Sandboxie

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Sandboxie is a program that can create a ’Sandboxed’ environment on your PC within-which you can install and/or run programs or browse the net. Any data writing operations that the Sandboxed applications perform can then be rolled back and/or eliminated.

The net effect of this is to create a kind of undo mechanism that can be used to test out programs without damaging the system or surf the web without risk of infecting the system with any kind of malware.

The Sandbox defined: a Sandbox is a virtual environment that captures all disk-writing operations. For example, if you run your browser through Sandboxie and surf the net, all of the cookies, cached files, and downloaded files (including any malware that may sneak in), or even any entries written to the registry will actually be made within the Sandbox.

Note that these files will also appear in your file system as well (for example, if you download a zip file to the desktop during a Sandboxed browser session it will appear on the desktop where you normally would expect it).

However, in fact this zip file is only there virtually, and once you shut Sandboxie down (or empty the contents of the Sandbox) the file will no longer show on the desktop.

Note that Sandboxie allows for multiple sandboxes with different names for each. It also allows you to decide to make any contents of a sandbox ’permanent’ (e.g. in the case that you install a program while in the Sandbox and then decide you would like to make it permanent).

The Sandboxie User Interface: after installing Sandboxie, it creates a “run sandboxed” entry in the Windows context menu and an icon in the system tray from-which it can be accessed. You can then right-click on any application shortcut and choose to run it within the Sandbox environment straight from the context menu, or use the system tray icon which provides a menu with multitude of different options, and which can be used to launch the main program dialog.

Sandboxie has a functional but rather uninspired UI. It is the one aspect of the program where I thought “this can be so much better”. A more dynamic main page could have made this program (which really is simple and straightforward) that much less intimidating-looking to average users.

Potential uses for Sandboxie:

  • Browsing the internet in a Sandboxed environment: this allows you to get rid of any spyware/malware that you may be exposed to, simply by deleting the sandbox contents after your browsing session.
  • Testing programs/applications: you can install and use a program in the Sandbox; once you exit Sandboxie or switch to a different Sanbox the program and all its activity will disappear from your system. Unless you delete the Sandbox and/or its contents, you can always go back and run the program from the Sandbox. (In this way it is very similar to Altiris SVS; in fact, the ’virtualization’ principle underlying both is essentially the same).
  • It may be possible to use Sandboxie as a means to deploy portable apps on USB drives. I read about this idea on some forums, but have not tested it myself (I believe there are better ways to make an app portable).

More notes on Sandboxie:

  • Run Sandboxed: you can tell Sandboxie to watch for any programs/processes and, whenever these are launched, force them to run within the Sandbox.
  • Security: Sandboxie is very good about NOT allowing a process or malware program to override it. See this article on Tech Support Alerts, which documents thorough testing they have done regarding this issue.
  • Sandboxie vs. Altiris SVS: although different in their focus and design, Sandboxie and SVS have many similarities (they both do software virtualization). From reports that I’ve read on some forums, it seems that Sandboxie is better in terms of not allowing writing operations outside the sandbox environment, while SVS presumably allowed some minor registry entries to ’slip through’, as it were. Having said that, SVS has a better designed UI and is more straighforward.
  • Virtualization “issues”: please note that with this or any other virtualization solutions, there may be programs and/or situations that do not work out as intended, including programs that don’t work properly when virtualized. This is an unavoidable aspect of the technology.

Differences between the free and paid versions: after 30 days, Sandboxie will start displaying a ’reminder’ (i.e. nag) screen every time you use it after you reboot your computer. This seems to be the only documented difference on the Sandboxie website. Some forum postings mention a minor feature that is available only in the registered version, but I was not able to find it mentioned on the Sandboxie website.

The Verdict: a very useful program. If you need to surf insecure websites or sites that you suspect may not be what they pretend to be. If you need to avoid malware contracted through the internet, it provides a line of defence that is foolproof and impenetrable. If you like to try out or test a lot of software and do not want to clutter your system, or would like to make sure that you like the program before making it permanent, Sandboxie is exactly what you need. And while the UI could have been better designed one could hardly complain about that when Sandboxie is essentially provided for free.

Version tested: 2.85.4

Compatibility: Windows 2000, 2003, XP, Vista. Different versions available for 32 bit vs 64 bit.

Go to the download page to get the latest version (approx 230K for 32 bit version, 320K for 64 bit version). Also visit the program home page.