Losing your phone or having it stolen really sucks. If you have an iPhone, the free Find my iPhone app can help you out, but what is an Android owner to use? Well, you have a bunch of options in the Google Play Store, and we’ll be looking at four of the best.
Anti-theft apps like Lookout, Cerberus, Prey, and Android Lost offer a wide range of options for finding or protecting your device: GPS location, sounding an alarm, locking the phone, wiping the data completely, and more. If you just happened to lose your phone in the infinite folds of your couch, sounding an alarm will help you find it, even if it was on silent. If it’s been stolen, your GPS can be turned on to locate it, allowing you to find the thief. Every Android user should have at least one of these apps installed.
Which should you download? Well, it depends on what you’re looking for. Let’s break it up into a few different sections.
Quite simply, the nicest looking app of the bunch is Lookout. The Android app is simple and easy to use, as is the Website, and they both look gorgeous. Given how popular Lookout is, this shouldn’t be surprising. The Android app is just a list of recent activity above a list of features that you can click to turn on or off. The Website keeps the features pinned to the left side and gives you the rest of the page for a pretty, modern display.
The next best in terms of UI is Cerberus because it is so incredibly simple. The app is just a list of settings in typical Holo styling. The website shows a map with the device location next to a list of the commands and actions you have sent to the phone. On the top is a red/green light to let you know if it is locating your phone or tracking it. Conveniently, it also tells you the battery percentage so you can know if your phone is about to die. Also up top is a drop-down list of commands you can send to the phone including locking it, setting off an alarm, displaying a message, wiping the phone, etc.
The Prey Android app is another list of settings, although it doesn’t look quite as nice as Cerberus. The Website shows a list of your devices, since this app is clearly aimed at using multiple devices, and you can click on one to see more options. Instead of sending individual commands like with Lookout or Cerberus, Prey works by flipping a switch that reports it as lost, and it will generate a report with all the information you want every few minutes. This is an interesting take on the interface, but I’m not sure how much I like it.
Android Lost has the worst UI of any of these. The app is flat-out unattractive. The home screen of the app has only one button once you get it setup: Exit. There is no visible options button, as per modern styling, but you can view more options by pressing a capacitive options button if you have one. The Website doesn’t get much better. Under the Controls button, you can find a bunch of useful features, but they’re all sorted by ugly gray boxes. I wouldn’t get this app if you want something pretty, but don’t count it out completely. It is a feature-packed app.
Lookout has some pretty useful features that the other apps don’t have because it is more of an all-around security app than just an anti-theft app. It can scan your system either daily or weekly for malware, and it can scan all the files you download, apps and others, for malware. This can be a very useful feature to ensure that you’re not downloading anything malicious by accident, especially if you have a habit of downloading cracked apps, which are a major source of malware on Android devices. Signal Flare will save your device’s location to Lookout’s servers right before it runs out of battery. Lock Cam will take a picture of anyone who enters a wrong password on your device three times in a row.
If you pay for premium service, you also get Privacy Advisor, which will monitor your apps for suspicious permissions that could invade your privacy; Safe Browsing, which will scan all your links before you open them in either the stock Android browser or Google Chrome; and Data Backup, which can backup your contacts, photos, and call log. There may be a lot of anti-virus Android apps out there, but Lookout is easily one of the most comprehensive.
If your device is ever lost or stolen, you can visit lookout.com and sound a loud alarm on your phone, locate it via GPS, lock it and display a custom message, or wipe all the data if you know it’s gone for good. The last two options are only available for premium users, and we’ll get into pricing later.
The only downside to Lookout might be that it’s not very subtle; in fact, it starts up with a sticky notification that has to be disabled in the settings. There isn’t any option to hide it from the app drawer or ask for a password on startup.
Cerberus is very much the opposite. You have to type your full username and password every time you open the app, and not only does it have an option to be hidden from the app drawer, but it also can be accessed via a dialer code so you can still get to it easily. Cerberus, like Lookout, can take a picture of someone trying to unlock your phone, but it allows for you to set how many attempts need to be failed before it snaps the pic. It can also take a picture anytime someone dismisses a Cerberus message, which would pop up if you sent a message or alarm to the phone.
