Commercial drive encryption software is a popular way to encrypt the contents of a disk drive and prevent unauthorized access. Information is encrypted via algorithms that vary in formula but function in similar ways. Most commonly, the encrypted information is accessed via a passcode. As its name suggests, drive encryption protects an entire volume; those looking to encrypt only select folders or files, to have different passcodes, to have varying levels of encryption across a drive should consider file encryption software instead.
After researching expert and user opinions on sites such as CNET, Tom’s Hardware, Techworld, PC Magazine, ITPRO, V3.co.uk, Computerworld, and 4sysops, we’ve compiled a list of the top rated drive encryption software for PCs:
- Low performance impact
- Works across platforms
- Learning curve can be steep
Top Review Sources:
- CNET: 4.5/5.0 “The ultimate freeware encryption program”
- Tom’s Hardware: “We recommend downloading and trying TrueCrypt even if you are not looking for a security solution”
- Techworld: “TrueCrypt is a real winner and comes at a price that can’t be beat”
TrueCrypt is a major name in drive encryption software. Once installed, this free software allows the user to encrypt his or her entire drive, a process that initially can take several hours (the computer remains useable during the process). The user can select from three different encryption algorithms (AES, Serpent, and Twofish) or a combination of the three. Once fully encrypted, TrueCrypt continues to automatically protect new information in real time; a single master passcode is all that you need to boot your computer and go about your normal activities. TrueCrypt’s automatic encryption feature is likely to have little noticeable impact on system performance unless you have an older system or are using multi-level encryption—an extra security measure unnecessary for most users. In the event you need to remove TrueCrypt, the decryption process is clean and hassle-free.
TrueCrypt provides the option of partial drive and external drive (including USB flash) encryption. Additionally, TrueCrypt works across platforms, which is great for those who also use Macintosh or Linux. The learning curve for beginners can be steep; the user interface isn’t fully intuitive and there are dangers in using the software without adequate knowledge. However, TrueCrypt’s online documentation is excellent and provides adequate instruction for those willing to invest the time.
TrueCrypt is available for download on the manufacturer’s website.
ZoneAlarm DataLock ($37)
- Solid protection from an established brand
- 24/7 password recovery hotline
- Simple encryption process
Top Review Sources:
- PC Magazine: 4.5/5.0 “Its makers have considered just about every possible eventuality to ensure that you don’t lock yourself out of the encrypted data”
- ITPRO: 5.0/6.0 “Using DataLock is about as simple as it comes”
- V3.co.uk: 4.0/5.0 “Good value for money”
ZoneAlarm is a familiar and reliable name in internet security. The company’s DataLock software offers full-disk protection by means of 256-bit AES encryption and a password prompt at startup. A stand-out feature of ZoneAlarm DataLock is the 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week hotline for password recovery. While forgetting your master passcode should be avoided at all costs when using any software encryption program, it is good to know that DataLock provides a convenient means of unlocking your system should you need it. As part of the quick and straightforward setup process, you will create security questions and answers that you’ll have to know in order to recover your password via DataLock’s hotline.
Initial encryption can take hours for hard drives packed with information, but your computer remains useable and subsequent encryption is performed on-the-fly with negligible performance impact. The clean user interface will be familiar to anyone used to using other ZoneAlarm products. Encryption with DataLock is largely set-it-and-forget-it. Note that DataLock is for laptops only; if the software does not find a battery connected to your computer, it will not install.
ZoneAlarm DataLock can be purchased through Amazon.
Microsoft BitLocker (Free)
- Transparent operation
- Seamless incorporation with Windows
- Only available for certain editions of Windows
- Not as feature-rich as other disk encryption utilities
Top Review Sources:
- Computerworld: “Encryption is difficult to implement properly…and Microsoft deserves kudos for making it possible to do this in such a tightly integrated way in Windows”
- 4sysops: “It greatly simplifies the encryption of a system drive”
- PC Magazine: “BitLocker reaches its full potential on computers that include…a Trusted Platform Module (TPM)”
Microsoft’s BitLocker is a free drive encryption utility available for the Enterprise and Ultimate editions of Windows Vista and 7, as well as Windows Server 2008 and Server 2008 R2. Though BitLocker is free, users running versions of Windows other than those listed above are not able to install it. For those using compatible versions of Windows, BitLocker is a strong-performing disk encryption utility. It employs 128-bit AES encryption and several modes of authentication, including entering a PIN at startup, using a passcode saved on a USB flash drive, or utilizing your computer’s Trusted Platform Module (TPM). TPM is an emerging, hardware-based technology that uses a special microchip to verify system integrity before bootup. The TPM stores a key used to unlock the system; if an attacker removes your hard drive, he or she will be unable to read its contents because the drive has been separated from the TPM. Likewise, if the Windows startup process is altered, the TPM will prevent the operating system from loading.
Once activated, BitLocker encrypts new files on-the-fly with very little performance impact. While all disk encryption software takes a slight edge off a computer’s overall speed, BitLocker is one of the least cumbersome. On Windows 7 machines, you also have access to BitLocker To Go, a utility that allows you to encrypt removable media.