The Pico, from Israeli startup Yoggie, is a new version of a mobile security product we looked at earlier in the year, the Yoggie Gatekeeper Pro. Despite having a slightly higher spec, it is not exactly a replacement. The Gatekeeper has dual Ethernet ports, which means it can protect more than one computer on a small network. The USB-only Pico, by contrast, is a standalone security device for use on a single laptop at a time.

We quite liked the basic idea behind the Gatekeeper, which is to put a load of security applications that would normally be run on the laptop on a plug-in external security device. This, the company argues, offloads the burden of running security applications on the laptop, simplifies management into a single security system rather than multiple ones based on software alone, and takes the ability to interfere with some settings away from the user.

That is the theory, and the Pico is fashioned in the Gatekeeper’s image, running exactly the same suite of third-party security applications on the same Linux OS, including the standard ones every business PC needs such as anti-virus/malware (Kaspersky), anti-spam (MailShell), content filtering (SurfControl), intrusion detection (Snort), and firewalling. The advantage of the Pico is that its USB key format make it a lot smaller than the Gatekeeper, and it sports some upgraded hardware to aid performance via the USB connection. It’s a bit cheaper too.

As with the Gatekeeper, it comes in two versions, a Personal version designed for standalone users, and a corporate one, the Pro, meant to be used and managed in a centralised way across a large number of users in conjunction with Yoggie’s server application. All versions of both products, bar the Pico Personal, have a VPN client.

The Pico installs and operates in pretty straightforward fashion under XP, loading a driver that redirects all traffic from the network interfaces though its security engine. Once installed, there is very little for the user to do beyond admiring the report interface that tracks different types of security events. A slider allows the user to set security to low, medium or high, ask for suspicious spam to be tagged, and fiddle with support tools and diagnostics should this be necessary. Apart from setting which URL categories to block (which works very smartly), that’s about it. The device updates itself transparently (so no rebooting of the PC), and chooses security settings according to the overall policy set. Unplugging the Yoggie disconnects the laptop form the Internet.

It’s disconcerting not to have much control over security – that’s been a criticism of recent versions of Windows – but it is a deliberate design decision. Most users quickly become overwhelmed with security technologies they don’t properly understand, and misunderstand alerts. The Pico just removes the issue.

We didn’t test the Pico against viruses or specific Trojans, but tried it out against URL/websites we new to load spyware, which proved inconclusive. It was hard to tell whether it was actively blocking sites or not. No malware installed, but the logs showed no obvious blocking either. The anti-spam tagging had an annoying habit of tagging harmless emails as suspicious. This is a wider problem with such products, so we’ll let it off this indiscretion.

Problems

The Pico has the odd hang-up. The free USB port on our new laptop into which the Pico was plugged happened to be right by the air vent. The warm air coming out of this caused the Pico to heat up more than it would otherwise have done. Not the Pico’s fault, but still something to think about. The management interface now has a temperature monitor, so again we’ll let it off this one.

Slightly more bothersome was the fact that an alternative USB port couldn’t be used because it would not accommodate the Pico’s width while being used by another device such as a mouse. Again, this will vary form laptop to laptop. Anyone buying a laptop should check how far apart USB ports are because this is at least as important as their number. Too close, and this sort of physical conflict renders them useless.

Windows Vista

Where getting the Pico up and running with XP had been a doddle, Vista proved fussier. The default Pico driver was unsigned which caused Vista to object to it strongly; an update solved this problem, but there might be stock that still has the older software. Once installed, the integrated Wi-Fi utility supplied with the Acer laptop no longer worked, which would be inconvenient at least. we also had problems printing through a print server via the Wi-Fi connection.

The Yoggie also wouldn’t work smoothly with the Vista AV client from Webroot installed (we didn’t test with other AV clients). The client and the Pico co-existed happily, but only if the client was run manually after the Pico had installed itself. This might bother some people. Having an AV client is a useful extra barrier, unless you happen to trust the Pico completely, and it needs to load without interference.

Conclusion

The Pico Personal has to be seen as a whole package. Its advantages are that it bundles a lot of security – admittedly some of which many users might not need – into an external device that is easy to manage and very cheap to run on an ongoing basis (subscription costs after year one are low). Equally, running a good AV package on the desktop is probably about the same cost.

The argument that it frees up laptop performance is harder to assess. Any properly specified laptop has plenty of grunt to run a security application in addition to the PC’s other tasks, and do so without taking up a useful USB port. The major benefit of the Pico here is that it updates security without annoying the user with reboots beyond those needed for Windows itself.

A good argument can be made for the Pico in corporate security where security management is as important as the list of security features. There is no doubt that supporting the Pico would on the face of it be easier than enforcing policies on a range of different client programs running on the laptop. Balancing this, is the likelihood that users will lose and damage their Picos from time to time.

In summary, this is a business product for companies that can put up with managing an extra physical device. Individual or SME users might find better value using a more conventional software product. If Yoggie ever manages to iron out some of the issues, however, this could become a compelling product here too.

OUR VERDICT

The Gatekeeper lives on but the Pico is the product that we’d go for if laptop protection is the main requirement. It also works on more than one laptop or PC at a time though not concurrently.