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Lookout keeps an eye on your Android

Lookout's broad range of effective mobile device-specific security features are coupled with a minimal performance hit, making it a must-have app.

The bottom line: Lookout's broad range of effective mobile device-specific security features are coupled with a minimal performance hit, making it a must-have app.

Update: This review was updated on January 26, 2011 with revised benchmarks in the Performance section. Accordingly, the score has been raised from 4.5 stars to 5 stars.

Review: Antivirus prevention isn't anywhere near as necessary for Android devices as it is for Windows computers just yet. As Android's market share grows, though, so will the attacks. More importantly for the here and now, Lookout Mobile Security provides key security options that are unique to the mobile market. Along with the antivirus and anti-malware tech, there's a lost and stolen phone locator service, an application privacy adviser, and a backup service.

Installation
Lookout's installation is smooth and simple. The free account registration requires a valid e-mail address, which is important because several of the app's features require communication with the user.

As a security app, it's not surprising that Lookout will grab with some fairly deep hooks into your Android device. Lookout has permission rights to your personal information, messages, location, network communication, accounts, storage, phone calls, hardware controls, and system tools.

Interface
Lookout's interface is helpfully simple to navigate. At the top right of the app, a status notification tells you if you've got security problems or if, "Everything is OK." Below that, the four main features are presented as buttons. Tap one to reveal a button that will run the feature, if it's the Security scan, the Privacy scan, or the Backup.

The Missing Phone option is less intuitive. It merely tells you to go to myLookout.com to locate, lock, scream, or wipe your phone. The scream option sets off a high-pitched alarm to annoy phone thieves and alert others. Of course, you're not going to require any of those options if you know where your phone is. But it's a good reminder that the feature is there, even if it's only for Web use.

You can access Lookout from the app or a notification bar icon that also informs you of your status. The Settings hardware button reveals a reasonable although not robust selection of options to configure, presented in the standard and familiar Android style.

Lookout's broad range of effective mobile device-specific security features are coupled with a minimal performance hit, making it a must-have app.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Features and support
Lookout's features are robust and comprehensive, at least for what's known about the still-developing field of mobile security.

It's difficult at the moment to verify whether the antivirus and anti-malware feature actually does anything, since there are few if any labs that test mobile antivirus and anti-malware apps. At this point, we know it's there, and we know that Lookout says it does proactive things to keep you from getting infected. Those infections are not something you're likely to come across, so we'll just acknowledge the feature and file it under "incomplete."

Lookout has provided reviewers with access to a demo malicious app, which gets blocked by Lookout when you attempt to install it. Though the app worked in that instance, that kind of test is hardly verifiable. However, Android-based threats do exist, and as they occur with more frequency, it's highly likely that standards for testing security apps will emerge.

The other security features in the app are quite effective. Most notable among them is the phone tracker, which uses your GPS to track your phone's location. Again, if it's been lost or stolen, you can log in to MyLookout.com to find your phone. From its online interface, you can also set off the screaming alarm designed to annoy your phone's thief enough to abandon it, as well as remotely wipe or lock the phone.

The MyLookout site is also where you can initiate a backup and restore, run a security scan, and toggle settings, although those features can be run directly from the phone. The site contains logs of its activity that you can browse to keep tabs on the app's behavior. The logs are quite detailed: for example, the app scan log will tell you how many apps were searched.

Once you begin a scan, you can continue to move about the app.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

The Backup feature covers your contacts, photos, and your call log, and is encrypted for security during transfer. Restoring allows a full restoration of all backed-up data as well as granular control over which specific calls, photos, and contacts are restored.

The Privacy adviser rounds up all the permissions from your apps and lets you know which apps have access to the different parts of your phone. This is an excellent, simple tool for checking out what your apps are doing, because, let's face it: when installing a new app, most people just aren't reading deep into the permissions list.

Another smart feature of the app is the ability to control which of the modules you use. You can toggle all four of the main features on or off, which is great for users who prefer to use alternate backup options, for example.

Like many other apps that rely on a free and clear signal to function properly, Lookout's backup and locator features can fail when signal-throttling apps, such as JuiceDefender, interfere with Lookout. What's sorely missed here is a notification, either by e-mail or natively on the phone, that warns you that there's been a failure to communicate.

There are some key features that Lookout only makes available in its premium upgrade, which costs $2.99 per month or $29.99 for a one-year license. The Privacy adviser, photo backup, call backup, data transfer to a new phone, remote wipe, remote lock, and premium support are all restricted to the premium upgrade.

Performance
As noted earlier, Lookout's performance is hard to gauge on a purely antivirus-based scale. What we did look at is how the phone start-up times are affected by the app. When looking at "cold booting" the phone, in which the phone is completely shut off, started, and then timed until the 3G connection has been established, the Droid 2 we tested without Lookout averaged 58.46 seconds to boot over three attempts. With Lookout installed, the phone averaged 1 minute, 9.83 seconds to boot over three attempts. It would definitely be an improvement if the app caused less of an impact on a phone's start-up time, as an addition of nearly 10 seconds can feel much longer on a phone.

When tested on a different handset following the same procedure, Lookout's performance was much improved. When tested on a LG Optimus U running Android 2.2, the phone took an average of 51.12 seconds to start up over three cold boots when Lookout was running. Without Lookout, the phone started in an average of 48.31 seconds. An impact of about two and a half seconds on startup time is completely respectable, and indicates a minimal impact on the phone. It also highlights how different hardware, different app installations, and different cellular networks can affect a phone's boot time.

Once logged in to MyLookout.com, you can track your phone if it's on, as well as remotely lock it, wipe it, or have it emit a piercing siren designed to annoy the thief and alert others.

(Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Lookout will also add a couple seconds to the installation of any app, as it scans newly installed apps to ensure that they're safe. Depending on which apps are running in the background, this can be inconsequential or feel like tedium in a handset. It's an essential part of Lookout's protective behaviors, although that doesn't mean we wouldn't like to see it shortened.

Overall, Lookout's performance impact on Android's speed is the app's weak point. It will improve as hardware improves, although for now it seems to be a necessary evil for the app's features.

Conclusion
Lookout adds a necessary security net to your Android phone. Even if you disable the antivirus protection, its other features make it more than worthwhile by providing essential features not otherwise available in one package. Either the free version or the premium upgrade is worth having, since both contribute significantly to keeping your phone and your data on it safe.

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