Roundup: Remote Possibilities

By Aaron Weiss | Posted December 28, 2005

The software market is bursting at the seams with remote desktop products that basically all work the same way. You install software on your "host" or "remote" machine — the one you want to see and control. Then you connect to your host from a "local" machine — the computer you are physically sitting at, be it in the next room, state or continent. The local PC displays the remote machine's desktop.

From there, you can do pretty much whatever you want on the remote machine — launch applications, manage software and files and sometimes share and print files between the two.

Assist and Collaborate
Remote desktop software is especially handy for remote assistance and remote maintenance. If you've ever tried to coach someone over the phone through a nitpicky computer procedure — "Click the icon that looks like a pencil — the error says what? OK, try this…," the appeal of remote assistance is clear. With most remote desktop packages, you can simply perform actions right on the remote machine, and a person at that location can see exactly what you're doing. If a chat feature is available, you can both communicate either through text or voice.

You can also collaborate with remote desktop software, as if you and a colleague were sitting in the same room. Because you're both seeing the same desktop at the same time, it's easy to focus on completing tasks rather than describing them.

Maintain From Near or Far
Remote maintenance is great when you need to install software or otherwise manage two or more machines, without the hassle of standing up and walking. For example, I run several PCs in my office, each designed for particular tasks — media server, software firewall and so on. Rather than have several keyboards and monitors, I can remotely manage them all from one machine.

Subscriptions and Licenses
Remote desktop software can be divided into two basic categories — Web-based subscription services and licensed client services.

Licensed client remote desktop applications need software installed on both the remote and local machines. They typically cost anywhere from free to $200.

Web-based remote desktop services typically require software to be installed only on the remote machine. You can view the remote machine from another PC with a Web connection and sufficient browser support. These services are priced as monthly or annual subscriptions, typically under $20 per month for remote control of one to two PCs.

When considering a remote desktop solution for your business, it makes sense to figure out if a licensed client service or a Web-based subscription makes the most sense for your small business.

In the LAN
For basic remote desktop capability within an office LAN, free or low-cost client services can probably do the job. Inside your own LAN you are not likely to experience issues with firewalls and performance or require the highest strength security.

Microsoft's own Remote Desktop lets you control a Windows XP or 2003 Server machine from any other Windows OS (you must download Microsoft's free viewer software for ME/9x/2000). Implementing Remote Desktop involves some red tape — it must be manually enabled on the host, and it requires a local login account on the remote machine. In its default configuration Remote Desktop logs off any users on the remote machine, meaning that it's good for remote administration but not so good for remote assistance (for that, Microsoft has another application, logically called "Remote Assistance.") Remote Desktop is designed to work within a LAN rather than across the Internet.

The popular VNC software is a widely used alternative. This open source product is available in both free and modestly priced enhanced versions. Variations exist for most popular platforms, meaning that unlike Microsoft Remote Desktop, VNC can run on Windows, Linux and Macs, allowing any of them to see any other computer. But its cross-platform design comes at a price, which is speed. VNC can be slower than commercial applications at updating the screen. For Windows networks, the free UltraVNC is specially designed for faster screen updates.

Across the Street — or the World
The stakes are higher when you need to access a remote desktop across the Internet. You might want access to your home or office computer from the road, or between two offices. For remote support, you're likely to need remote access across the Internet.

Web-Based Remote Desktop Services

GoToMyPC

$14.95/month for 1 PC plan, up to $67/month for 4 PC plan with usage reports and user management

January 2006 upgrade includes speed increase, true color display, drag & drop file transfer, and resolution controls, among other features.

I'm In Touch

$9.95/month for 1 PC
$9.90/PC/month for 2-5 PCs

View remote machine from Windows/PocketPC/PalmOS/Blackberry/cell.

Laplink Everywhere

$10.95/month for 1 PC
$21.90/month for 3 PCs

Includes remote desktop search, mobile access from web-enabled handheld, compatible with Microsoft Remote Desktop.

LogMeIn

Free basic plan
$12.95/mo for 1 PC Pro plan
$19.90/mo for 2 PC Pro plan

Free basic plan unlimited, can browse remote machine from any Java-enabled OS.

