If you have an Android device released after mid-2010, then you probably have access to the Android Device Manager security feature — although you might not even know it.
Google pushed out this system in August to all devices running Android 2.2. (Froyo) and up, but has kept it very quiet, even though Android Device Manager works well and provides a variety of useful functions.
Android Device Manager has four functions: location tracking, Ring, Lock and Erase. Each function is fairly self-explanatory and easy to use, but before you can test them, you'll need to activate Android Device Manager on your phone or tablet.
To access Android Device Manager, you'll need an Android device, a computer with Web access and a Google account. (If you have an Android phone, you probably already have an active Google account.)
First, visit google.com/android/devicemanager on a computer Web browser, and check your list of devices.
If you've ever used the Google Play store on your device, the device should automatically appear. Consider, however, renaming your device for clarity: For example, "Droid Razr M" is a much clearer designation than the default "XT907."
By default, you should have access to the Ring functionality. This option will play your phone or tablet's default ringtone at full volume for five minutes unless you press the power button. Try it out — but be sure to hold your phone away from your ear.
Provided that your device is active and connected to the Internet, you may also have access to its location. This is dependent on a few factors, however: You'll need to access Settings, select Location Access and ensure that "Access to my location" is turned on.
If the device's Wi-Fi or mobile data connection is active but its GPS access is not, then actually locating your device may be a bit of a crapshoot.
Tom's Guide attempted the process with both a Google Nexus 10 tablet and a Motorola Droid Razr M phone. Android Device Manager occasionally found the devices with only Wi-Fi active, but not all the time.
However, Android Device Manager was able to pinpoint both devices with GPS turned on. Even though GPS communication can be a drain on the battery, consider leaving your GPS turned on if you plan to be in an area where losing your phone or tablet is a concern.
To play with Lock and Erase, you'll need to give Android Device Manager special permission on your Android device. (If your device is already missing, it is too late). Access the Settings menu, and then click Security. Select Device Administrators, which determines who is allowed to access sensitive Android OS functions.
If you have security software or additional user accounts on your tablet, you may see multiple options here. Ignore them, and go straight for Android Device Manager. Check the box next to it. It will give you a briefing on the Lock and Erase functions. Click Activate.
You can now access the Lock and Erase functions at the Android Device Manager website. (You may have to refresh the page first.) Lock is the less-extreme measure of the two.
When you click Lock, you will have the option to give your device a new password — which is useful if your lock-screen password is easy to guess or nonexistent. This will frustrate a thief's efforts to access your information, although a savvy hacker can bypass it.
If you prefer to take the nuclear option, select Erase. This will clear all data from your device and return it to factory settings. If you have sensitive information on a lost or stolen device, this might be necessary — but keep two things in mind.
First, when you wipe your device, you will also wipe everything that ties it to your account. You will no longer be able to track it with Android Device Manager, which means that your odds of tracking it down are next to zero.
Second, if you keep your sensitive data on an SD card, Erase will not do much. Even if you wipe all of the information on a phone or tablet, a thief can still access an SD card by simply removing it from the device and plugging it into a PC.
Try it out, and you may be pleasantly surprised the next time you drop your phone in the couch cushions or leave your tablet behind at a bar.