Divide By Zero

Rants, Gadgetry & Boring Ole Philosophy

Android Security Apps Review: Lookout, SeekDroid, Cerberus, Prey & Theft Aware

Written By: Tyler Style - Jun• 19•11

Today’s free app from Amazon.com’s AppStore is SeekDroid, so I though I’d give it a try.  I’m a big fan of security apps given how incredibly integral smartphones are becoming in our lives.  Losing your smartphone these days can be absolutely crippling for those of us who enjoy a high tech information rich lifestyle!  So far I’ve tried out Lookout and Cerberus as well as SeekDroid, and I’m going to go over how well each app does in offering minimum necessary security features and overall value.

Security apps should offer these features at a minimum:

  • control the phone via the web,
  • control the phone via text message (in case the website for the app is down or you don’t have web access),
  • continue to work even with a new SIM card,
  • remotely enable GPS,
  • locate your phone’s location on a map,
  • track your phone’s location as it moves around in real time on a map,
  • lock your phone to prevent it from being used without a code,
  • wipe your personal data from the phone,
  • wipe your personal data from the SD card,
  • hide the app from appearing in the app drawer, and
  • prevent the app from being uninstalled without a code.

Other nice features are:

  • able to send alert messages to display on the phone to anyone who finds/steals it
  • set off an audio alarm (useful for finding a misplaced phone),
  • record audio from the microphone,
  • snap pictures from the camera,
  • get a list of the last calls made & received, and
  • get a list of the last text messages sent & received.

I consider being able to control the phone remotely via text messaging to be a vital feature.  You can always borrow a friend’s cell phone to send texts but may not be able to access the web from where ever you’re at when you lose your phone, and time is of the essence if your phone’s been stolen!

Lookout Mobile Security

First up is the free version of Lookout Mobile Security app, which was the first one I tried based on a “top 10 Android apps” list I found last year.  It’s more of an all-in-one security suite like Norton, offering anti-spyware, malware and unsafe site web browsing alerts in addition to the more usual security features.  However, given the high security of the Android platform in general, I find this to be overkill.  Worse, the app slows down the phone way too much, just like Norton tends to enormously slow down a computer.  And you have to pay for these nearly worthless security options!  It also offers basic phone data backup, but that’s a feature you can get with any other number of good free apps as well.

Finally and crucially, the ability to remotely lock your device so no one else can use it and to remotely wipe your private data is only available in the paid version.  Since these are pretty vital features in any phone security app, the free version is pretty much useless except for using their web interface to locate the phone on Google Maps.  It’s also missing a lot of the other vital features, such as text messaging control and hiding from the app drawer and locking down app removal.  And for what you get, the price is outrageous – it’s a subscription service for $2.99/month or $29.99/year!  Based on the lack of necessary features, the uselessness of the paid features and the high price, I wouldn’t recommend Lookout to anyone.

SeekDroid

SeekDroid definitely fares better in covering the basic mandatory features, and it’s regularly only $0.99.  I’m a little put off by grammar mistakes and the like on the website, however too dense to appreciate the clever Orwellian joke on the home page:
SeekDroid Website Grammar Mistake Example
On the other hand, the web interface is quite visually appealing, and the little secret agent Droid is most cute!

SeekDroid Web Interface

However, it doesn’t offer real time tracking – just the current location when you request it via the web interface “Locate” button.  Also, despite GPS being enabled on my phone it wasn’t able to resolve my location down to less than a kilometer radius.  However, the final nail in the coffin is that it only offers the web interface – you can’t text the app to control it.  So if you don’t have web access, you’re out of luck …and as I mentioned earlier when your phone has just been stolen or lost, fast response time is critical!

Cerberus

Cerberus, on the other hand, offers every critical feature I’ve listed and more besides.  It’s definitely the most complete and feature rich security and remote management app I’ve found.  It’s a little more pricey than your average Android app at 2.99€, but it’s money very well spent in my opinion.  Text message control, real time tracking, remote audio and visual recording, complete lockdown, audio and message box alerts, remote SD card and phone memory wiping – it’s got it all! You just can’t get a better security app than this app.

