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Buying Guide: Laptop tracking software: 8 apps to track your lost or stolen PC

| October 7, 2012 | 0 Comments


Buying Guide: Laptop tracking software: 8 apps to track your lost or stolen PC

Track your laptop: 1-4

Losing a laptop through either misplacing it or by theft can be devastating. Not only is the financial loss tough to get over – laptops aren’t cheap after all – but the loss of personal files, documents, photos and other data can be even more upsetting.

It can also be potentially very dangerous, as any criminal who snatches your laptop could then have access to your email or online banking accounts, which combined with other personal data on your laptop, could make identity theft easy.

The laptop security and tracking software we’re looking at in this group test claims to add an extra layer of security to your laptop should disaster strike. In worst-case scenarios they should allow you to remotely lock down your laptop and wipe sensitive data. However, in the best-case scenario, the software will allow you to track and retrieve your laptop and, if it’s been stolen, provide evidence to the police for a conviction.

Can the software we’ve rounded up deliver on its promises? Lets investigate.

1. EXO5

EXO5

A business package that’s more focused on locking down your data

Price: £309 for 3 years on 25 devices
Info: www.exo5.com
Specs: RemoteKill file encryption, drive lock, curfew, geolocation, logs, data export, RiskSense alerts

EXO5 has a small-to-medium business-orientated approach to laptop tracking, but that shouldn’t put off home users – especially if you have a number of devices you want to keep track of.

First of all you need to go to the Settings tab and download the Agent Installer, which is a standalone .EXE file that needs to be run on any device you want EXO5 to track. Once done you can view the devices by clicking ‘Assets’.

When selecting an asset to track you’ll be shown its location on Google Maps, using similar Wi-Fi triangulation technology as the other services we’ve tested here. It was good, and got the right road, but was a few buildings out when some of its competitors were more accurate. The public IP address is also displayed, along with whether or not the device is connected to the internet.

The Hardware/OS section, lists your devices’ hardware configuration, and isn’t much use unless you need to see if someone has changed any of the hardware in your laptop. The software tab offers more illuminating details of what programs have been installed on the laptop while Event Log keeps you up to speed on what your laptop’s being used for.

Most of these features are geared more towards an individual or company that wants to make sure that a laptop is being used for the right purposes.

Of most use is the incredibly handy RemoteKill option. This enables you to encrypt files and folders remotely if the laptop is stolen. Presets such as ‘All Microsoft Outlook.pst files’ make it quick and easy to secure important info. You can also add a boot sector lock to shut down the device – and both can easily be reversed if the laptop is recovered.

Verdict: 3.5/5

2. FrontDoorSoftware

FrontDoorSoftware

A more blatant approach to security

Price: Free (or $30 for a 3-year licence with unlimited location tracking)
Info: www.frontdoorsoftware.com
Specs: Stolen alert display, remote lockdown, start-up audible prevention alert, send custom text message, geolocation tracking

FrontDoorSoftware is a laptop protection and tracking tool that although free to download, comes with some of the features that we’ve also seen in paid-for software. While this is a test on how well it protects a laptop, not on aesthetics, there is a noticeable lack of userfriendliness to the program, which could put people off or make relatively simple actions more complicated than they need to be.

A case in point: the installation process includes a slightly bewildering SetLicence window with a number of buttons and text boxes with little to no description of what each one does. Spelling mistakes in the online instructions don’t inspire confidence either.

Once installed our laptop had to be rebooted and afterwards sported a FrontDoorSoftware window with a warning that the device was protected, alongside the usual Windows login screen. You can also send a custom message to the screen. However, it also means that thieves know they need to act fast to remove the software.

Your contact information is also displayed in case the laptop is simply lost, so a good Samaritan can contact you to return it.

FrontDoorSoftware uses Wi-Fi positioning technology courtesy of Skyhook (www.skyhookwireless.com) and the results are very similar to GadgetTrak’s (p54), with the approximate location just 60 yards out. However, the software runs as a second-user account, so it has an impact on the system’s performance.

You can remotely lock the device and mark it as stolen through a web interface, which can only be unlocked with a code.

Verdict: 2.5/5

3. GadgetTrak

GadgetTrak

Tracks your laptop with half-hour reports and takes sly web shots

Price: $20 (£13) a year
Info: www.gadgettrak.com
Specs: Wi-Fi positioning, webcam support, integrated police reports, online dashboard

For a Windows-based laptop the protection involves downloading and installing the software onto the machine and registering it with your GadgetTrak user account. You can then log on to www.trak.me and use the control panel to enable tracking. You’ll get email reports every half an hour, with various bits of information helping you locate your laptop.

Arguably the most useful part of the report is the Wi-Fi based location section, which provides you with the latitude and longitude of your device’s location based on its Wi-Fi connection, and the networks surrounding it. There’s also a handy link to Google Maps with an icon indicating the rough location of your device.

