zTrace Gold 5.0 review:

zTrace Gold 5.0

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CNET Editors' Rating

The Good Runs in the background; simple installation; company contacts local law enforcement to recover your PC.

The Bad Expensive; can't identify thieves or track their location; reformatting the drive erases zTrace.

The Bottom Line Though zTrace takes a big step toward stopping laptop thieves, the service is far from foolproof. It's perfect for large companies and college campuses but not worth it for you and me.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

6.0 Overall

A stolen laptop can prove disastrous in terms of lost time, data, and money. Wouldn't it be nice to find out where your lost or stolen laptop ended up, then possibly get it back? zTrace Gold 5.0 offers a novel way to deal with the problem. This software secretly tracks your PC every time it connects to the Internet. But at $50 a year, the careful laptop user shouldn't need such pricey protection. Unless you're responsible for a lot of company or school notebooks, try a remote-access tool such as pcAnywhere or LapLink, which some people have used successfully to trace lost laptops. A stolen laptop can prove disastrous in terms of lost time, data, and money. Wouldn't it be nice to find out where your lost or stolen laptop ended up, then possibly get it back? zTrace Gold 5.0 offers a novel way to deal with the problem. This software secretly tracks your PC every time it connects to the Internet. But at $50 a year, the careful laptop user shouldn't need such pricey protection. Unless you're responsible for a lot of company or school notebooks, try a remote-access tool such as pcAnywhere or LapLink, which some people have used successfully to trace lost laptops.

Did it install or not?
It's almost a Zen exercise to go to the zTrace site and download the client application, but it can be a bit disconcerting. You run a simple setup program, but there's no evidence that you've done anything--no shortcut in the Start menu, no icon in the system tray, no system process displayed in the task manager, nothing. Even if you go to Add/Remove Programs on the control panel, you won't find a trace of zTrace.

To configure or uninstall zTrace, you actually go through the company's Web site. That's the beauty of it: hardly any code actually exists on your laptop. Using the Web site, you register your software and give the company some identifying information from your PC, such as its brand and serial number.

Once you activate zTrace, the software pings the company's servers at intervals that you specify--for instance, every 30 minutes--whenever you connect to the Internet. If your PC is lost or stolen, notify zTrace by phone or via the Web. Since there's no sign of zTrace on your PC, the thief who took your computer will never notice the built-in snooping. The rest is easy: zTrace contacts local law enforcement with whatever information it gathers and works with local authorities to recover your stolen PC.

Foolproof? Not exactly
Unfortunately, zTrace is far from foolproof. For example, if you're running Windows 2000 or Windows XP, which require a password to access the system, the crook might simply reformat your hard drive--erasing zTrace.

Of course, even if zTrace remains on your hard drive and traces your PC, there's a chance you may never recover the stolen goods. That's because zTrace collects only the IP address of the person using your notebook; the software doesn't track Internet traffic (to see where the thief surfs), and it can't independently determine the physical location of a stolen laptop. However, zTrace has another clever trick up its sleeve. If the thief is connected to a dial-up line, zTrace will silently dial out to its call center and capture the criminal's phone number via caller ID. Then, working with the phone company, zTrace can determine the physical location of the person who has your computer. Either way, it's ultimately up to local law enforcement to track down the thief and recover the system, and few local law-enforcement agencies possess the time or resources to take such steps. zTrace guarantees that your laptop will be recovered in 30 days, or the company will refund your subscription price. We suspect that refunds will be common.

Risk vs. cost
Unfortunately, with a $50 price and no guarantee of success, zTrace amounts to a one-trick pony. It can't protect your important data--only proper backup, password-protection, or folder encryption can keep a criminal from ravaging your PC--and the clever thief could always reformat. You'll have to weigh the likelihood of your PC being stolen against the $50 annual cost. For us, it just doesn't add up. This program will work best for corporations and schools that have problems with notebooks being "misplaced" by authorized users, rather than as a tool to protect against random theft.

zTrace's Web-based interface lets you configure the software, monitor activity, and file a report if your laptop is lost or stolen.

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