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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Carry Your PC on Your iPhone or iPod Touch

It'd be wonderfully convenient if you could take your important documents and applications with you wherever you go, but lugging a laptop with you every time you step out the door is far from convenient. That's where MokaFive's new cross-platform application called iPhone Sentinel comes in. By turning part of your iPhone or iPod touch into a portable hard drive, iPhone Sentinel and the MokaFive Player allow you to run virtual machines directly off your iPhone, so you can run anything from an entire operating system to standalone video games like Quake. Here's how it works.

The Nuts and Bolts

There's a lot of different components to MokaFive's solution, so let's break down each component to understand how it all works together.

First, MokaFive's main product is the MokaFive Player. It's a cross-platform (Windows and Mac) virtual machine software. MokaFive Player runs virtual machines named LivePCs. So the player is called MokaFive, and the individual appliances are called LivePC virtual machines.

You can run the MokaFive Player from a Windows or Intel Mac desktop or from a USB drive. If you just wanted to use the MokaFive Player locally to create and distribute LivePCs, you could just install it directly on your local computer. However, the MokaFive Player for USB drives can run any LivePC appliance portably from your thumb drive.

That's where iPhone Sentinel comes in. After you set up your iPhone with iPhone Sentinel, the iPhone works as a USB drive. Putting all the pieces together, then: You can run LivePC virtual machines with the portable MokaFive Player from your iPhone using iPhone Sentinel.

Now that you've got a better understanding of where we're going, let's walk through setting it up.

Turn Your iPhone or iPod Touch into a Storage Device with iPhone Sentinel

To get started, head to the Project iPhone Sentinel download page and grab the version that fits the operating system you'll be installing it on. I've tested the app on both Windows and Mac, and it looks virtually the same on both.

Now run iPhone Sentinel. You'll be prompted to connect your iPhone, so go ahead and do that. Once you do, the app explains that it "allows you to use your iPhone as a portable disk drive" and prompts you to allocate disk space. I gave about 2GB to iPhone Sentinel (which I think was the default). Keep in mind that you can't give more space to your iPhone than you already have free without losing data, so I'd heartily recommend backing up your iPhone if you haven't already and making sure you have enough space. When you're ready to pull the trigger, just click the Format button. Once you do, go grab a snack or warm drink—iPhone Sentinel took about 10 minutes or so to format the portable space on my iPhone.

All done? You're halfway there, and actually already at a nice point: You can now use your iPhone as an external storage device—meaning you can actually put files on it and take it to different computers. There's a catch, though, which we'll discuss below.

Install the MokaFive Player on Your iPhone

Once your iPhone is set up for disk use, you're ready to install the MokaFive Player. Head to the MokaFive Player download page and grab the download that fits your operating system. Since we want to run the program from our iPhone or iPod touch, you should download the Mobility version for Windows or Mac. If you're hoping to run MokaFive Player on your Mac, you need to grab the Windows and Mac version and install it from your Mac. If you're planning on sticking to running the MokaFive Player on a Windows machine, get the Windows-only version.

Either route you take is a breeze. On Windows, just run through the installer and tell it you want to install the MokaFive Player to a portable drive. On OS X, you just drag and drop the contents of the disk image directly to your iPhone drive. In both instances, make sure your iPhone's drivespace is mounted with iPhone Sentinel. That's all there is to it.

How's It Work?

The iPhone Sentinel software is still very experimental, meaning that you can expect a lot of hiccups along the way. Right now the homepage says iPhone Sentinel only works with Windows XP SP2, though I was able to get it to work on OS X 10.5 as well as XP SP2.

Running the MokaFive Player from my iPhone, on the other hand, was another story altogether. MokaFive uses VMware's player to run its virtual machines; in fact, you need to have VMware pre-installed on a Mac if it's even going to work.

The first time you run it, you'll have the option to run pre-installed machines, like the Fearless Browser or Linux XP (a flavor of Linux that very closely mimics Windows XP). You can also grab several different free LivePC appliances from the MokaFive web site, including business-oriented apps like and fun stuff like Quake or the One Laptop Per Child operating system.

My biggest complaint with MokaFive right now is that—as far as I can tell—you have to have iPhone Sentinel installed on any computer you want to use your iPhone as a disk with. That's probably going to be a major deal-breaker for some, since it presents a circular problem. Normally in this sort of situation you'd bring iPhone Sentinel with you on your portable drive. You could put iPhone Sentinel on your iPhone, but you wouldn't be able to get to it without using iPhone Sentinel to begin with. That's a problem. If you give it a try, I'd also recommend caching all of your virtual machines for offline use—otherwise you'll have to download them anew every time you plug in your iPhone.

If MokaFive is going to really wow, it'll need to tackle these problems soon. In the meantime, both the iPhone Sentinel application and MokaFive Player present some interesting and worthwhile functionality on their own. Right now MokaFive is a pretty cool app for running and distributing streamlined virtual machines, and—if the folks at MokaFive can get it all working well on the iPhone—your phone could turn into your all-in-one portable drive and operating system.

Until that happens, you may want to stick with iPhone Sentinel to enable disk mode on your iPhone, then grab some portable apps and carry your life on a thumb drive. Alternately, if you just want to run Windows from your iPhone, check out the much more stable, robust MojoPac, and build your PC on a stick. I haven't tried this, but considering that iPhone Sentinel essentially turns a portion of your iPhone into a thumb drive, it should work just fine.

If you've got any experience with MokaFive or with dual-purposing your iPhone's drive, share your experience in the comments.

Adam Pash is a senior editor for Lifehacker who can't believe disk mode isn't available on the iPhone by default. His special feature Hack Attack appears every Tuesday on Lifehacker. Subscribe to the Hack Attack RSS feed to get new installments in your newsreader.