What The Blueprint looks for in a great password manager
Maybe you want a viable free plan for your own personal use, a family plan that supports multiple relatives, or a top-tier plan with advanced security and identity protection features. Whatever your specific needs, a long look at these password manager applications is your best first step to securing your login credentials and other personal information.
Choosing any software application boils down to three factors: features, support, and pricing. Most password managers share many of the same elements, but a close examination reveals critical differences between them.
A password vault provides secure password protection, but the best password managers have more tools to enhance your online experience.
Typical features include:
- Web-based password vault: Access your login credentials and password management tools via an online interface.
- Browser extensions: Quickly use passwords or add new ones with an extension in your web browser.
- Mobile app: Use passwords and management tools on the go from your mobile devices.
- Desktop application: Launch your password manager as a standalone application on your desktop computer.
- Password generator: Create strong passwords automatically using multiple parameters.
- Two-factor authentication (2FA): Add an extra layer of security with secondary authentication factors beyond a password alone.
- Password sharing: Make your information available to other users for shared accounts such as Netflix or unexpected emergencies.
If you want all the bells and whistles, some top-tier plans track your credit score, help with identity restoration, and provide identity theft insurance.
The level of support varies widely among password manager providers. Tech newbies may want direct customer service via live chat or telephone, but these options are not frequently offered. Instead, email help tickets and self-service resources such as knowledge bases and community forums are the norm.
The "right" support depends on your level of comfort managing multiple password management interfaces such as web-based vaults, browser extensions, mobile apps, and desktop applications. Other features to navigate include password generators, 2FA, and multiple security tools.
While significant overlap exists with the features different password managers offer, pricing is another story. This is where doing your research pays off: Identify the exact functionality you need to ensure you pay only for what you want.
You typically have three options:
- Free: Supports one or two users
- Individual: Supports a single user and ranges from $10 per year to $120 per year
- Family: Supports five to six users and ranges from $40 per year to $240 per year
The quality of free plans varies. Some have a very limited features set while others will work for the long term. Dashlane's free plan, for example, is more of a teaser for its paid plans. Bitwarden's free plans, however, are great if two users need to manage and share their passwords and don't need additional licenses.
How you can benefit from using password managers
If you're using a password manager in your web browser and/or smartphone, you may think you don't need a standalone application. Dedicated password management software, however, offers extra features beyond password storage to better protect your login credentials and streamline your online experience.
Protecting yourself online is paramount as both your online accounts and the bad actors attempting to access them increase. Everyone is — or has been — guilty of using or reusing weak or compromised passwords, and a password manager is the first step to increasing the security of your login credentials.
Password generators to create strong passwords and security reports that identify weak and reused passwords are common security tools. Advanced features include monitoring online databases of login credentials breached in data hacks.
Password manager applications usually include two-factor authentication that, unlike the password manager built into your browser or smartphone, adds another layer of security to the login process. 2FA uses different information based on what a user:
- Knows: The answer to a security question
- Has: A one-time password (OTP)
- Is: Biometrics such as a fingerprint or facial recognition
Most password managers let you choose from multiple 2FA methods. Zoho Vault, for example, gives users six options, including the standalone Google Authenticator mobile app, to secure their accounts as per the screenshot below.
Using 2FA increases the security of your accounts. Source: Bitwarden software.
I'll be the first to admit: 2FA is inherently a hassle compared to using a password alone. The tradeoff, however, between the time this extra login step requires and the increased security it provides is a no-brainer.
I used to rely on the separate password managers in my browser and my smartphone to protect my login credentials. The recurring problem I had was the lack of synchronization between them: If I updated a password on one of them, I forgot what it was by the time I was using the other one. This left me chasing my password tail on multiple occasions trying to log into different applications.
Unlike my experiences with ad hoc password management, the best password managers sync your login credentials across multiple devices such as desktops, laptops, smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches. LastPass, for example, lets you update login information once and seamlessly access it from any device you use.
A password manager app syncs information across multiple devices. Source: LastPass software.
If you're interested in cross-device synchronization, double check how many connected devices the plan you choose supports. While some offer unlimited synchronization, others limit the number you can connect.
Securing your login information is important, but on occasion, you need to let others access it. A good password manager allows you to share password vault information with designated users and set up an emergency contact who can see it, too.
Bitwarden allows users to share information in its personal accounts to "Organizations." In the example below, I made my City of Waco — Water account available in the MRL Bills collection in the Long-Adams Household organization I share with my girlfriend.
Alleviate unnecessary stress during crises with shared account information. Source: bitwarden.com.
Sure, the chances of my girlfriend paying my water bill out of the blue are pretty slim, but giving someone you trust access to your online accounts is key in an emergency. The example I go back to is my grandmother: When my grandfather died in the mid-1970s, she didn't even know what bank they used, much less any other financial information. The result? A bad situation was made worse.
We all want more security in an uncertain digital world. While a password manager can't do all the heavy lifting to protect you online, choosing the best one for your needs is a great step in the right direction.