In the last month, two family members and one friend have had laptops stolen right out of their homes. Sadly, none of the systems were equipped with remote-monitoring software, meaning the chances of recovery are just about zero.
To me this serves as a wake-up call; I'm in the process of evaluating various laptop-recovery services to see which one I should deploy on my own machines.
Short-term, I'm equipping my primary, can't-live-without-it laptop with LockItTight. Like similar services, it relies on a small, hidden client program that performs location tracking, Webcam captures, file recovery, and even keylogging. Unlike similar services, LockItTight is free--for one PC, anyway.
After you sign up for and activate your account, you download and run the LockItTight client (which is compatible with Windows XP and later). And that's pretty much the last you see of it; you won't find any evidence of it in the system tray or Programs menu. (Neither will tech-savvy thieves, which is exactly the point.)
To tweak LockItTight's settings and/or find out what your laptop's been up to, you sign into your account via a Web browser. By default, the client will simply report the laptop's position (usually via Wi-Fi, which in my tests was accurate to about 500 meters), but you can also enable screen capture, Webcam capture, key logs, clipboard logs, remote file retrieval, and remote file deletion.
Pretty neat, eh? Alas, if there's no Internet connection, there's no data for LockItTight to gather--so there's no guarantee this will help you locate your stolen system. (If it does, make sure to let the police handle the recovery.) But it's a damn sight better than nothing.
The other catch: LockItTight Free limits you to one device and will report its location only every two hours. If you want more devices and more frequent reporting, you'll need a paid account. LockItTight Standard, for example, costs $1.99 per month per device, and reports location every 12 minutes. It also boosts the screenshot and Webcam capture resolutions.
There are lots of other laptop-recovery services out there, so I recommend doing some research before deciding which one to entrust with your laptop's safety. That said, I definitely recommend choosing one of them. Because there's nothing worse than sitting there wishing your stolen machine had a way to "phone home." With a remote-monitoring system like this, it can.
Contributing Editor Rick Broida writes about business and consumer technology. Ask for help with your PC hassles at email@example.com, or try the treasure trove of helpful folks in the PC World Community Forums.