Remote Desktop: A Complex Past
Remote access and small business technology have evolved considerably since 2006 when I wrote an article called Better Living Through the Remote Desktop. The article discussed how to configure Windows XP Professional's Remote Desktop feature; which let you access and control an office PC from a remote location, just as if you were physically sitting in front of it.
Before you could use Remote Desktop though, you had to configure the ports on your router to let external traffic from the remote system pass-through to the host PC. If this wasn't done properly you would never establish a successful connection.
The process of opening the ports varied from router to router and could be confusing -- especially for non-technical folks. Systems running supplemental software firewall further complicated matters. Even with professional IT assistance, getting a reliable, consistent connection often proved challenging. However when it worked, it was an invaluable resource.
Now fast forward to 2011: although Microsoft still offers Remote Desktop and Remote Assistance with Windows 7, it also offers of a much better alternative: Windows Live Mesh.
Part of the Windows Live Essentials 2011 suite of applications, Windows Live Mesh is primarily a tool for keeping your files, folders and bookmarks synchronized between multiple machines and Microsoft's own SkyDrive online storage service. But it can also provide remote users with access to their local PC; similar in function to Remote Desktop.
The beautiful thing about Mesh is that unlike Remote Desktop, which required extensive configuration and had inconsistent reliability, Mesh works each and every time. Plus setting it up requires nothing more than downloading and installing the application. It's so simple anyone can do it. Let's walk through a typical installation.
Installing Windows Live Mesh
There are two pre-requisites needed to fulfill before we can begin. In order to use Windows Live Mesh you'll need to have a Windows Live ID. What's more, you MUST have a password associated to your Windows user profile. If it doesn't, please create one now.
With that out of the way, we can get started. The first step is to install Windows Live Mesh onto the PC you want to be able to access remotely. This is called the host. Once the installation begins you'll have the choice of installing all of the applications that make up Windows Live Essentials, such as Messenger, Writer and Mail, or you can just select the individual programs you want to install. For this example we're just going to install Mesh.
After the installation has completed, launch Windows Live Mesh and sign in using your Windows Live ID. You should now see a window with the words Status and Remote at the top of the screen. Select Remote and move to the section that reads Remote connections to this computer. The only thing you need to do in order to make this machine accessible for remote access is to click on Allow remote connections to this computer. With that accomplished, the host configuration is complete.
We can now turn our attention to configuring the remote system, also called the guest. Just repeat the installation as you did before to install Windows Live Mesh on the remote system. When the installation has been completed, sign into your account and proceed again to the Remote section.
Under the section Connect to another computer you should see the host computer listed. Next to it will be a small white or green box. A white box indicates that a remote connection is not available. This could mean that the host system is either not online or that the Windows Live Mesh service is not running. Should the box instead be green, you'll be greeted with the words Connect to this computer. Just click on this to initialize the connection.
Windows Live Mesh Web Browser Alternative
If you were using a friend's or an associate's computer and didn't want to actually install Mesh on their system, you can still gain remote access to your host PC my logging in to the Windows Live Devices website.
Go to the site and enter your Windows Live ID account information, and you'll be greeted by the same Remote window you see when using the Mesh application. Your host PC should be on this list. To establish a remote access session to the host PC via your Web browser, simply click on Connect to this computer.
Two things to note: the first time you log in, you'll be prompted to install the Windows Live Mesh ActiveX Control for Remote Connections. Secondly, because this is an ActiveX application, you MUST use Internet Explorer to establish this connection.
Whether you chose to use the Mesh application or the Web browser method, you will have successfully established a remote connection to your host PC. From this point you can navigate files on your host PC, open and edit documents, sort through email, and even run network applications. Pretty much any task you can perform in the office can now be done remotely. You even have the capability to copy, cut and paste files between the host and guest systems.
A small menu bar at the top of the screen provides you with additional options for managing the host system, such as transmitting a Ctrl+Alt+Del command to the host or modifying the resolution of the display. Compared to Remote Desktop, Windows Live Mesh is far superior in installation, reliability and accessibility. Best of all it is 100 percent free.
More Remote Access Options
Of course, Windows Live Mesh is not the only remote access option available. Numerous products available today provide even more functionality then Mesh. Some are free, like the very popular LogMeIn Free, which functions in a fashion very similar to Window Live Mesh.
Between the two products, I actually prefer LogMeIn as it seems to perform better. A premium version offers additional enhancements to the standard program. Some of these supplemental features include remote-to-local printing, desktop sharing, drag-and-drop file transfers and even remote sound support.
Although not free, LogMeIn Pro2 is reasonably priced at $69.95 a year. In fact, when you sign up for LogMeIn Free, you automatically receive a 30-day free trial of the full LogMeIn Pro2 product. If you're going to use remote access on a regular basis, you should really give LogMeIn Pro2 a try.
Other products to consider include CrossLoop and -- my personal favorite for use with family and friends -- TeamViewer. I say for family and friends because TeamViewer is free for personal use only. Business users must purchase a license at a ridiculously expensive $749.
Forgoing the cost, the product is topnotch and one of the best remote access solutions I have ever come across, which is the only reason why I even mention it here. Anyone can install it, and it offers a vast array of options. Yet with so many other alternatives available at such reasonable prices, I just can't recommend TeamViewer as a small business solution. By all means though, give it a try. Who knows, you might feel that it's worth the investment.
Ronald V. Pacchiano is a systems integrator and technology specialist with expertise in Windows server management, desktop support and network administration. He is also an accomplished technology journalist, writing product reviews, monthly columns and feature stories for both print and web-based publications.
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