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Forget your passwords

Two programs help take the hassle out of logging in

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Columnist / February 17, 2011

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You probably have 30 or 40 passwords for various Internet accounts. Or maybe just one password, re-used 30 or 40 times over. It’s the worst of both worlds: lousy security, plus the tedium of typing passwords into a smartphone.

So don’t bother. Instead, fall back on a password manager. These are programs that will automatically log you in to your favorite sites, while storing your passwords in an encrypted form that keeps your data safe even if you lose your laptop or smartphone.

The latest thing in password managers is an upgrade of the classic RoboForm, by Siber Systems Inc. of Fairfax, Va. RoboForm has been locking down PC passwords since 1995. The company’s newest version, RoboForm Everywhere (available for download at roboform.com), carries the concept from the desktop into the cloud.

The basic version of RoboForm is free for Windows PCs, but stores a measly 10 passwords, hardly enough to matter these days. The paid desktop version cost $30 and stored an unlimited number of passwords. But it could be installed on only one Windows computer, so it wasn’t much use when you switched PCs. RoboForm Everywhere costs $19.95 a year — $9.95 for the first year — and gives you easy access to an unlimited number of website passwords, on pretty much every electronic device you can think of. A user can install the software on any Windows computers, at home, in the office, or on the road. Users can also log on to a Web-based version of the service from any computer to look up passwords. And RoboForm offers apps that run on a host of popular devices, including Apple Inc.’s iPhone and iPad, BlackBerry phones, and Android phones and tablets.

RoboForm installs easily enough, but be careful about its all-important master password, which locks down all your other passwords. Lose or forget it, and Siber Systems can’t recover it for you. So pick something that’s both obscure and memorable, and if you must write it down, hide it someplace safe.

From there on, the desktop version works pretty much flawlessly. All controls reside in a browser toolbar. Each time you enter a password, it asks you if you’d like it preserved. You can import saved passwords from your browser, or get industrious and start replacing your old, obvious passwords with gnarlier, tougher ones. After all, you won’t have to memorize them. Don’t worry about being original: RoboForm has a push-button password generator that serves up perfect little gems like “O4pRMBex.’’

RoboForm does a lot more than handle passwords. You can import all your browser bookmarks, making them accessible wherever you go. There’s also a feature that lets you create multiple online identities, for signing in to sites where you’d rather remain anonymous.

I had more trouble with the mobile version, installed on an iPhone 3GS. Turns out that RoboForm has problems with certain mobile websites, like the one for Bank of America, because it didn’t recognize the user name and password fields. Luckily, you can still use RoboForm on the iPhone to look up passwords and peck them in with a fingertip. Another drawback: If you use the iPhone to log in to a site for the first time, the app won’t transmit the new password to your cloud-based RoboForm account. The company says it’s working on a fix for this.

RoboForm has a worthy rival called LastPass, available for free download at lastpass.com. The free version gives you quite a lot. You can plug in as many passwords as you want, log on to the service on any Web browser anywhere, and instantly generate hard-to-crack passwords. LastPass is so feature-rich, you could get by with the free version.

But for $12 a year, you get the ability to use LastPass on a host of handhelds, like the iPhone, BlackBerry, or Android devices. The premium version of LastPass even works with less popular handsets, like Hewlett-Packard Co.’s Palm Pre and the Symbian line of smartphones from Nokia Corp. Jack up the price to $20 a year, and LastPass throws in a subscription to Xmarks, a very good Internet service that collects all your Web bookmarks and makes them available on any browser or through phone apps for iPhones, Androids, or BlackBerrys. Xmarks runs as a separate app from LastPass, but it’s much better with bookmarks than RoboForm.

Chances are you already use the same password to log into multiple websites. Programs like RoboForm or LastPass let you get away with it.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @watha.