In our tests it offered the approximate location as a couple of buildings down from its actual location. While it’s not pin-point accurate enough to go and retrieve your laptop there and then – not that you should attempt to if it’s been stolen – it at least gives you an idea of where it is. Occasionally the location would jump around a bit, pointing in roughly the same area but giving the impression the device was being moved about when it wasn’t.

The report also includes a snapshot taken with the laptop’s webcam, and will hopefully catch the thief using the laptop at that moment. However, you can’t choose when to take snapshots and there’s no option to change the frequency of the reports.

When turned off, the laptop can’t send tracking info, but as soon as it’s turned on you’ll get a report. While GadgetTrak does not appear in the Windows Start menu or in the system tray, it can be seen in the Uninstall Programs window – though you need an admin password to remove it.

Verdict: 3/5

4. LoJack

LoJack

Good all-rounder, but unlike Jack – it’s almost the master of tracking

Price: £40 for a year
Info: www.absolute.com/lojackforlaptops
Specs: Geolocation, remote lock, customised lock-out message, remote delete, Theft Recovery Team

LoJack is definitely focused on home users. This is evident not only in the easy and simple installation, but also by the pop-ups that appear on screen, similar to those found in antivirus suites. Designed to be reassuring – as it tells you your laptop is protected – it’s no less annoying as any pop-ups.

Once installed, you need to create an account on the LoJack website, enable geolocation tracking and create a PIN. A map view shows your device’s location and there are four tabs that split the planned recovery of your device into: locate, lock, delete and recover.

While many services rely on Google Maps, LoJack opts for a map powered by Esri. It looks good but there’s no easy way to zoom in to get a more specific idea of where your device is, just a large red dot that for us covered quite a large part of Bath. Those in larger cities may find this service more useful.

Above the map, there’s a Device Status that should update itself every 24 hours, so you know that LoJack is still installed. The Lock part of the process requires you to input your PIN, enter a message, then click ‘Lock Device’. The locking process isn’t instant – it took about 20 minutes for us. When it did we were notified by email. A lock screen appeared – with our message – and the laptop became unusable.

While good, the locking software isn’t entirely secure, but there’s also support for Intel hardware locking (if your device supports it). Remote deletion of your important data can also be run in the Delete step, while in the Recover section, the laptop can be marked as stolen and a Recovery Team is notified and will begin collecting evidence to hand over to the police.

Verdict: 4.5/5

Track your laptop: 5-8

5. Prey

Prey

An open-source protector of your PC that puts paid-for software to shame

Price: Free
Info: http://preyproject.com
Specs: Wi-Fi auto connect, GPS and Wi-Fi geolocation, small memory footprint, webcam and screenshot capture, remote data removal, lockdown PC

As FrontDoorSoftware has shown already; just because a product is free doesn’t mean features necessarily have to be cut. Prey is a feature-rich and stable open-source program.

As we’ve seen in some fantastic Linux distros, there are a lot of very talented coders out there. First impressions of Prey are that it has a professional and good-looking interface that manages to easily eclipse FrontDoorSoftware.

When launching the software for the first time, you’re required to set up how Prey sends you reports – either via email and web, or email only. The web control panel is excellent, with a clear and attractive interface. Settings can be easily configured via sliding toggles, similar to those found on iOS devices.

Designating your laptop as ‘Lost’ will instruct Prey to begin creating reports on its location and send you email notifications. The frequency of these reports and emails can be easily altered and makes the absence of this feature in GadgetTrak all the more baffling.

What GadgetTrak does have over Prey, however, is that the reports are included in the email while Prey only offers a website link. The reports themselves are very good though, with Wi-Fi-based location (again pretty accurate), and webcam support.

A very handy feature that isn’t in many other laptop security suites is that Prey also takes a screenshot of the laptop. It’s a great addition, and if you’re lucky the thief could be on a site that will help you recognise them, such as Facebook. There’s even more information included in the reports, which makes Prey easily one of the best laptop security applications we’ve tested and it’s free.

Verdict: 4.5/5

6. MyLaptopGPS

MyLaptopGPS

An oddly named product that tracks your laptop through IP and not GPS

Price: £1,200
Info: http://mylaptopgps.com
Specs: Location tracking, recover laptop data, remote destroy data

Once you’ve set up a MyLaptopGPS account and installed the software, it will run silently, so thieves will have no idea that your laptop is being tracked. As with the other products we’ve reviewed here, you can track your laptop via an internet browser.

The interface is rather bland and lacks the friendly style of Prey, but it’s easy to navigate. You can quickly designate the laptop as stolen, which turns on tracking and a few unique features. You’ll receive email updates about your laptop, with a reassurance that ‘SafeRecovery Team is pursuing the recovery of this machine’. Also a window will pop up on the laptop claiming ‘This machine is globally tracked via permanently embedded GPS’.

While this message lapses into hyperbole, it could encourage thieves to abandon or even hand the laptop in. There’s even a phone number to contact, but it’s a US number. The window sits on top of other windows, which could also prove annoying for thieves – except it can be easily closed through the task manager. Once closed, any thief would know it was being tracked and wipe the laptop and reinstall the OS.

