Several weeks ago we looked at Vista's Remote Assistance feature, which lets you get (or give) technical help from a distance. But for those times when you want to access to your own system from far away (e.g., your work system from home or vice versa) a related feature can come in handy.
With Vista's Remote Desktop feature, you can log into a distant system and use it much as you would if you were sitting right in front of it. Remote Desktop isn't available with the consumer versions of Vista (Home Basic and Home Premium), but you will find it on the others — Business, Enterprise and Ultimate.
Remote Desktop is disabled by default, so the first step is to activate it on the system you want to control. From the Start menu, right-click Computer, then Properties, then click Remote Settings.
You must change the Remote Desktop setting from "Don't Allow Connections to this Computer" to one of the "allow" options. Which ones you choose will depend on what kind of system you'll be using to connect to this one. If you know you'll always be using another Vista computer to access it, choose the latter (more secure) option. However, if you think you will need to use an XP system, choose the former (less secure) option.
You must make this choice in advance because Vista's version of Remote Desktop uses an enhanced security method called Network Level Authentication that's not found in XP. If your system is configured to automatically go into standby or sleep mode, you'll get a warning reminding you to disable that, lest your system be unable to respond.
Administrator accounts automatically get access through Remote Desktop, but if you want to give remote access to a non-administrator, you must add the account. To do that, click Select Users, then Add and type the name of the account you want in the space provided. You can't pick from a list of existing accounts, but after you enter one, click the Check Names button; if the account you entered becomes underlined, it's a valid account. After you're finished, close out of all open dialog boxes. Be sure to note the IP address of this system because you'll need it to make the connection.
Making the Connection
Now it's time to try remotely connecting to your system, but before using Remote Desktop across the Internet, it's best to test it from another computer on your network. Some extra steps must also be taken to make it work across the Net, which we'll get to in a bit. Head over to another system and launch the Remote Desktop Connection software from the Start menu. You'll find it under All Programs > Accessories. To get to it more quickly, you can also type "remote desktop connection" or "mstsc" into the Start > Search box.
Enter the IP address of the computer on which you configured Remote Desktop, then click Connect. A dialog box will prompt you for a valid username and password. A moment or two after you enter them you should be looking at your remote system's desktop. From this point you can interact with your far-flung machine more or less as you would if you were using it directly. Bear in mind that you will not want to try things like playing games or streaming audio or video because the connection's not really fast enough for that.
Remote Desktop defaults to a full-screen view, but you can change that to a window or minimize it with the controls on the right side of the yellow bar at the top of the screen. Clicking the pin button on the left side of the bar will auto-hide it; in this mode, just move the mouse cursor to the top edge of the screen to summon it back. When you're done using Remote Desktop, click the close button and confirm with OK. That ends your remote session, but your remote system remains logged in and running.
Customize Your Connection
Before we get into how to configure Remote Desktop for Internet access, let's look at a few of the configurable settings available via the Options button. From the General tab, you can pre-enter the IP address and user name you want to use so they'll always appear when you launch Remote Desktop Connection. From the Programs tab, you can select an application to automatically run when you connect, although you'll have to know the full path to it.
The Experience tab will let you optimize performance based on the speed of your Internet connection (upstream, specifically). It defaults to 56K modem (who uses those anymore?) and thus saves bandwidth by not displaying the desktop wallpaper and forgoing certain visual enhancements. If your remote system has a reasonably fast cable or DSL connection (say, 384K or more upstream) you can change the setting to broadband and still get good responsiveness.
Using Remote Desktop Over the Internet
As mentioned earlier, you must take some extra steps to be able to use Remote Desktop over the Internet. First and foremost, you must create a firewall rule in your router that forward port 3389 to whatever IP address the system running Remote Desktop is using. (Consult your router's documentation or online help for instructions on how to do this.) It's also not a bad idea to give your router an infinite DHCP lease or reserved address or, barring that, a static IP address. Otherwise, if your system's IP address changes, your firewall rule will not point to the correct address and you won't have access. (For more on this, see our previous column.)
Speaking of IP address changes, when using Remote Desktop over the Internet, you'll need to enter your ISP-assigned public IP address, not the private one used on your own network. The firewall rule mentioned earlier will route the incoming connection to the correct computer. The easiest way to discover your public IP address is to go to a Web site that tells you what it is — www.dslreports.com/whois is one, but there are many others.
Last but not least, if your ISP changes your public address periodically, as many do, you'll want to set up a Dynamic DNS service, which will give you a consistent domain name with to access your system.
So what can you do if you've got one of the consumer versions of Vista? Several companies offer remote access services, including Citrix's GotoMyPC and WebEx's PCNow. Both carry a monthly fee ranging from $10 to $20. LogMeIn, however, is free. A benefit of these services is that they work without you having to worry about IP addresses or firewall configurations like you do with Remote Desktop. If you'd rather set up your own remote access via software, you can do that too; stay tuned for a how-to in the coming weeks.
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