Once upon a time, poor performance and indifferent looks made the humble laptop the ugly duckling of Windows computing. It was generally regarded as a big ole slab of hardware you had to endure lugging around.

But the relentless march of technology and the ubiquity of wireless web access has spawned a very different beast. The modern laptop comes in all shapes and sizes and at wildly varying prices. With two possible exceptions - the hardest of hardcore gamers and unreconstructed video enthusiasts - there's a laptop to suit everyone.

And they now have the killer app of portability. If you have home Wi-Fi, you can use your PC in every room - even the garden if the weather clears. For those who travel, there's plenty to be said for being able to take your music and photos in tow. When was the last time you took a desktop PC on holiday?

But therein lies the rub. Laptops offer convenience and portability, perform a huge number of computing tasks and store hundreds of files - but they are also nickable. The very fact that your laptop provides access to your neatly packaged life online makes you vulnerable if you lose it.

If your laptop goes, there's a good chance it contains enough data to hack into your bank account and steal your identity. And there goes your irreplacable music and photos.

As ever with PC security, you are the weakest link. No matter how robust your software setup, if a tea-leaf catches you napping and nabs your laptop, all is lost.

Well, actually, perhaps not - as we'll see later. But you don't want to take that risk. So for the first part of this month's walkthrough, we concentrate on how to prevent your portable from being stolen. We'll show you how to lock up and alarm your PC, whether you're travelling light or safely ensconced at home.

Nonetheless, as various civil servants know only too well, thousands of laptops are lost and stolen each year. Here, we'll show you how to enhance your chances of being reunited with a nicked notebook, and how to limit the damage by securing your data.

Laptop safety guide

1. The best way to stop your laptop being stolen is to secure it with an actual, physical lock. Although serious thieves won't be deterred by one of these small cable locks, it may deter casual crooks. Try Kensington's MicroSaver Keyed Retractable Notebook Lock (£25, uk.kensington.com).

Laptop safety guide Step 1

2. Lightweight travel locks provide minimal security - they're only as strong as the tiny security slot on your laptop's chassis. The Belkin Bulldog Security Kit (around £20, belkin.com/uk) isn't as elegant as its lightweight counterparts, but its steel anchor plates and heavy-duty lock will last longer against a more determined thief.

Laptop safety guide Step 2

3. In the event of a thief succeeding in breaking the lock, consider a security alarm. The Targus Defcon Universal Security Cable with Alarm (targus.com/uk) will set you back £35 and includes a security cable, combination lock and motion sensor, all of which trigger a 105dB alarm.

Laptop safety guide Step 3

4. Even if it gets stolen, tracking and recovery software can get your laptop back. Lojack for Laptops is a tracking utility that periodically connects to a central server. When it does so, Computrace can trace your laptop's location on the internet and summon the local police to recover it.

Laptop safety guide Step 4

5. By offering prepaid returns and a reward on a laptop tag, you can help whoever finds your laptop do the right thing. Tagging services from companies such as LapSafe register each of your items on the web, with identifying information. If it's stolen and then handed in, they contact you to arrange its return.

Laptop safety guide Step 5

6. Hard-drive encryption can help you protect valuable private data and keep it safe from prying eyes. Windows Vista Enterprise and Ultimate editions include BitLocker, a drive-encryption feature. If your system doesn't support BitLocker, try TrueCrypt.

Laptop safety guide Step 6