1Password 4 is the Best Password App, Hands Down

Thanks to an expansive set of features, robust security, a comprehensive list of browser extensions, and cross-platform compatibility, 1Password has become a powerhouse security app. We all know that we should be using unique, complex passwords for all the sites and services we use, but remembering them can be as frustrating as it is impractical. 1Password, as the name implies, has helped users create and securely store login information while only requiring that you remember a single password.

After releasing 1Password 4 for iOS earlier this year, AgileBits has updated their original Mac app to v.4 with new features and a refined interface. In terms of the number of times I access it on a daily basis, 1Password is undoubtedly my most-used app, and I have been anxiously awaiting this update. The wait has been well worth it.

1Password, Revisited

Before we look at what’s new, let’s take a moment to review what 1Password is. When you create a password online for a site or service, that password is frequently the only line of defense for your data against hackers and other nefarious agents. Using the same password on all of those sites means that if one password is compromised, then so too are all of your logins. Strong passwords are not only full of a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols that make them hard to guess, but they are also unique from each other.

1Password acts as way to not only create random and more secure passwords, but also as an encrypted database to store all of them so you don’t have to memorize anything, (except, that is, for the password you use to access the app). In addition to logins, you can store anything you want, like credit card and bank information, secure notes, and much more. Along with a great set mobile apps and extensions for the web’s most popular browsers, 1Password ensures that you always have access to the login information you need. And you can rest assured that your data will stay safe, as 1Password 4 now uses 256-bit Authenticated Encryption and other major security enhancements to keep your data safe in the post-Snowden world.

Interface Refinements

Visual refinements are apparent right from the login screen.

Visual refinements are apparent right from the login screen.

For the most part, users who upgrade won’t encounter a redesign that comes with a steep learning curve. Most of the same information you had at your fingertips is still available, but a number of changes have been made to make the app feel more modern and in line with current design trends. You are still presented with a basic three-column tiered layout, with the main window displaying your currently selected login or secure note.

Much of the design is bigger and bolder, though. Graphics have been redesigned to be more detailed, and the list of logins in the second column now has a larger font and richer icons. The icon for the app itself has been redesigned, and now resembles the iOS version. The issues that I encountered with these new icons are not the developers’ fault, but I thought them worthy of mentioning.

As the icons are taken from the favicons on websites, they are generally not very high resolution. It would be nice if you could pick and choose what gets displayed, (or better yet, have 1Password automatically determine if an icon is at an acceptably-high resolution).

On the left, you still have folders (now called lists), tags, previously generated passwords, a category listing to organize things like bank accounts and WiFi passwords, and a trash can. Rebranding folders as lists is of little consequence, as the logins stored within each is still presented to you in the same fashion.

The window retains the same structure, but it has been updated to feel more modern

The window retains the same structure, but it has been updated to feel more modern

Perhaps my favorite interface improvement is the way that you can sort your logins. The previous version allowed you to create new columns in the same way as you would in Finder, and then click on that column’s header to sort in ascending or descending order. It worked fine, but 1Password 4 now fixes a problem I didn’t realize I had; I used to have a few columns configured, and that meant that I had to scroll horizontally to find columns that I wanted to sort by. Now, clicking on a new icon next to the search field pulls up a menu that integrates your choices.

The menubar access is so good that you might not ever need to open the full app.

The menubar access is so good that you might not ever need to open the full app.

The sorting advancements have carried over into the search function. In the search field, you can now access the search options feature, which allows you create more detailed parameters, similar to those found elsewhere in OS X. This means you can add any combination of specific search filters to help narrow results. Plus, finding what you’re looking for doesn’t even require opening the app.

The new menubar utility, dubbed 1Password Mini, offers quick access to some of the most important features, such as the password generator, search field, folders, and more. Having quick access to your “favorites” folder even makes the menubar app a bit like a quick bookmark launcher, as selecting a favorite loads the page and enters your credentials. It also makes password entry nicer in Chrome, where previous versions couldn’t let you launch a new site from 1Password directly from a new tab.

Searching is now more robust with custom filters.

Searching is now more robust with custom filters.

Other changes to the new main window are notable because of what was subtracted, rather than what was added. The previous version would clip a screenshot of the webpage for which your selected login was created. It was a neat feature, but in my experience, it was slow and unreliable. Apparently I wasn’t the only user with that experience, so they nixed the screenshots in lieu of richer website icons.

New Features

While most of the interface refinements are merely evolutionary, AgileBits has introduced a number of features that add an incredible degree of functionality and convenience. Perhaps the most substantial of these additions is the multiple vault feature. Whereas you once had one bucket in which to throw all of your logins, you can now create separate libraries.

As a basic example from the developers, you might choose to organize your logins by your work and personal life. Additionally, they recommend creating an archive vault to store logins that you don’t use anymore but aren’t comfortable deleting.

Alerts are now integrated with OS X's Notifications.

Alerts are now integrated with OS X’s Notifications.