MyLaptopGPS offers a workaround of sorts. You can identify important files you don’t want to lose and when you flag your laptop as stolen, MyLaptopGPS uploads those files to a location on the web, emails you a link, and then deletes them from the laptop.

Though MyLaptopGPS has GPS in the name, it relies on the much less accurate IP address registration to locate laptops. Where other services use Wi-Fi positioning to get a more accurate location, the IP address registrant just gave us the city of the IP address – which wasn’t even the city the laptop was in.

Verdict: 2.5/5

7. The LaptopLock

TheLaptopLock

A free package offering a solid basis for your own security solution

Price: Free
Info: www.thelaptoplock.com
Specs: Delete files, encrypt files, show a message to the user, execute a program, play a sound, visible or hidden from the user

LaptopLock is a free offering that eschews a fancy interface for a simple, no-frills look. Signing up for the service is quick, you simply need to enter your email address and a password, and you’re taken straight to the online control panel. From here you can add a computer, giving it a name for easy reference.

From this page you can download the software. During installation you can choose whether or not to show a splash screen when the laptop starts up – it’s nice that you’re given the choice.

There are no tracking features with this program, so ideally it should be installed alongside a free service that does, such as Prey. What LaptopLock concentrates on is protecting your data if your laptop is lost or stolen; and is broken into three parts.

The first is file security – here you can select the data you want LaptopLock to delete if you flag up your laptop as stolen via the web interface. Choosing the files and folders is very easy, and you can select to securely delete the data, so that data recovery tools can’t access it. If you’re not too keen on the scorched earth policy, you can choose to encrypt the files instead.

The second part is notifications. You can select to show a message or play a sound when the missing laptop is in use. The final part is that you can select a program to launch when the laptop is reported stolen – a good chance to run a tracking program, or activate your webcam and upload the photos it takes.

The laptop can also be marked as stolen, notifying a recovery team that will begin collecting evidence to hand over to the police. LaptopLock might appear simple, but with it you can make your own laptop security solution.

Verdict: 4/5

8. MyLaptopTracker

MyLaptopTracker

A stealthy way to track your laptop

Price: $30 (£19)
Info: www.mydevicetracker.com
Specs: Stealth mode, one click tracking, Wi-Fi positioning, webcam image capture and Flickr integration, remote data retrieval

MyLaptopTracker seems to take the opposite approach to protecting your laptop compared to packages such as FrontDoorSoftware. Not only is MyLaptopTracker’s easy, it also takes a more stealthy approach to protection, but then it isn’t a free package.

Installation is very easy, with just a simple download and install of the software. You’re then taken to a web page with a big bright Start Tracking button. Once done you can leave it to track your laptop quietly. There’s no sign that MyLaptopTracker has been installed on your laptop. Even the Uninstall Programs window shows no trace of the program.

In fact, the only way to get to MyLaptopTracker on the laptop you want to protect is by opening up the Run command window, typing ‘mydevicetracker’. Once in the program you can select a number of neat features, such as a folder with important personal files that you can hide or, in extreme cases, delete if the laptop gets stolen. You can also trigger this action if the laptop can’t connect to the internet after a set amount of days – though there are obvious drawbacks with this.

Two good features that were absent from GadgetTrak are the ability to alter the time between email notifications and upload images taken with the laptop’s camera to a Flickr or ImageShack account. The interface for the desktop program is clear and easy to understand and took us very little time to setup, but the web interface is rather sparse.

There’s no denying that the simplicity of turning tracking on and off via a single button is nice, but the sparse web interface can end up being rather annoying as you wait anxiously for a report.

Verdict: 3/5

And the winner is…

Hopefully by reading through this group test, and learning about all the many tracking features that are available, has piqued your interest in setting up some proper security measures for your prized devices. Besides, you don’t want to miss out on posting screen shots of a thief online.

Sometimes in our group tests when we look at both free and paid-for software there can be a huge gulf in quality between the two. However sometimes we see free products that offer just as many features – and perform just as well – as their competitors that charge.

This is one of those tests where the free, open-source Prey easily competes – and in some cases surpasses – its paid-for rivals. When a free program does such a good job, it can often feel like a bit of an open and shut case – after all why pay for something when a free version will do the trick?

The results were not so clear cut, as LoJack still offers a compelling reason to lay down your money. In the end, there were two clear tracking software winners: LoJack representing the paid-for software and Prey winning the free software choice.

LoJack

LoJack’s easy to navigate interface, along with the way that it splits the laptop security and recovery process into four steps, make it a quick and reassuring tool to use. While there are free services out there, the subscription you pay for LoJack brings some peace of mind that the service will still be there when you need it. Dedicated support and recovery are on hand to help you as well.

Prey

If you were to take a quick look at Prey, you wouldn’t think it was a free tool at all. It just looks so professional. It boasts loads of feature, looks great and works extremely well. Once again the open source community has sown that talent and passion can turn an altruistic project into something truly special. With so many features, Prey is the best value laptop security package around. Get it and use it.



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