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.
A business package that's more focused on locking down your data
Price: £309 for 3 years on 25 devices
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.
A more blatant approach to security
Price: Free (or $30 for a 3-year licence with unlimited location tracking)
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.
Tracks your laptop with half-hour reports and takes sly web shots
Price: $20 (£13) a year
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.
Good all-rounder, but unlike Jack - it's almost the master of tracking
Price: £40 for a year
(opens in new tab)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 software. 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.