Cerberus Web Interface

Final Thoughts

In summary: SeekDroid is a decent security app but doesn’t quite offer enough of the most important features, and Lookout is overpriced, missing key features and slows your phone down with nearly useless “security” features.  Cerberus stands out head and shoulders above the others in terms of value, offering all the features you need for a very high level of security and more.

In closing, I really can’t emphasize how important it is to get a good security app.  As my friend Sandy unfortunately learned last week, a late model smartphone is a big fat target for theft.  Unfortunately for her, she had an iPhone and hadn’t yet installed an security apps on her just one week old purchase.  And since Apple has such a limited app infrastructure, you can’t install apps remotely so she was out of luck trying to do so after the theft.  Security apps for mobile computing devices is extremely important given how easy they are to steal or be lost – it should be one of the first things you install. Fortunately for Android users, Google has a much more flexible and open app infrastructure for Android and you can install one after the fact so long as the phone is on the network and still using your account.  If you’re going to protect your investment in your smart phone – both financial and in terms of lifestyle – spending a little on an excellent app like Cerberus is the best investment you can make in keeping your phone safe and secure.

Update: Prey

Some redditors asked about Prey as a phone security app.  I just tried it out, and it’s missing most features I would consider important.  The most vital was that while you can trigger it via a text message, I didn’t see any way to trigger a “report” from the website.  In fact, you have to subscribe to the Pro version at US$5.oo/month in order to be able to request the geolocation whenever you want it as opposed to whenever the Prey app runs at some unspecified interval, which pretty much kills the utility of the app as an anti-theft utility.

The only features I could find were obtaining the current location (but no real time tracking, and it doesn’t specify whether it gets the info from GPS or by cell tower triangulation so it may not resolve very far), getting phone network info, triggering an audio alarm, triggering a message box alert, and locking the phone.  While it’s great that it’s open source and that it supports so many mobile computing platforms and so might be good for protecting laptops or tablets, I wouldn’t recommend it as a phone anti-theft device.

Update: Theft Aware

A commenter asked my thoughts on Theft Aware.  I took a look, and it’s a pretty complete app in terms of the features I consider important.

The authors are German, and definitely not proficient at English.  The website is hard to navigate, and it was difficult to compare the features especially as the Symbian and Android features were intermixed.  I eventually had to downloaded the user guide [PDF] to make sense of it.  The user guide is much better written and organized than the information available on the website.

Theft Aware’s root and debug mode lockout is definitely a neat feature, as is being able to back up the app settings so that even a factory reset won’t delete them. Those features make it a more complete solution security-wise than Cerberus.

However, Theft Aware is lacking a couple of key features: no web based control and as a consequence, no real time tracking. Theft Aware can only be controlled via SMS, so if you don’t have a friend’s phone handy to text with you are out of luck. Since speed is key when your phone’s gone and not having to constantly manually update location is a huge advantage when tracking a thief that’s on the move , I still recommend Cerberus.

Update 2011-07-19: Non-stock OS

I’ve heard from another user that the power consumption of Cerberus is pretty heavy on their handset, but they were using Cyanogen Mod as opposed to the stock OS.  When using a custom OS on your phone, your mileage is likely to vary.  It might also have been a result of his having a different handset from mine (an HTC Desire HD).  For the record my phone is an original Droid running the stock OS (although rooted), and my power usage is tiny.

Note: if you’re in Canada or some other country and you try to download it using the Android Amazon AppStore app, it will tell you that it’s not available in your location.  Fortunately, I know a little hack to get around this limitation!


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48 Comments

  1. NE-Phil says:

    This article caught my interest when I found it on Reddit.com but, come on, could it be any briefer? You can’t really make a case for or against them if you are only willing to give a paragraph synopsis for each app. Disappointing.

    • Tyler Style says:

      Well, it’s a fine line Phil. I’ve found if I give more than a paragraph or two I wind up with TL;DR complaints. What sort of information did you think I should include that didn’t make it in? I thought my feature list at the beginning was pretty thorough, and I mentioned where app each fell short.

    • lim ching yong says:

      I think this is a good comparison.I have tested up to 10 apps just to be sure if I have missed any features.if only i have come across this article earlier, i might have save some time comparing them.not TLDR at all, finish reading in less than 2 minutes. prolly a comparison table will just be nice.

