If you have a laptop, you have instant computing wherever you are. Using a laptop means that you can always stay connected, keeping work and entertainment near at hand.

Unfortunately, using a laptop also means that you have big problems, largely relating to security: As the recently released hacking tool Firesheep makes clear, every time you open your laptop and connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot, you're in danger of having your identity stolen.

Fear not, though. The following nine downloads can help you get the most out of your laptop, while keeping your data safe and secure.

Stay Secure

When you connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, such as at a café, you can be hacked - all too easily. The free Firesheep Firefox hacking add-on is disturbingly simple to use: With it almost anyone can intercept your private information and then log in as you to many sites, including Amazon, Facebook and Twitter.

You can - and should - protect yourself. The free BlackSheep Firefox add-on can help, but not greatly so, because it works only in Firefox and merely warns you that you're being hacked (as opposed to actually doing anything about it). I've also had problems installing BlackSheep.

A better bet is to use a virtual private network, which encrypts all of your communications over a hotspot so that hackers and snoopers can't reach it. If you don't want to spend any money, try VPN program Hotspot Shield. Run the application, and it pops open as a browser window that tells you it's at work. When you surf the web with Hotspot Shield active, you're protected via the secure HTTPS protocol. The program pipes ads into its browser window, and it also might pop up ads at the top of web pages you visit. When you install it, make sure to uncheck boxes that allow the program do things such as change your default search engine.

Firefox users have another free option: HTTPS Everywhere. This free add-on encrypts most of your web communications when you use Firefox. It can't encrypt all content on sites that incorporate material from third parties, though. The add-on will let you know when full encryption is active, and when it can encrypt only part of the communications.

Forking out a few pennies lets you forgo ads and obtain full encryption. Anonymizer Universal is a solid paid-for VPN. Once you've set it up, using it is a breeze - just click a button. At that point, use the internet as you normally do; your communications are secure and protected. The main drawback of this program is its price: $80 (£50) for a one-year subscription.

If you prefer a less-expensive, pay-as-you go model, a great bet is AlwaysVPN, which charges on a per-gigabyte basis. That way, if you need a VPN only infrequently, you can save a good deal of money. For $8.50 (£5.37), you get 5GB of bandwidth use; the pricing scales up to $47 (£29) for 80GB for more-frequent users. To use AlwaysVPN, you'll need to install AlwaysVPN's own version of the free OpenVPN software. Once you've done that, you can connect with a click or two, and you're protected.

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