There’s an open-source project called Prey that promises to help you recover your computer or mobile phone in case it ever gets stolen. I went through a thorough test on both their Windows and Android clients, on both the free and pro plans, and I concluded my experiment with mixed feelings about the project.
The concept that Prey works on is simple. Your computer constantly pings Prey’s servers to check the status of your computer. If the computer is detected or reported stolen, the machine will be notified at its next ping to Prey’s servers. Your computer will then begin to collect information, such as it’s location (using the same WiFi triangulation that’s used in iPods and Android phones), IP address, screenshots, and even a camera shot. That collected information is constantly uploaded to Prey’s servers, where you can see the reports.
The Android app works in the same way, but instead of constantly polling Prey’s servers, the phone marks itself as stolen when it receives an SMS message containing a trigger phrase (from any number), when the SIM card is switched, or through a PUSH notification (Pro members only). It then begins to upload reports.
How well does it work?
Remarkably well. Tracking on both my laptop and my Android phone worked so well that it truly gave me an extra sense of security.
Location tracking was highly accurate on both devices – I was stunned by how closely my laptop’s location was found based on a few WiFi networks (Prey on Android can also use the GPS chip on the phone for an extra-fine location). The screenshots taken on the computer were clear enough to see any identifiable information, such as the thief’s email or Facebook. The webcam shots would also help identify a thief or find the surroundings of the computer.
There’s a feature for Android which automatically activates Prey when the SIM card on the phone is changed. In addition, the phone sends a test message to a pre-set contact from the thief’s phone number, alerting your contact the the phone has been stolen. This feature worked exactly as expected. If someone had actually taken my phone and put their SIM card in it, I would have immediately known the number of the new SIM in the phone so I can notify the network.
There’s also a feature for Android to prevent uninstalling unless you have the password (which you enter every time you open the app, and if you ever choose to actually uninstall the app can remove it’s administrative privileges and allow an uninstall). It worked as expected, and I’m certain that a thief wouldn’t be able to disable the software unless they completely wiped all the data and flashed a fresh ROM on the phone.
All in all, I love the quality of the tracking provided by Prey. I don’t have a password on my phone or on my laptop, but Prey helps me rest assured that I’ll be able to recover my phone, whether it’s stolen or I just forgot it at a restaurant. It operates under full stealth mode, it’s lightweight (doesn’t hog system resources), and it’s reliable.
There are some other bells and whistles, such as being able to sound an ‘alarm’ in case you’ve lost the device nearby and want to locate it, showing a message on the screen, or detecting hardware changes on the client, but I felt like the greatest wealth of the product lied in the stealth tracking features.
What didn’t I like?
The payment for Prey Pro is horrible. The payment processor itself is scary – they use a company I had never heard of, and they ask you to give your credit card information directly; no Paypal, no Google Checkout. I have no idea why they couldn’t use a well know, trusted payment processor.
I paid for a Pro membership, and my subscription was immediately activated. Awesome, right?
A month later I receive an automatic renewal on my Pro plan. I decided to stop my recurring membership, so I sent a support ticket in that evening, asking how I could cancel. The next morning they led me to a “Cancel My Subscription” button, which I clicked, and cancelled my subscription.
What’s the problem here? I paid for a second month, I cancelled the next day, and my Pro plan was immediately cancelled. No refund, no “you will be downgraded at the end of the period you have prepaid for.” It’s not a huge amount that I want to fight for, but I feel like this problem with the processing of payments and membership is significant enough to warn potential users about. There are no warning messages or confirmation screens with Prey’s payment. You don’t have the courtesy messages and notes that other sites offer (such as emails reminding you that your next payment is due, or a help section detailing how plan cancellations work).
You have to go into it expecting the worst and hoping for better. I’m confident that payments and memberships will become smoother to order and downgrade in the future, but for now, take caution.
What would I recommend?
Register with the free plan, and only go Pro if your device is actually stolen. Pro only provides tools to help you acquire and save more data from stolen devices (and by more data, I mean you’ll get reports more frequently – there’s no additional data provided). Since Pro membership is activated instantly, you can order the moment you discover that your device has been stolen. Remember to cancel the subscription once your device has been recovered, or you’ll be billed for the next month too!
I’d also recommend setting the interval of your computer’s pings to Prey’s servers higher than the minimum to save bandwidth and some battery life. If your computer is stolen, you can set the interval lower and reports will begin being sent more frequently. This isn’t applicable for mobile phones, since they don’t ping the servers to check if they’re marked as missing or not; rather, they are activated by PUSH notification, SMS message, or a SIM card switch.
Prey is outstanding for free software! It will greatly increase your chances of finding a lost or stolen device, so you’ll feel safer right away. Pro plans are available in case a device is stolen to maximize the amount of information you receive in a short time period.
The software definitely helps me feel safer, and I still don’t have a lock on my phone (it’s so inconvenient)! However, there are still some kinks that need to be ironed out before it becomes a perfect product.
Reviewed by w3techie.