Running programs in an isolated environment stops them harming your PC. Jonathan Parkyn compares the best free sandboxing options available
The best tools for trying new software safely
Sandboxie | bit.ly/sandboxie446 | ★★★★★ FEATURES ★★★★★ PERFORMANCE ★★★★★ EASE OF USE ★★★★ ★
Wh What we liked: Sasandboxie’s motto is “trust no program” – a maxim that’s worth kekeeping in mind, especially when you’re installing or running software from unknown sources. Whether a program is stuffed full of malicious code or just badly written, Sandboxie will render any software harmless with a few simple clicks.
Install Sandboxie and you’ll be taken through a brief tutorial that explains the main functions of the tool. After this, you can sandbox a program by rightclicking its shortcut or EXE file and selecting Run Sandboxed. Alternatively, you can just drag and drop the program into the Sandboxie window.
Move your mouse over a sandboxed program and you’ll notice a yellow border around the program window, which indicates that it’s running in Sandboxie. You’ll also see a hash symbol [#] by the program’s name.
Beyond the basics, Sandboxie offers a number of very useful tools, including the ability to transfer files quickly to and from the sandboxed environment – such as files you download via a sandboxed web browser, for example. You can also quickly kill running applications or delete the contents of your sandbox by right-clicking Sandboxie’s notification-area icon, then selecting Defaultbox and choosing Terminate Programs or Delete Contents.
How it can be improved: After 30 days, Sandboxie will start presenting you with a nag screen every time you use it, reminding you to upgrade to the paid-for version. That’s because Sandboxie is actually shareware and, in theory, users are supposed to cough up for a licence (currently around £ 25) after the trial period ends. However, as long as it’s for personal use, you can carry on using Sandboxie for free and the program will continue to function as normal.
Only a handful of high-end features (including the ability to force programs to run in Sandboxie, and the option to run programs in more than one sandbox at a time) are exclusive to the paid-for version.
OUR VERDICT Lightweight, powerful and regularly updated, Sandboxie is by far the best dedicated sandboxing tool around. The free version’s nag screens are a bit annoying, but worth tolerating.
Shade Sandbox | www.shadesandbox.com | ★★★★ ★ FEATURES ★★★ ★★ PERFORMANCE ★★★ ★★ EASE OF USE ★★★★ ★
Wh What we liked: Shade does much the same thing as Sandboxie but on a simpler scale. Once installed, it’s very eaeasy to use – just drag programpro shortcuts into the Shade window or right-click and select ‘ Put into Shade’. Shade lacks some of Sandboxie’s advanced features and customisability, but where Sandboxie can only force specific programs to run in a sandbox if you pay for the premium version, Shade remembers any application you’ve sandboxed and will run it in a sandbox every time, unless you explicitly tell it not to (by clicking ‘ Remove an application from Shade’). This is very useful if you have programs – such as older, unsupported tools – that you always want to run in isolation.
How it can be improved: Users on older PCS may notice some slowdown when sandboxing certain programs. Not all programs work well with Shade, either. Internet Explorer, in particular, slowed our test system right down when we ran it in a sandbox.
Although it’s free, Shade suffers from a somewhat convoluted installation process that requires you to obtain a licence key via email. It’s a bit of a faff, but you only need to do it once.
OUR VERDICT It’s basic compared with Sandboxie and seems to suffer from a few performance issues but, for the most part, Shade Sandbox provides an easy way to isolate programs you use frequently.
Virtualbox | bit.ly/virtualbox446 | ★★★★ ★ FEATURES ★★★★ ★ PERFORMANCE ★★★★ ★ EASE OF USE ★★ ★★★
What Wh we liked: Technically speaking, Virtualbox is a virtualisation tool, not a sandboxing one. The ididea is that you create a virtualvir PC – an entire pretend computer that runs within your real one. To all intents and purposes, your virtual computer works exactly like a normal one, except that you can install and run any programs you like on it and they’ll remain completely isolated from your real-life PC and your files. Virtualbox can virtualise older versions of Windows, such as XP, so it’s ideal for keeping older programs running. You can also take Snapshots, allowing you to revert your virtual PC to a previous state within a few clicks.
How it can be improved: Virtualbox can seem a little unfriendly at first, but it’s easy to use once you’ve set up your virtual PC. If there’s one drawback with Virtualbox (and similar tools), it’s that you’ll need an entire copy of the operating system you want to run. That’s okay if you happen to have a spare copy of Windows hanging around (along with a valid product code). If you haven’t, then the cost of buying a new one (currently around £80 on Amazon) can make virtualisation a less attractive route.
OUR VERDICT Virtualbox provides a brilliant alternative to straightforward sandboxing, especially if you happen to have a spare copy of Windows you can install. It’s great for keeping Xp-era tools going beyond their sell-by date.