updated 3/23/2005 4:11:31 PM ET 2005-03-23T21:11:31

Admit it: you use the same password for all Web sites. There's no use denying it.

You really know better: someone could get hold of your password from an insecure site and use your identity to sell a nonexistent collection of antique garden gnomes on eBay, leaving you to face the furious buyer.

Now, what are you going to do about your passwords?

Well, browsers nowadays help you remember passwords, but they're not a very good solution.

In Internet Explorer, there's no easy way to manage stored passwords, and worse, they're available to anyone with access to your computer, which could include hackers who install hidden programs.

The recently released Mozilla Firefox browser improves on this by providing a rudimentary management feature and allowing you to lock your passwords with a master password.

A plethora of standalone password management programs do the same, only they're more convenient. These programs also generate random passwords on request, improving security by making the passwords impossible to guess.

I tested five such programs for Windows PCs: Access Manager 2 ($19.95), TK8 safe ($19.95), Password Agent 2 ($24.95), Handy Password ($30) and RoboForm Portable ($39.98).

The first three are almost identical. They all store your passwords in an encrypted "safe" on your hard drive. To retrieve them, you enter a master password.

Woe betide you if you forget your master password, but at least there's just one.

To enter a saved password on a Web page you have to drag and drop the password from the password management program into the Web browser. This is a lot more cumbersome than the password management built into Web browsers. The programs all claim they can fill in password fields automatically via a keyboard command, but this didn't work in my test.

Access Manager 2, TK8 safe and Password Agent 2 thus don't offer much beyond Firefox's built-in password manager, though they could be useful for Internet Explorer users who don't mind some extra work for the sake of security.

Handy Password is a bit better: it creates a toolbar in Internet Explorer and fills in your passwords automatically. It also has a short but good tutorial to get you started. The toolbar feature doesn't work in other browsers.

Best program
The leader of the pack, however, is RoboForm Portable.

Unlike the other programs, it's designed to be installed on a USB drive, the tiny "keychain" gadget that has well-nigh replaced the floppy disk as the medium for carrying files between computers.

This means that you can take your passwords with you between computers, along with other personal files on the USB drive. RoboForm takes up less than 10 megabytes of memory.

After inserting the USB drive, you have to open its folder and start RoboForm, which inserts a toolbar into Internet Explorer, Firefox or recent Netscape versions.

It would be more convenient if the program were to start up automatically when the drive is inserted, but it doesn't work that way. It does shut down automatically when the drive is removed, however, keeping your passwords safe from whoever's using the computer next.

Some of the other password management programs will also install on USB drives but are less convenient than RoboForm.

Do note: If you lose the drive, you've lost your passwords (unless you backed them up to other drives or printed them out). But they should be safe if someone finds it since they're protected by the master password.

However, don't think taking your passwords with you on a USB drive solves all your security problems. A computer with a surreptitious keylogging program can still capture your passwords.

Also, the password managers provide no protection from phishing scams, the fake Web sites that are set up to harvest passwords to bank and PayPal accounts.

Is RoboForm Portable worth $40? I'd say yes, if you use several computers. If you only use one computer, go with Firefox or RoboForm Pro, which installs on your hard drive instead of a USB drive and costs $10 less.

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