    • Bidib says:

      I’m amazed at how people can be ungrateful and stupid.
      Tyler spent some time comparing these apps, and you won’t spend a minute reading his article, which is particularly concise and useful.

      I don’t see how he could make it shorter without missing info.

      Get back to school and learn reading again !

      Tyler, thank you very much for this interesting post, i wanted something more powerful than “where’s my droid”, you gave me a fine answer. I’m going for Cerberus.

      • Tyler Style says:

        Thanks! While I admit that a features chart would be useful, I mostly wanted to talk up what I thought about each app and why I thought it was useful/useless. Plus there are *so many* features total across all these apps that I thought a comparison chart might actually be more painful than helpful – the most useful features would be lost in the noise.

  2. dave says:

    Take a look at preyproject, too

  3. lim ching yong says:

    whats your comment on theft aware? Im stuck between theft ware and cerebus.

  4. Ash says:

    Thanks for the comprehensive review, but what happens if the thief decides to put your phone on plane (flight) mode for a long while?
    The problem is that the application does not try or is unable to turn the GPS and wireless on its own and depends on the thief stupidity to turn them on for you.
    Therefore it merely depends on the cellular tower you are communicating with that located me with 18Km error!

    • Tyler Style says:

      If a thief puts a phone in airplane mode or turns it off, NO app is going to help you :)

      A phone app can only turn on GPS or wirless if it’s been rooted. If you don’t have a rooted phone, you will be stuck with the cell phone tower triangulation location approximation no matter which app you’re using until the thief turns on GPS.

  5. Kyle says:

    Tyler, I am currently trying out Cerberus but it appears that I can only remotely-enable GPS if my phone is rooted (which it is not). Is this also true for SeekDroid?

    If I can’t turn on GPS remotely with Cerberus, how is it tracking it? I noticed it turns on WiFi (by playing with the web interface), but what if isn’t connected to a network? Does it still do anything? I tried deleting my WiFi network so it wouldn’t automatically connect, and it appears to still be tracking it, albeit with a larger radius.

    • Tyler Style says:

      That’s correct Kyle: no app can turn on GPS unless it’s been rooted.

      However security apps can still track your phone by triangulating the signal strength from cell phone towers near your phone (or as you noted by IP tracking if wireless is turned on).

      • Ash says:

        Theftaware claims to turn your GPS on sneakily. I have not tried it yet. Will update you.

        • Tyler Style says:

          I think when Theftaware says that a thief won’t be alerted to the fact that you’re tracking his location, they’re talking about the SMS message the app is sending with the location as opposed to turning on the GPS.

          • Ash says:

            Hey I just tried theftaware on my non-rooted HTC Panache (Canadian version of MT4G) while I had switched off all WiFi, cellular data and GPS and left only voice connection on, then activated the app, believe it or not, it texted right back the GPS location parameters link on Google map that showed my backyard with 5 meters accuracy (exactly were I am sitting next to window for GPS satellite visibility)!! Pretty neat, it didn’t even show on the phone that the app sneakily opened the GPS connection. The only bummer is that it can’t activate the audio or camera recording remotely. Tell me any idea if is there any other app you could launch simultaneously to remotely record audio/video while theftaware is operating the GPS?

          • Ash says:

            This makes Theftaware the winner for me for a non-rooted phone.

  6. Ash says:

    Here is a quote I just copied from Theftaware instruction manual If enabled,
    “Auto-Enable GPS
    Theft Aware will try to enable GPS on non-rooted phones if GPS is disabled in the system settings. This only works from Android 1.6 on and might cause unwanted popup dialogs to occur depending on the device model. If Theft Aware is installed as system application, GPS will be automatically enabled regardless of this setting.”

  7. mohammed saeed says:

    There seems to be a new ‘ultimate’ phone finder almost every day. Here’s another MobiUcare .

    • Tyler Style says:

      The screenshots of their website look nice on the market and appbrain, though the English is poor and over inflammatory. However, when I go to http://www.mobiucare.com it’s 404. Not the best way to secure your phone if the designers can’t even keep their website up for you to use with the app :)

  8. Dominic Oskis says:

    Thanks for your efforts Tyler. I’ve checked several of these apps myself. I dumped Prey free as it could take ages to come up with phone position and then more ages for a further position update making it feel pretty useless! None seems to have the entire answer.

    kor.im looks promising but cant currently force “Enable GPS satellites” so if I leave it off I’m stuffed! I’ll give it a quick try but I think I’ll take your advice and try Cerberus too.