WebEx PCNow

$9.95/PC/month

Unique security features including phone-based authentication and application-level access control.

 

When you leave the LAN, you face potential firewall barriers, performance limitations and security concerns. Many licensed client products can work across the Internet, but require some expertise in configuration to ensure support across firewalls and effective security controls. To avoid these concerns, many people opt to use Web-based remote desktop services.

Web-based subscription services are positioned to avoid the complications of Internet-based remote desktops. Strong competition among the subscription remote desktop providers means they all offer free trials. In fact, LogMeIn even offers a free unlimited subscription plan, suitable for basic remote administration but without the file sharing and other enhanced features of its "Pro" plan.

Web-based remote desktop providers require Windows on the remote host machine. Some services, like Laplink Everywhere and I'm In Touch, support local viewers on non-Windows platforms, such as handheld PDAs and other Java-enabled operating systems. But if you want to host remote access on a non-Windows machine you need to consider cross-platform licensed clients such as VNC and NetOp Remote Control.

Special Features
All the remote desktop clients support the same basic functionality — a window onto your remote machine where you can click and drag as if you were there. But some products differentiate themselves with special features and enhancements.

File sharing is perhaps the most common, supported by UltraVNC, LogMeIn Pro, Laplink Everywhere, and GoToMyPC. Simply put, file sharing lets you can send a file to or from the remote machine. Without file sharing, you might need to rely on a workaround like e-mailing the file to yourself and then opening your e-mail at the other end.

Licensed Client Remote Desktop Applications

Dameware Mini Remote Control

$89.95

Can install service on remote machines, compatible with Microsoft Remote Desktop.

NetOp Remote Control

$180 for 1 PC

Remote view from client or browser, enterprise management features, chat.

PC Anywhere

$199.95 for 1 PC
$799.95 for 5 PCs

Multiple remote connections to host, 256-bit encryption, supports Windows and Linux.

RAdmin

$35 for 1 PC

Lightweight, very fast.

Real VNC
Ultra VNC
Tight VNC

Ranges from free to $30 personal edition and $50 enterprise edition

Wide cross-platform support, most popular remote desktop application, active development community.

Microsoft Remote Desktop

Included with Windows XP Pro and 2003 Server

Already there, mirrors audio.

     

Chat sessions, available with, for example, UltraVNC and NetOp Remote Control, are handy when using remote desktop software for remote assistance or collaboration. Other remote desktop workarounds for chat include simply opening Notepad on the remote machine and typing in turn or picking up a telephone.

Several of the Web-based services including GoToMyPC, WebEx PCNow and Laplink Everywhere support remote printing, meaning you can print a document from the remote machine to a local printer.

Web-based services typically offer 128-bit SSL encryption to secure the connection, the same as any secure Web site such as a bank. WebEx PCNow adds extra security features, including an interesting security mechanism they call Phone Authentication, which restricts access to a remote machine contingent upon entry of an access code by telephone.

WebEx also includes application-level access control, meaning that you can restrict remote sessions to particular applications on the remote machine rather than allowing access to the entire desktop carte blanche.

Speed
A slow remote desktop connection can be a functional but frustrating experience. Without a doubt, the fastest connections will come within a LAN environment, where your movements will be mirrored on the remote machine what amounts to real time. RAdmin, in particular, is a licensed client noted for sheer speed, although the product has not been significantly updated in several years.

TightVNC, another free open source variation of VNC is also streamlined to maximize speed, through high-efficiency compression protocols. You can also control compression of the remote desktop view, trading quality for speed.

Web-based remote desktops are subject to speed bumps across the Internet. One way to speed things up is by lowering the resolution of the remote machine, a feature GoToMyPC plans to introduce in a January 2006 upgrade to its service.

Try Try Try
The remote desktop software market is crowded. But the good news is that you can try every product available, both Web-based services and licensed client software, for free. Take several for a test drive to find out which is best for your needs and network situation. You'll never have to leave your chair again. (Reminder — buy a comfortable chair.)

Aaron Weiss a technology writer, screenwriter and Web development consultant who spends his free time stacking wood for the winter in Upstate New York. His Web site is: bordella.com

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