No one ever plans on losing their phone, but when it inevitably happens, panic quickly sets in. As someone whose iPhone sat on the bottom of a pond for over half an hour, believe me, I know the feeling. But now I'm on Android (and yes, the pond incident had something to do with that), so Apple's useful and free "Find my iPhone" tool, which tracks down lost phones via GPS, is no longer at my disposal. What to do?

Luckily, there's a free app for that on Android, too. And, frankly, it's even better than the iPhone's version.

Why is Plan B for Android Better Than "Find My iPhone?"

New from Lookout Labs, makers of the popular anti-malware software for Android, is an app called Plan B which helps you locate your missing phone. And what makes it better than Apple's "Find my iPhone" mobile application? Simple: you can install this app after your phone goes missing.

Thanks to the Android Market's over-the-air installation feature, you can push this app down to your mobile device by installing the app from the Android Market website. Afterwards, the app will automatically start running on your device and it will send its current location to your Gmail address. If for some reason it doesn't start, you can borrow a friend's phone and text the word "locate" to your phone number.

Other Options for Tracking Lost Phones

Plan B is not the only "find my phone" application available in the Android Market, but it does have one thing going for it that several others don't: it's completely free.

It should be noted that in some cases, that's because its feature set is more limited than its competition. For example, the $3.99/year iHound tracking application offers advanced capabilities like the ability to wipe your phone's data, trigger alarms, check in on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare and set up geofences. This last feature means you can be alerted when family members cross virtual geographic boundaries - like when your child arrives at school, or when your spouse returns home.

A few other "find my phone" apps on Android include Where's my Droid (free/donate), Find My Phone ($0.99) and Lost Phone (free). I've personally used iHound (on my iPhone) and Where's my Droid (on my Android) in the past and both worked well. However, I tend to not purchase apps when a free alternative is available that works as well, so I can't speak to how well Find My Phone works. And Lost Phone seems to have mixed reviews, so I skipped it.

Update: I've also just discovered LocateMyDroid, which lets you track your phone on a map in real time via a Web interface. It's also free and works anywhere in the world.

What I like best about Plan B is that when you don't have the luxury of installing an app on your device itself, the remote over-the-air (OTA) installation and app startup features it offers are a real lifesaver. Although OTA installation isn't unique to Plan B - all Android apps can be pushed down from the Web to your device - the addition of an SMS trigger is a great feature to have in case something goes wrong.

How to Use Plan B

So how do you use Plan B? It's simple:

  1. Go the app's page on the Android Market and click on the blue "Install" button next to the app's icon. (You must be signed in to your Google account first).
  2. A pop-up box will appear asking you to confirm which device you're sending it to (if you have more than one) and displays the permissions the app is requesting. Click the "install" button again to complete the process.
  3. Plan B will download directly to your phone and then emails you at Gmail with its location. (If that doesn't work, borrow someone's phone and text "locate" to your phone number).

That's it!

You'll initially get one email when the app starts and then up to five more when your phone's location changes over the next 10 minutes. Each location will have an accuracy rating next to it, to help you better determine the phone's exact location. If you aren't able to find your phone in the first 10 minutes, just text "locate" again to re-trigger the tracking process and emails.

Some users report annoyance with the frequency of emails sent, so for now, it's recommended that you uninstall the app after you find your phone. Also, it should be noted that GPS isn't implemented in the same way on all Android devices, it relies on your phone having access to a signal and it won't work if the phone is switched off. In tests, Plan B wasn't always accurate in some of its emails, but other emails (the ones with a higher accuracy rating), the location was more precise.

Plan B only works in the U.S. at present.

Plan B may not always be a free option for Android user, unfortunately. Lookout tells us that it's free for now because it's still in the experimental phase. That may or may not change in the future. Hopefully, you'll never have to use an app like this, of course, but if you ever do need one, Plan B is one is good to know about.