There are several websites for which I use multiple logins. For example, I have couple of Google accounts (one I use when signing up for sites to avoid spam). This proved to be a slight inconvenience when using 1Password 3, as searching my database for “Google” returned multiple logins. Now, 1Password combines multiple identities under a single file.

On a related note, you can also add multiple websites for a single login, meaning if you use an email and password combination that is the same at two different sites, these can be combined. This feature is a bit of a head-scratcher, though, as it undermines the a fundamental principle of 1Password, which advocates unique login information.

Keeping with the trend of integrating sharing features into just about every facet of our digital lives, 1Password now allows easy sharing of login information via email and Messages. Fortunately, sharing sensitive information isn’t done in plain text, but rather as an encrypted link. The user on the receiving end must also have 1Password installed, and can add the login information or other data by clicking on the link. You can share a full database — a great use for those multiple vaults — or individual logins as you need, perfect for keeping track of team accounts.

Security audit helps you maintain strong passwords.

Security audit helps you maintain strong passwords.

One of my favorite new additions is the “security audit” feature. At the bottom of the navigation panel, 1Password can shame you by pointing out your weak, duplicate, and old passwords that need to be updated. Previously, you were able to see the strength of a password by selecting it, but the audit feature makes finding these weak links in your database a simple proposition.

The browser extensions have also been updated. One of the more welcome improvements in this area involves the way these extensions deal with password change forms. Previously, when you accessed a webpage to change your password, you would be prompted to save the new file. However, this would involve creating another entry. Now, the app recognizes that you are changing a password, rather than creating a new login, and updates the password accordingly. There’s also now a browser extension for Opera, for those of you who are still using the Norwegian browser.

The iCloud Keychain Question

Let’s deal with the huge, wave-surfing elephant in the room. Apple’s latest operating system, OS X Mavericks, will introduce the iCloud keychain security feature. This will help you create, store, and fill-in unique, randomly generated passwords across the operating system and sync with iOS via iCloud. On the surface, that sounds like devastating news for AgileBits, as it is a native solution that seemingly removes the need for an app like 1Password. The reality, however, is that 1Password still has a very important place for both power-users and casual Mac users alike.

Sync however you want.

Sync however you want.

The most important point to consider when choosing between 1Password and iCloud Keychain is compatibility. AgileBits offers users a way to access their logins on just about any device, be it a Windows, Mac, iPhone or Android device. Unless you’re entrenched in Apple’s ecosystem, 1Password will remain the better solution.

Syncing is another differentiating factor. Whether you are unimpressed by iCloud’s speed and reliability, or you just like having easy access to backup files with services like Dropbox, 1Password offers more appealing sync options. You can sync over iCloud, Dropbox, or over any other syncing service you want if you’re not syncing to iOS — and you can securely view your passwords from the browser via Dropbox if you want. You can even now sync over WiFi, if you’re worried about entrusting your passwords to a cloud storage service.

Then, the organization that’s available with 1Password goes well beyond what’s possible with iCloud. Even the simple “Favorites” feature, originally introduced on the iOS version and which now syncs to the desktop, strengthens the case for 1Password’s sync flexibility.

There is little doubt that iCloud Keychain is a welcome feature that will be used by millions. For that particular family member whom you are constantly reminding needs to start using better, unique passwords, the Keychain will be more than enough to help these casual users stay better protected. However, if you require even the slightest upgrade, 1Password is almost certainly worth the cost. If anything, iCloud Keychain is the perfect stepping stone to get people protecting their password but then wanting more that 1Password has to offer.

Pricing

At $49.99, 1Password is not an impulse buy. You have to decide whether or not this is something you need, and that you will commit to using it for all of your passwords. Personally, this is one of the most expensive pieces of software I personally own (after a handful of Adobe programs), but for how much I use it, it has been a bargain.

For updates of this size, most developers would try to get existing users across the board to buy the app again (at least at a discount). Much to my surprise, AgileBits has made the 1Password 4 update free for existing users, provided that they bought it through the Mac App Store or through AgileBits’ store in 2013. If you bought it outside the App Store or before 2013, you can buy an upgrade from AgileBits today for $24.99 this week, and if you’re new to 1Password, it’s on sale for launch week for just $39.99.

Conclusion

After a web browser, 1Password is perhaps my most widely used app on a daily basis. I have collected hundreds of entries, stored copies of my drivers license and passport, kept all of my credit cards (and used the browser extensions to speed up online checkout), and saved countless other sensitive pieces of information from my life. An app update like this takes what is already a leader in the category and only makes it more appealing.

Quite frankly, I didn’t even cover some of the smaller improvements and refinements, because the list is so expansive. This is as extensive of a redesign as avid 1Password fans could have hoped for, and I cannot recommend it enough.


Summary

The most popular password manager on the Mac faces stiff competition from Apple's new iCloud Keychain, but new features, enhanced security, and refined visuals help it retain its top spot.

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