Lock It Up
Your first line of defense against laptop theft is to secure the machine with an actual, physical lock. Though serious thieves won't be deterred by one of these small cable locks, trying to break one may prove enough of a hassle to deter casual grab-and-dashers. This $30 Kensington MicroSaver Keyed Retractable Notebook Lock offers good visibility but packs away quickly when you have to hit the road.
Lightweight travel locks provide minimal security, in part because they're only as strong as the tiny security slot on your notebook's chassis. For greater strength and security, a lock like the $24 Belkin Bulldog Security Kit isn't nearly as elegant as its lightweight counterparts, but its steel anchoring plates and heavy-duty lock will last a little longer against a more determined thief. It also comes with a $500 antitheft warranty.
To prevent your laptop from disappearing in the event that a thief does manage to break through the lock, consider arming the notebook with a security alarm. The $55 Belkin USB Laptop Security Alarm sounds if someone disconnects the cable. Of course, that helps only if you're nearby when your laptop is stolen.
The $30 Doberman Laptop Defender Portable USB Computer Alarm incorporates a motion sensor that triggers a loud alarm if the device attached to it is moved.
Software Recovery Services
If a thief takes your laptop, tracking and recovery software can help you get it back. Absolute Software's Lojack for Laptops ($50 per year), Brigadoon's PC PhoneHome ($30 lifetime), Inspice's Inspice Trace ($30 per year), XTool's Laptop Tracker ($40 per year for the Small Business Edition), and zTrace Technologies' zTrace Gold ($50 per year) are tracking utilities that connect periodically to a central server. When such a utility does so, the associated service can trace your laptop's location on the Internet and summon the local police to recover it. Absolute Software claims that Lojack for Laptops can survive on a laptop even if the thief successfully reinstalls the operating system, reformats the hard drive, or (in some laptop models) swaps out the hard drive.
Recovery services report recovery rates of 75 percent and higher on tagged items. Evidently, most people who find laptops are honest, and by offering prepaid returns and a reward on the tag (which lists an 800 number), the service makes doing the right thing easy.
The services have you register each item on the Web, with identifying information; afterward they contact you to arrange return if an item is found. The price is nominal, usually around $5 to $10 per tag, with quantity discounts. Vendors that offer labeling and recovery services include ArmorTag, BoomerangIt (pictured), StuffBak, TrackItBack, YouGetItBack.com, and zReturn.
BitLocker (for PCs)
Enabling hard-drive encryption can help you protect your personal information or valuable business data in case your laptop does go missing. Windows Vista Enterprise and Ultimate editions include a drive-encryption feature called BitLocker. Not all laptops have the necessary Trusted Platform Module to enable BitLocker, but if yours does, BitLocker could make the difference between losing just your laptop and losing your identity.
(Update: Reader Eric Vaccaro points out that there is a workaround for BitLocker which allows a flash drive to store the software's encryption keys in lieu of a TPM.)
FileVault (for Macs)
Macs come with their own hard-drive encryption software, known as FileVault. Like Windows Vista's BitLocker, it secures the data on your drive from prying eyes in the event that thieves get away with your laptop.