The worst time to consider installing theft-recovery software on your computer or mobile device? The minute after it’s stolen. The best time? Right now! The GadgetTrak iOS app makes a compelling case at $0.99 to buy and install after you read this review. Using iOS 4’s background location updating, you can keep track of a device (lost, stolen, or perhaps in the hands of a kid playing Angry Birds in the hall closet) with little effort.
The point of theft-recovery software is simple: to provide some kind of post-loss updates from your devices, preferably with coordinates included from either a GPS receiver, Wi-Fi positioning, or both. We’ve previously written about this extensively, because the software is typically inexpensive, and cheap relative to the value of replacing lost hardware. (Most recently, see “GadgetTrak 3 Locates Stolen Laptops,” 4 August 2010, and “Undercover Theft-Recovery Software Update Gives You the Details,” 19 April 2010.)
The GadgetTrak app is simple to set up. You create a new account with the firm, which provides access to tracking via a Web site; you can use an existing account if you already rely on GadgetTrak’s Mac OS X software. The app lets you set a passcode so that it can’t be disabled once activated. It can be killed from the App Drawer, although I found that using that method didn’t seem to disable background updates! (Instead, you use Settings > General > Location Services, scroll to the setting for GadgetTrak, and set the switch to Off.)
After the app is registered, it shows a message that tracking is disabled. You visit the account Web site, log in, and select the phone to enable tracking. You can also retain tracking reports, or have them deleted in favor of showing just the current position. GadgetTrak shows recent results on a map. The company doesn’t provide this information directly to law enforcement, as some other firms do, although it cooperates with recovery efforts. Instead, the firm gives it to you directly.
You might be concerned that continuous use of Location Services could drain your battery. But GadgetTrak is no GPS navigation program: it sends updates only when tracking is on, presumably when you need it most. Over days of testing, I didn’t see any strange additional battery drain.
GadgetTrak must be launched any time you restart your phone, because iOS doesn’t have a launch-at-startup option. And it’s also possible that the app will quit when iOS needs to free up memory from background apps. I haven’t seen that happen, despite running dozens of other apps after launching GadgetTrak a few days ago. For GadgetTrak to work, it also has to be connected to some Internet source. A thief might be smart enough to power down a 3G device, like an iPhone or 3G iPad, or not connect an Apple mobile to Wi-Fi without wiping it. Nonetheless, petty criminals aren’t always known for their foresight or follow-through.
GadgetTrak isn’t the only theft-recovery app for iOS, of course. Apple’s Find My iPhone, which works with the iPad and iPod touch as well, offers background location updates to the MobileMe Find My iPhone service, and doesn’t require that you ever launch it manually. There’s a Find My iPhone app and Web site, and you can track as many iOS devices as you have registered to an account.
Find My iPhone once required a paid and active MobileMe subscription to work. But in November, Apple made Find My iPhone free to anyone with iOS 4.2 running on an iPad, iPhone 4, or fourth-generation iPod touch to use with those devices and any older ones using the same account. An Apple ID account is used instead of MobileMe. (See “Find My iPhone Now Free for Owners of Newest iOS Devices,” 22 November 2010.)
But Find My iPhone provides only the current location of a device, not a history of tracking locations. The service is also always turned on, though it consumes very little battery power since Apple is managing location updates with more control, unlike third-party app developers who must use specific programming interfaces. Find My iPhone also can be used only with the same account on all devices; GadgetTrak can be installed at no extra charge on iOS devices that share the same iTunes account, but a user can then opt to register devices to separate GadgetTrak Web accounts.
GadgetTrak will certainly face more head-to-head competition—Undercover hasn’t updated its Orbicule app for background location yet, for instance—but it has unique and distinct advantages from Find My iPhone, especially if you don’t have a MobileMe subscription or a recent vintage iOS device. What are you waiting for? Go get it now!