    Given that my phone keeps a location track of me it would be nice to snuffle down recent Location Cache entries. It might just prove useful!

  9. GeekDrop.com says:

    Thanks for the comparisons. It gets pretty muddy when trying to choose which is the best, especially when someone has ver limited time to drone over the details of each. I have to agree with a previous poster in that a comparison chart would be a HUGE help *in addition to* a brief synopsis of the advantages/disadvantages of each one. Currently after reading your article, it helped slightly, but I’m still left unsure which one to choose, as opposed to helping me nail down a decision with 100% confidence.

  10. Wild Bill says:

    could you please do an update trying out PhoneLocator Pro – it seems to be the only other main contender you missed, and might in fact be the best one. Let us know!

  11. Wild Bill says:

    by the way, there are two apps with the PhoneLocator name, it’s this one we need opinion on – https://market.android.com/details?id=com.rvo.plpro

    PS – if you have time, also test out WatchDroid Pro

  12. SscoootzZ says:

    IMHO, Cerberus is still the go-to for mobi anti-theft exies. One of the biggest pieces not mentioned in this review, otherwise well-executed, is that the exie’s price is a single point charge. This fact alone, especially when viewed with the depth & functionality of the feature set, will handily sway the opinion of many buyers. Also, I find comfort choosing this exie since it’s the only one included in the ROM Manager lineup. ~:sDs:~

  13. Petre says:

    Take a look at “Android lost”. And if you can do a comparation like this please abaut the function wil it be very useful. Somme thing like this:
    http://www.mobiucare.com/about/comparision
    Sory for my english, i am not from an eglish language country.

    • Tyler Style says:

      Thanks for the input. I find basic features matrices often have so many details that it’s easy to get lost trying to figure out what’s important and what’s not. I defined what I thought was important at the beginning of the review and then went on in a narrative style pointing out which apps met my expectations, which didn’t, and why.

      Since this is a blog and not a tech review site, this is both appropriate and (much more to the point) the style I enjoy writing in :)

  14. root says:

    root…

    [...]Android Security Apps Review: Lookout, SeekDroid, Cerberus, Prey & Theft Aware | Divide By Zero[...]…

  15. Wild Bill says:

    could you please do an update trying out PhoneLocator Pro – it seems to be the only other main contender you missed, and might in fact be the best one. Let us know!

    by the way, there are two apps with the PhoneLocator name, it’s this one we need opinion on – https://market.android.com/details?id=com.rvo.plpro

    PS – if you have time, also test out WatchDroid Pro

  16. Anony Mouse says:

    What they need to do is legislate into action a system whereby telephones and their owners stay legally registered via the device’s ID number, much like with cars, a stolen phone would then no longer register or be useful to anyone but its rightful owner, that needs to happen and the sooner, the better.

    • Tyler Style says:

      That’s anti-capitalist! Phone carriers shouldn’t have to police phones on their network if it could possibly prevent them from selling an outrageously overpriced plan to some schmuck! LOL

  17. Dina says:

    Hiya over a year later are you planning to do another of these? I found it really useful, thanks, but now have an android tablet :)

    • Tyler Style says:

      Hallo Dina. I do these as a hobby, not a job, so they only come out as my life circumstances permit. I haven’t gotten a new Android phone or tablet since I wrote that (and thanks for the compliment on it’s utility!), so no reason to update this yet. Plus my device is still running Froyo, so even if I did re-evaluate it would be pointless for most users, as the people who need it most would be using new devices with JB or ICS.

      All that being said, the Galaxy Note 2 is in my future so I should be pumping out a lot more Android stuff soon! So looking forward to owning one of those bad boys… as a big person with big hands, it fits just perfectly in my elephantine mitts :)

  18. sym says:

    Thanks Tyler for the great reviews. I have a Galaxy Note 2. It’s not rooted. Is Cerberus the best anti-theft for this phone?

