When you connect to the Internet via a public hot spot, you put yourself at risk because someone might try to sniff your packets or otherwise snoop on what you're doing online. Hotspot Shield, a free, lightweight piece of software from AnchorFree, promises to keep you safe by creating a secure VPN connection and encrypting all of your communications.
As you connect to a hot spot, simply run Hotspot Shield, and it will begin protecting you using the HTTP Secure (HTTPS) protocol. It launches a tab to show you that you're connected; to disconnect, click the Disconnect button on the tab. To connect again, click the Connect button. You can also connect and disconnect by right-clicking the program's icon in the System Tray.
You'll need to take some care when you first install Hotspot Shield. If you don't want its toolbar installed in your browser, uncheck the box next to "Include the Hotspot Shield Community Toolbar." Also, make sure to uncheck the boxes for setting Hotspot Shield Private Search as your default search, setting your home page to the Hotspot Shield Private Search page, fixing "Page Not Found" errors, and enabling you to get instant alerts from the software -- those options won't do you much good and will likely annoy you.
A few caveats: When you run the software, it will open a browser tab to the product's home page, which has ads on it. You can close that tab if you want; the program works fine without it open. Also, according to a page on the Hotspot Shield Web site, you might see targeted ads appear above Web pages you visit. That hasn't happened to me, although I've seen complaints elsewhere around the Web about intrusive ads. Finally, some people who have downloaded the program have complained that it is unstable, or they were unable to uninstall it. In my tests I didn't run across those problems, but be forewarned that others have reported them.
While AnchorFree offers Hotspot Shield for free, other companies sell similar VPN software products to protect you at public hot spots. ConnectInPrivate, for example, offers software and a service that costs $14.99 per month.
Compatible with: Windows 2000, XP, Vista and 7 (also Mac OS X 10.4, 10.5 and 10.6)
If you use your laptop to connect to more than one wireless or wired network, you might be spending more time than you'd like switching network settings.
For example, if you're a typical notebook user, at work you might have a static IP address, a default network printer, a set of scripts that need to be run, proxy servers for security and a set of mapped network drives. At home, you might have a DHCP-assigned network address on a wireless network as well as a home printer, and you might use Windows Firewall but no proxy servers. And then there's that coffee shop hot spot that you visit regularly with its own set of requirements, such as a DHCP-assigned network address.
Each time you switch networks, chances are that you have to tweak settings such as your default printer, mapped network drives, proxy servers and so on.
Plug and Browse from Interactive Studios puts an end to all that manual configuration. It allows you to create profiles for all the networks you use, and then when you switch from one network to another, you simply choose the new network's profile. All your settings will be intact.
A very nice touch is that you can tell Plug and Browse to automatically create a profile for you and it will grab all of your current settings for the network to which you're connected. You can still edit the settings after that if you need to.
Price: $39.99 (with 30-day free trial)
Compatible with: Windows XP, Vista and 7
Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).
This story, "6 Useful Wi-Fi Tools for Windows" was originally published by Computerworld.