Review: Track your stolen laptop for free with Prey

Prey's open-source notebook-tracking service involves a few compromises

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Be aware that the Achilles' heel of Prey -- and many other notebook tracking services, whether free or paid -- is that the tracking program itself can be stopped, removed or deleted if found by a tech-savvy thief. And, of course, the program will be useless if the thief simply reformats your laptop's hard drive.

This can be somewhat thwarted by going into your notebook's BIOS settings and disabling the option for the computer to boot from a USB device or network connection, and locking down access to the BIOS with a password. (I say "somewhat," because the thief could still physically remove the hard drive from your notebook, and access its contents by connecting it to another computer.)

Some of the paid notebook tracking programs are difficult to render inoperable because they are not written to your notebook's hard drive: LoJack for Laptops' software resides in the BIOS of your notebook, for example. Prey doesn't do this.

Control your stolen laptop through the Web

Interacting with your stolen notebook works one of two ways in Prey: In standalone mode, you get messages from your notebook by e-mail, but setting up remote-control operations can be cumbersome. Most people will want to use the service the second way, via a Web control panel on the Prey site. It's easier to set up than standalone mode, and makes it simpler to track and remotely control your notebook. This review focuses on the second way.

Using Prey's Web control panel
Using Prey's Web control panel. Click to view larger image.

The control panel features toggle settings that allow you to set up and run individual remote operations. This is all presented within a dead-simple, user-friendly interface.

Through this panel, you can flag your notebook as missing. Then, if your notebook manages to "phone home," you can tell it to send you a report detailing the IP address it's connected to, command it to take a screenshot of the desktop, and, if your notebook has a built-in Webcam, take a snapshot to capture the image of the person using the computer. You can even send an instant message to the suspect to tell him you're watching him.

Prey works as advertised

I installed the Windows version of Prey's tracking software on an old Dell Inspiron 1300 laptop running Windows XP Home and on the Linux version on an Asus Eee PC 1005HA netbook running the Jolicloud Linux OS. Installation was a snap for both versions.

I quickly signed up for a free user account and registered my laptop and netbook on the Prey site. The site gave me an "API key" (a unique series of numbers and letters assigned to each user account) as well as two unique "device keys" -- one each for the laptop and the netbook.

From this point on, I decided to test Prey with the Eee PC netbook since it has a built-in Webcam, handy for snagging photos of the thief. I entered my API key and the netbook's device key into the tracking software running on the netbook, then set the software's run interval (the number of minutes that pass before it wakes and tries to connect to the Internet) to 2 minutes. After this, there was nothing more I needed to do to configure the software.

A report from the stolen device

A report from the "stolen" device.

Click to view larger image.

All the major functions worked well when I tested them. I left the Eee, connected to the Internet and with the Prey program running, in my office. Then I took my other laptop with me to a coffeehouse, connected to the establishment's Wi-Fi, logged onto my account at the Prey Web site, and marked the Eee back in the office as missing.

Within 2 minutes, I received a report that correctly listed the IP address my Eee was connected to, the Eee's MAC address, a screenshot of the Eee's desktop, and a Webcam shot of my unoccupied office chair. So far, so good.

Then I realized that had my netbook really been stolen, there wasn't much I could actually DO from that point. Prey doesn't let you remotely erase your personal files as the Premium Edition of LoJack for Laptops does.

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