    • Tyler Style says:

      Thanks for the compliment! I’m glad you found the reviews helpful, despite them being a bit old now. Funnily enough, I just acquired a Note II last week and am in the process of evaluating both it and the best apps for it. Right now I am still using Cerberus, which works like a charm (and has already helped me find my phone once with the siren function after it wound up under the couch cushions!) So I would still recommend it, on the basis of my experience so far – you could do a LOT worse, for sure. However I plan to revisit the most popular apps in a few weeks and write another set of reviews (I rather expect to still like Cerberus best, but I’ve been surprised before)

      I’d also like to say that the Note II is one heckuva phone! I adore mine.

  19. J S says:

    Hi Tyler, a great review, wish i had read it before my new S3 got stolen, I had lookout (free) installed but I have yet not been able to locate my phone. By the way I am from Mumbai,India. Even I was considering Cerberus installed on my new Galaxy Note II but was reading reviews before the trial period of 7 days expired. Just wanted to know if Cerberus is the best for its price and if it can be as accurate as it is in your state here in india. I did some tracks on my own by installing Cerberus and having resgistered three nos, it only sent an sms of the location to on of the mobile nos. Not sure why though and also the location was not accurate and the radius was too large for me to find my phone. Is it because I am in India and the maps are yet to be updated or is it the problem of Cerberus. Also as one of your important features put forward here — “hide the app from appearing in the app drawer”, not sure if Cerb..s has that facility.What do you think of samsungdive, remote controls and change sim notification facility by the manufacturer and the phone respectively? Can any of these apps and services (samsgdive, change sim notification, cerberus etc..) be uninstalled when phone is reset to factory settings and would you suggest anyother apps for people here in india. Lastly, is there any way other than filing that i can get back my lost phone?

    Thanks once again… JS

    • Tyler Style says:

      Hi JS, glad you liked my review and sorry to hear that your phone got stolen :(

      I have a Note II as well, and have Cerberus installed on it. It is definitely worth the money, given that it’s a one time cost (for instance, for some other apps you have to pay monthly) and given that you have so many features available (one of the best being if your phone is rooted, you can make it a systems app so that a reset won’t wipe it out).

      If you’re having any issues with the app, contact the developer – he’s usually pretty quick to reply. The problem with texting location to your backup phone might have something to do with your carrier being in India, but that’s just a guess.

      Cerberus will pinpoint your phone using GPS and wireless as closely as it can; if the location area is too large, that means it probably can’t get a GPS signal (for instance, if it is deep inside a concrete apartment building). Nothing to do with Cerberus as an app. If you can’t get a good fix I would try again later to see if the phone has moved somewhere with better signal.

      You can only hide Cerberus in the app drawer if your phone is rooted (or you have some other app that hides icons in the app drawer, like the Note II’s Touchwiz UI).

      I’ve not evaluated samsungdive, so I can’t give you an opinion on that.

      As I mentioned, if your phone is rooted you can install Cerberus as a systems app that will survive a factory reset just fine there is an option in the settings).

      I don’t have any recommendations for India, sorry – never been there, and never done any research on security for it.

      I’m not sure what “filing” is or how it could be used to get back your phone, sorry. If it hasn’t been factory reset and has the GPS on, you can go to Google Play and install Plan B, which email you with your phone’s location. You can then get it to email you locations whenever you text “locate” to your phone.

      • J S says:

        Hi Tyler,

        Thanks the for the quick revert.

        I tried Plan B (lookout) but it never installed on my phone (may be because the sim was deactivated by that time)and later I revoked my gmail account from my phone. Now I am not sure if Plan B will work.

        By filing, i meant filing a police complaint. The police will try to trace it with the help of the IMEI No. (is it true that the IMEI no too can be changed, if yes, how easy is it and risks if any) as i think it is the only hope left to get my phone back if the police here takes the issue on priority.

        I used Cerberus website to hide the it from the app drawer, but it is visibile in the application manager (where i can easily uninstall the same). Will a rooted phone solve this issue?

        Lastly, I am not as tech savy, so not sure how to root the phone and what are the risks involved.

        Thanks for all your help and patience for answering my queries in detail.

