Apple offers a “Find My Mac” service to track a lost or stolen stolen Mac computer. However, Microsoft doesn’t provide an equivalent service for Windows PCs — not even for tablets running Windows 8.
If you’re using Windows and want the ability to track your laptop should it ever become lost or stolen, you’ll need to install some third-party software. There are many paid services that offer this feature, but there are also good free options.
All such tracking services work similarly. You install a piece of software on your device and set up an account with the service. If you ever lose your device, you go to the service’s website, log into your account, and you can view the device’s location and control it remotely.
Be aware that it will likely be more difficult to track a laptop than a smartphone. A smartphone will probably be connected to a data network and be in standby mode, so it can communicate its location back to you. However, if a laptop is powered off or just not connected to Wi-Fi, it won’t be able to report back to you. A tracking service can offer some additional protection should you ever lose your laptop, but it will be harder to locate a lost laptop than it is to locate a lost smartphone.
Prey offers tracking software for Windows, Mac, and even Linux PCs. Prey also offers tracking apps for Android and iOS, so you could use this one service to track all of your devices.
This service has paid pro plans, but the basic tracking service is completely free. The free service allows you to have three devices linked to your account and store up to ten location reports per device.
After installing Prey, you’ll be prompted to create a new user account or enter your current user account details.
Once you’ve logged in, Prey will immediately be up and running. Prey runs as a Windows service by default. If you want to configure it, you can open the Configure Prey shortcut in the Prey folder in your Start menu’s programs group.
To have Prey check in more frequently so you’ll receive reports more quickly if you ever lose your laptop, select Options for Execution, and modify the Frequency of reports and actions setting.
Tracking Your Lost Laptop
You can now visit the Prey project’s website and log in with the same account details you entered on your computer. You’ll see your computer and any other linked devices.
If you lose your laptop, you’ll need to click its name on your Prey control panel and set the slider from “OK” to “Missing.” Prey only tracks your device when it’s missing, so it isn’t constantly tracking your laptop’s location. Be sure to also enable the Geo feature, which uses your laptop’s internal GPS hardware or the names of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots to report its location.
You can also have Prey perform specific actions, such as setting off an alarm — this is useful if you misplace the laptop nearby. Of course, it’s not as reliable as sending an alarm to a phone, because the laptop must be powered on and connected to the Internet to receive this message and begin the alarm.
Be sure to save your changes afterwards.
Once you’ve set your laptop to missing, its status will become “Tracked, waiting for report.” When the Prey software on your laptop checks in with the Prey server, it will receive a message that it has been marked as lost and generate a report. You’ll only receive an alert if the laptop is powered on, connected to the Internet, and the Prey software is still installed.
There’s an “on-demand” mode where you can request a report immediately, but this feature is unavailable in the free version. If you can wait a few minutes for your report, the free version will work just as well.
Once a report arrives, you’ll see it on the Reports tab. The report includes the information you selected, such as the laptop’s geographic location, its network status and IP address, and a screenshot of the computer’s desktop and webcam capture of its user. This information may help you get the laptop back, or may be helpful evidence when you report the laptop as stolen.
If you don’t want to use Prey for some reason, you may want to try LockItTight, which is also free.
While Absolute Software’s LoJack for Laptops is a paid service, it’s worth a mention because it has the advantage of being integrated into many laptop’s BIOSes, which makes it more powerful and difficult to remove.
Image Credit: Michael Mandiberg on Flickr