The website, Cerberusapp.com, is the first place you’ll go as soon as the phone is lost, and it has a long list of features. You can send a custom message to the phone, lock it, take a picture, record audio or video, track its location on a map, or even have the phone call a chosen number with the speakerphone on. If your phone is stolen, that could make for an awkward phone conversation with the thief.
Prey’s biggest feature is that it can be installed on nearly any device: PC, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS. It’s meant for managing multiple devices, so you can add your computer, your tablet, your phone, and the devices of your family too. Aside from that, it doesn’t stand out much. When you report your device missing from preyproject.com, it sends out all the commands at once, rather than allowing you to send them one by one like the other apps. I disliked this method, but that could vary for each user.
However, Prey has one massive advantage over the competition. All of these apps request to be Device Administrators, meaning they can’t be uninstalled regularly. However, if you remove them from being administrators (which is as easy as pressing the button under Settings > Security), they can then be uninstalled. Prey takes a brilliant approach to this problem, however, and will lock the screen with a PIN that you set beforehand if the thief tries to remove it from being an administrator. All three of the others can be removed from being a Device Administrator without any hassle.
Android Lost, despite its poor user interface, has many useful features. In your app drawer, it is called “Personal Notes” and the image is a small notepad. No thief would ever recognize it as a security app. On androidlost.com, the feature I found most interesting was that you can have your phone speak words out loud using your phone’s Text-to-Speech service. That would sure freak out a thief if the phone started talking to them, asking them to return the phone.
At least for rooted users, one of the advantages that Android Lost touts is the ability to make itself a system app, meaning that even if the thief factory resets the device, the app will remain installed. This sounds great, but if a factory reset does happen, the data will be removed from Android Lost anyway and you won’t be able to access the device anyway. It claims to be able to register the app via text message by sending an SMS to the device with the words “androidlost register” but in my testing, this didn’t work.
Also, if you do decide to make it a system app for whatever reason, be aware that it could soft brick your phone. My Galaxy S3 got stuck in a bootloop after trying to remove it from being a system app, although it was fine after booting into recovery and doing a simple factory reset.
All of these apps, when tested, were able to turn on my phone’s GPS and locate me very quickly and accurately. As far as general services like that go — including sounding an alarm and locking the phone — all of these apps worked flawlessly on my device.
All of these apps offer a free version, but you have to pay to get the full experience. Here’s what you’ll pay for premium service:
Prey: $5/month or $54/year (for more devices: $15/month or $162/year)
Lookout: $2.99/month or $29.99/year
Android Lost: $5 one-time fee
Cerberus: $3.93 one-time fee
If you take into account the cost factor, Android Lost is one of your best options. The free version includes nearly all of the features, short of a few extravagances like an app launcher, contact searcher, and the ability to reboot/shutdown the phone.
However, the one time fee of $3.93 for Cerberus is also a very tempting deal, especially considering you’ll pay much more than that after a few months of Lookout or Prey. The free trial for Cerberus lasts only one week, unlike the other services which allow you to stay free forever if you want. However, Lookout is much more of a suite of security options on top of an anti-theft app, and Prey is clearly aimed at people with many devices. It all depends on your needs.
The all-around winner, if you’re willing to spend a few bucks, is Cerberus because of its low price and simplistic UI.
The best free app out of the bunch is easily Android Lost. It’s a lightweight, full-featured, if not-so-elegant anti-theft app. You get basically everything you need without paying the $5 one-time fee (although you can donate on the Website).
Lookout and Prey may require some deeper pockets to get all the features, but if you need a strong antivirus app or have a multitude of devices, they could be worth it. It might even be a good idea to keep multiple anti-theft apps installed just in case.
Bad things are going to happen in life, and one of those bad things is probably losing your phone or having it stolen. Don’t wait until it’s too late; download one of these anti-theft apps now. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to take these other steps to protect yourself from smartphone thievery in the first place.
Which is your favorite anti-theft app? Did we miss any that you think are important? Let us know in the comments.
Image Credits: Thief vector Via Shutterstock