK 6. You’re good to go! 11. policomm Says: November 2nd, 2006 at 3:35 am

It works great but the autorun.inf overwrites the autorun for Help! I’m lost.

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How do I get the Help! I’m lost to run as well? Have you got a similar solution to run portable Firefox as well? Thanks for the solutions for real portable computing! 12. Dan White Says: November 2nd, 2006 at 6:37 am

Yeah, I find it’s best to use an external, authenticated SMTP server as the outgoing SMTP server. (Preferably with SPF records pointing to that mail server too) Then you should not get bounced emails, rejections or problems with any ISP blocking port 25. Also simpler on the USB key end to boot. Kind nice of a idea though running an SMTP server on the key though, and would have worked well 10 years ago 13. Tim Fehlman Says: November 2nd, 2006 at 9:24 am

policomm, I knew that this issue was going to come up sooner or later! You need to combine the two autorun.inf files together so that they work in unison. Unfortunately, only one item can be displayed at a time from the autorun.inf file in the AutoPlay window. What I would suggest is copying the following lines: shell\open\command=MXWrap.exe shell\open=Portable Mail System

to the lost USB drive autorun.inf. Past them at the bottom of the file. This will still allow the system to pop up the lost USB item but if you right click on the USB drive icon, the mail system will show up as an option. Tim 14. Tim Fehlman Says: November 2nd, 2006 at 9:29 am

Dan White, I agree, this is not the most secure solution on the face of the planet but I believe it is better than none. I do not believe that SMTP authentication is required for an SMTP server that resides on the same USB drive as the client since most people will not be aware that it even exists. Also, it will appear “intermittent” to anyone out there who is not “in the know” as far as what you are doing. If we are truly concerned about security, I would suggest a solution that uses encryption between the client and SMTP server along with PKI encryption via certificates for message security. Thanks for the links along with the solid thought and theory behind your comments. It may be time for me to write a basic e-mail primer! Tim 15. thomast Says: November 2nd, 2006 at 4:33 pm

I don’t think Dan White was talking about AUTH-SMTP on the key-based local server, but about not using the local SMTP server to prevent various spam false-positive problems (outbound port 25 blocks, blocks based on SMTP traffic from dynamic/residential IPs), and using an AUTH-SMTP server elsewhere on the ‘Net. Gmail is one (free) way to go about it, but I’ve been very pleased with DynDNS’s MailHop Outbound. At $10/yr for 150 outbound mails a day, it’s a great deal. Just set up your mobile Thunderbird to send mail via their SMTP server on a non-standard port (they support several) with authentication, and you can still send your mail from anywhere without worrying about being blocked or id’d as spam. 16. Strawp Says: November 4th, 2006 at 6:10 am

Good article, however: Many people turn to web clients as the solution to this problem. Unfortunately, web clients are usually restricted to some basic send/receive situations and do not allow you to store a lot of e-mail at one time. Seriously? My Gmail account has over 2Gig of storage on it, which is far more than the combined size of all my inboxes in the last 10 years! Plus I can check that from my phone, my iPaq, work, net cafes… all without a USB key! 17. Tim Fehlman Says: November 4th, 2006 at 1:16 pm

When I was writing the article, I had the president of the company that I work for in mind. He is constantly on the road and he racks up about 2 GB in a few months!

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But, you do make a very good point. Two GB is probably enough storage for most people. I guess I’m just a bit more paranoid than most and I want to keep control (both physical and security) of my mail. Tim 18. shaun Says: November 8th, 2006 at 7:09 pm

This is a brilliant and it works superbly. Why I like this? I actually don’t want my email stored on the USB disk. I have several email accounts and all I want is an easy way to check my emails and reply. I leave all messages on the server and only download the headers and then open what is of interest. If I need to keep a copy of a message sent I send that to myself for records. I imported the address book so that is up to date and i have records on hand always. I am often on the road and visiting clients. This is a superb, well thought and quick and easy solution for me to easily check and reply to emails on the fly. A big THANKS! 19. Vinit Says: November 9th, 2006 at 9:30 am

Hey Tim, Great..! Its just an excellent work. Keep coming up with these small nifty yet uself piece of codes. Its really worthy. I am planning to add a link to the DialycupofTech on my website Vini 20. zenchief Says: January 16th, 2007 at 7:59 pm

Thanks for the great article. Can you please provide an example of autorun.inf in the example above? 21. Tim Fehlman Says: January 16th, 2007 at 8:04 pm

I’ll go one better. Check out USB Drive AutoRun.inf Tweaking. It tells you exactly how to set up the autorun.inf file to do exactly what you want! 22. Maac Says: January 31st, 2007 at 11:05 am

I can’t send mail using miniRelay as SMTP server, i have done the procedure bellow: 1. Tools->Account settings->Outgoing server 2. Select the server you defined (localhost) and click ‘edit’ 3. Uncheck the “Use name and password” box 4. Select “No” for the “Secure Connection” option 5. Click OK It doesn’t work and i have the message “Error Socket Error # 10061 Connection refused” or “Error Connect timed out” in miniRelay. But if i use the SMTP server of my ISP, it work. Please tel me how could i resolve this problem. Thanks a lot. 23. confused.brit Says: February 12th, 2007 at 10:44 am

Well the SMTP relay idea was good, but here’s another solution… At home, i have to use my ISP’s SMTP server. At work, it’s open, i can use any SMTP relay EXCEPT the ISP’s, because it only accepts connections from a ISP IP address. So, a bit of hunting found me this https://addons.mozilla.org/thunderbird/2234/ Plug it into Portable Thunderbird, and install the button into the gui. Then just click the switch server button. Result, and all in one click. 24. Geekenstein Says: March 15th, 2007 at 9:50 pm

Hey Tim,

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A truly great site! It’s hard to decide which systems to try in what order. I want to try them all! This system looks great, but when I unzip miniRelay.zip, NAV identifies EzUpdate.exe as a trojan horse downloader. The (translated) NetVicious site is a bit tedious to read, but says EzUpdate is used to get application updates. I’m guessing that it isn’t required for the USB Drive Mail System, but wanted you to know what was happening and ask for any additional information. Thanks again for the tremendous systems/information, Geekenstein

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