        Regards
        JS

  20. HTZhou says:

    Hi Tyler,

    do you think all these Apps you’ve mentioned above still working fine without internet?
    I have lost my phone once, and I had only ‘Wheres My Droid’ installed. I got it back just by having the lite version of it. I lost it on the bus, and I found it 2 hours later after the bus driver finally got off from his shift.

    I was thinking that I was just being a lucky bast*rd who got his phone back. If we really wanna look further on it. What if the person who found my phone:
    1: off my phone or took the sim card out (so we have no internet)
    2: reset it as a new gadget.
    3: set every details as his.

    is there any app that you would recommend prior to these matters?

    • Tyler Style says:

      All of these apps will work fine without a SIM card – you don’t a card for a wifi connection, just for a cellular data connection.

      There is no app that will work when your phone is off or when there is no data connection whatsoever. However, for a thief or unscrupulous person who doesn’t return a lost phone will sooner or later want to use it, and that means that it will be turned on and either have access to wifi or a cellular data network (otherwise, why keep the phone?). And if the phone is on and has your SIM card still in it but no data connection, some of the apps (like Cerberus) can be controlled via text messages instead of via the internet data connection.

      Cerberus will take care of your items 2 & 3, so long as you have a rooted phone. If you are rooted, Cerberus can install itself as a systems app and so survive a factory reset. It can also be hidden from the app drawer so that it can’t be uninstalled as well. It won’t matter if the phone details are changed in the phone’s settings, as the Cerberus app will still have your Cerberus account registered to it.

      • htz says:

        when you lost your phone, normally it’s at the place where you have only a data connection, by taking out the sim card, we won’t have any more Internet connection. I am sure we need to be connected to Internet to be able to send the pin point of our device location.
        let’s say, I lost my phone at point A, the person get the simple card out and is now at point B, 5km away from point A. we all know that wifi connection these days require a password, so we are still not connected to Internet. the person then set it to the manufacturer setting. reset and delete everything else on the phone. is it still possible to get it back?

        for ceteris, is it only available for rooted android?

        • Tyler Style says:

          I don’t know about where you are, but there is lots of free wifi where I live :) Most coffee shops, malls and restaurants all offer them around here.

          And yes, it is still possible to get it back after a wipe. However, as I mentioned previously you have to be rooted in order to install your security app as a systems app, so that it will survive a factory reset (Cerberus and a few other apps offer this). So, as soon as a data connection is available you can find your phone.

          Any security app will install without root, but many of the best features will not be available without root.

          • palpha says:

            The warranty voids if phone is rooted…. Take ur pick…

          • Tyler Style says:

            True, but you can unroot your phone in most instances if you need to use your warranty.

          • HTZ says:

            LOL…
            we are all living in a modern world and of course we also have those free wifi around (almost everywhere you go). But your phones just don’t connect automatically to the internet, do they?

            some of the places even want you to provide some password. some will prompt you to the browser and click on the “terms and agreement”. some simply want you to like them on facebook, some just want to advertise their products. I mean it’s all good for security purposes. In this way, your phone still don’t connect automatically.

  21. Deep Soni says:

    How did you forget AndroidLost?

    it beats em all.

    • Tyler Style says:

      Several reasons:

      1. The app’s website shows it is in beta, so it probably didn’t exist when I did these reviews.
      2. The app’s website has very poor English, which doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the app itself.
      3. It doesn’t do anything Cerberus doesn’t already do, which was the clear winner at the time.
      4. It doesn’t seem to be as mature/stable as Cerberus, looking at the FAQ
      5. It’s a hobby project rather than an app from a professional developer, so it’s lifetime and future are iffy. Thus relying on it would be a bad idea, as if the developer disappears because he was tired of developing it or supporting it (it does cost money to do so) one would be left high and dry in an emergency. Professionals and businesses go under too, but they are generally still more stable than a hobbyist’s project.

      Personally, I’d avoid it.

  22. Bill Bass says:

    could you please do an update trying out PhoneLocator Pro – it seems to be the only other main contender you missed, and might in fact be the best one. Let us know! – I asked this before, but there was never a reply :(

    by the way, there are two apps with the PhoneLocator name, it’s this one we need opinion on – https://market.android.com/details?id=com.rvo.plpro

    PS – if you have time, also test out WatchDroid Pro

  23. Scott smith says:

    How about gotya

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