If you aren't running Windows 7, or you want to use something other than a Microsoft product (and don't want to spend any money), TrueCrypt from the TrueCrypt Developers Association is pretty hard to beat.

The product matches the features offered by Microsoft's BitLocker and offers a couple of interesting additional features, such as the ability to create a virtual encrypted volume that is mounted as a drive letter or associated with a virtual folder. In other words, you can store all of your critical data files on a separate, encrypted disk volume and then access those data files by associating a drive letter with the volume and entering the associated passkey. That way you can allow others to use your PC while your sensitive data is protected from prying eyes.

That method offers several advantages. First off, you can "hide" the encrypted volumes, so other users don't even know that they exist. You can also segregate your data files, only encrypting what you deem important. And finally, you do not need to encrypt your application or operating system files, which means the system won't take as much of a performance hit.

TrueCrypt uses several different encryption algorithms, including AES, Serpent and Twofish. Those algorithms can be combined in many different ways to create complex encryption schemes — those looking to delve into the technical details of TrueCrypt's encryption algorithms can check out the dozens of pages of information on its web site. I downloaded version 6.3 from the site; installation was a matter of minutes.

When I launched the application, I was presented with a concise management console that was very easy to navigate. It offered a list of drive letters (which could be associated with encrypted volumes), as well as several buttons used to mount and dismount encrypted volumes. The top of the screen offers several pull-down menus, which include features such as encrypting the system volume, creating rescue media, building keys and so on. Simply put, anything that TrueCrypt could do was right at my fingertips.

One of the first things I chose to do was encrypt my complete hard drive on my system. Selecting that option launched a wizard that made the process ridiculously easy. Like BitLocker, the encryption process ran in the background. It took about two hours to encrypt the contents of the Toshiba Portege system, almost an hour faster than BitLocker. Also, TrueCrypt used negligible amounts of CPU time, as little as 2% or 3% of processor utilization.

TrueCrypt offers the ability to create a virtual encrypted volume

TrueCrypt offers a couple of interesting additional features, such as the ability to create a virtual encrypted volume that is mounted as a drive letter or associated with a virtual folder.

TrueCrypt offers several other features that are worth noting. First of all, the product comes with extensive context-sensitive help function, which does an excellent job of illustrating its capabilities and nuances — in fact, its help is as good as that from the two other products, which have commercial vendors. Secondly, I found TrueCrypt's approach to mounting encrypted devices to be a logical and manageable process.

Simply put, when you want to access an encrypted volume, you just mount that volume with a drive letter. All you need to do then is type in your passkey to access the data. You can also make those connections persistent and automatic, so that you will not have to enter passwords or manually map drives whenever you insert an encrypted device or access an encrypted volume. While that does make things a little simpler, automating password or key entry can defeat the purpose of encryption on a portable system. However, automation does work well with removable media — that way, when traveling with a key drive, the data is fully protected and only available when plugged into a system that contains the proper passkey.

I tested TrueCrypt's ability to work with removable media by encrypting four USB key drives. While the process was not quite as automated as with BitLocker, it still proved easy. All I had to do was insert the USB drive, select the device from the TrueCrypt menu and then launch the encryption wizard.

Unlike BitLocker, TrueCrypt does not include any type of a reader application — that means any system that needs to read the encrypted removable media must have TrueCrypt installed. TrueCrypt automatically works with TPM and adheres to the standard.

TrueCrypt also offers a plethora of configuration settings, default options and operational choices. For example, users worried about forgetting their passkeys can create rescue media that will grant them access to an encrypted volume if needed. TrueCrypt works with Microsoft Windows 7/Vista/XP/2000; it is also available for Apple Mac OS X and Linux systems, making it a good choice for users who work with multiple platforms.

In fact, the number of choices can be overwhelming. Luckily, TrueCrypt's extensive documentation helps you to navigate through the choices — and it's safe to say that the majority of users will only use the basic features of the product.

OUR VERDICT

The only area where TrueCrypt comes up short is networking — the product does not integrate with Windows server policies or offer the advanced networking capabilities needed by administrators looking to encrypt volumes remotely or across a LAN. Other than that, TrueCrypt is a real winner and comes at a price that can't be beat.