Run your PC from afar — securely and easily

Susan bradley By Susan Bradley

Your office PC is miles away, when suddenly you realize you forgot that all-important file — what to do?

Luckily, there are free tools (including one possibly residing in Windows) that give you remote access — or even full-scale remote control — of your PC, as if you were sitting right in front of it.

By day, I work as a server admin for my clients; by night, I become a support tech for my sister and dad. But when problems arise at some inconvenient hour, the last thing I want to do is hop into the car and drive to the troubled PC (or server). Instead, I pull out one of my many remote-connectivity software tools and access the ailing PC from afar.

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With remote-access software running, I see their screens on my monitor. I control their cursors with my mouse. I use my keyboard to enter commands and text into their systems. It’s as if I were sitting at their PCs without ever having left my house.

That’s pretty cool, but there are many good reasons for using remote access/remote control software beyond family tech support. You can also use it to access your personal or office PC when you’re away — pull down that file you left behind, synchronize data between your notebook and desktop computers or your home and office PCs, or run applications you have on one machine but not on another.

Look to Windows first for a remote connection

Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) is found in most versions of XP, Vista, and Windows 7, and it’s relatively easy to use. (See list below.)

RDC, like most applications of its kind, has two main components: a host (or server) app and a client app. Communication between the host and client is one-way — a client PC controls the host, but not the other way around.

To establish a remote connection, you launch the host RDC app on the remote PC and the client app on the local system (the one you’re sitting at).

Starting with XP, all versions of Windows have the RDC client software and thus can connect to an RDC host.

However, only certain versions of Windows include the host side of RDC. Even though RDC has a myriad of home and non-business uses, Microsoft sees its remote-control utility as primarily a business-oriented tool. So only the business-oriented and higher-end editions of Windows have the RDC host software built in.

Here’s how it breaks down:
  • XP: XP Home contains only client software; XP Professional contains both client and host software. See the MS article, “Get started using Remote Desktop with Windows XP Professional.”

  • Vista: The Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate editions all have client software; the Business and Ultimate editions also have host software. See MS’s Vista RDC FAQ and article.

  • Windows 7: Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate have client software; Professional and Ultimate also have host software. See the Win7-specific article, “Connect to another computer using Remote Desktop Connection.”

In all Windows versions, you can click Start/Help (or its equivalent in your edition of Windows) and search the Help system for the phrase Remote Desktop. The local Help system will show you authoritatively what your copy of RDC can do — and even more important, how to configure and use it.

Non-RDC alternatives offer more flexibility

RDC is good — I use it all the time — but it’s not the only game in town. Many third-party alternatives bring host capability to the Windows editions lacking RDC host-mode support.

For example, LogMeIn’s software, available in free and paid versions, lets any current Windows version act either as a LogMeIn host or client. LogMeIn also offers a Mac version, opening up interesting options for cross-OS remote sharing and control. (See more on Mac connections below.)

Similar solutions include RealVNC, Copilot, GoToMyPC, CrossLoop, and many more.

Microsoft also may end up competing against itself with a new cloud-based sync/share service called Live Mesh (site).

(If you know of other tools or have had experience with any of the ones I’ve mentioned, please visit this story’s thread in the Windows Secret Lounge and share your thumbs-up or -down recommendation!)

Making connections across the Internet

In general, setting up and using these tools is fairly straightforward. Start by configuring the host system to receive inbound connections, and leave it turned on when you’re away. When you need remote access, connect your local computer to the Internet and launch the client app. The exact method varies from product to product.

For example, with Microsoft’s RDC, the client software asks at startup what you want to connect to. You enter the network address of the target host PC. (On a LAN or intranet connection, you can alternatively use the machine’s local network name.) RDC negotiates an encrypted connection and then takes you to the familiar sign-in page on the host system. Enter the username and password you usually use on the host PC, and you’re in — just like that. (See Figure 1.)

There’s one caveat for this to work reliably: the host computer must have a static IP address (one that does not change). Most businesses have static IPs, but most homes do not. So connecting to your work PC should not be a problem.

If your company requires a virtual private networking (VPN) connection to the office computers and servers, you must first establish the VPN link and then launch your remote-control software.

Remote destop connection sign in screen
Figure 1. To connect to a remote PC with Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Connection, simply enter the system’s IP address.

I use still another option at my workplace: Remote Web Workplace (RWW), which is built into Windows Small Business Server. RWW provides secure remote access for the office staff without using VPN.

For home-to-home connections, use one of the alternatives to RDC, such as LogMeIn — which uses an intermediary computer to manage connections.

With LogMeIn, you set up the host software on the remote machine and then connect it to a password-protected, LogMeIn central server. When you launch the client app on your local PC, you do not connect directly to the remote system but rather to that same LogMeIn server.

Once the LogMeIn server has checked both host and client PCs’ credentials, it establishes a connection between the two. Windows’ own security still comes into play — the client operator must enter a valid username and password for the host system. It’s not as hard as it sounds — usually, setting up a connection takes only a few minutes, and the better remote-access tools have good FAQs and help files.

If your client computer is a Mac, Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Client for Mac (download page) works almost identically to the Windows version. It gives my MacBook Pro remote access to my Windows workstations and servers — both at work and at home. (My home-based HP MediaSmart Servers included remote desktop software.)

You can also work the other direction — I use ReaLVNC to control a Mac from my Windows PC and LogMeIn to sign in remotely. (Many third-party remote-control apps have Mac versions.)

Support for Apple products extends beyond the Mac. For example, while sipping coffee at Starbucks, I can still connect to my remote PCs and servers — through my iPhone! Yes, you read that right. There are remote desktop clients such as LogMeIn for smart phones. And yes, it works: the relatively tiny screen of a smartphone makes it a bit cumbersome to scroll around your full-sized Windows desktop, but it’s doable.

On that Apple’s iPad is out, Wyse has announced a version of its PocketCloud app (info page) for the iPad. As a user of the iPhone version, I can attest that PocketCloud is a nice remote desktop client for checking servers and responding to emergencies.

Windows Mobile also supports a version of Remote Desktop Connection called “Remote Desktop Mobile.” It’s built into some Windows Mobile phones and can be downloaded into most others. MakeUseOf.com’s article, “How To Control Your PC from Windows Mobile Cell Phone,” provides a good overview. The Microsoft Windows Phone forum’s thread, “Remote Desktop Mobile,” includes additional information and a link to download the Remote Desktop Mobile software.

So you can see there are many, many options. The next time you need access to a system miles away, look around — chances are good one of your local PCs, Macs, or smartphones can make the connection!

Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.

Susan Bradley recently received an MVP (Most Valuable Professional) award from Microsoft for her knowledge in the areas of Small Business Server and network security. She’s also a partner in a California CPA firm and writes the Windows Secrets Patch Watch column.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2010-04-15:

Susan Bradley

About Susan Bradley

Susan Bradley is a Small Business Server and Security MVP, a title awarded by Microsoft to independent experts who do not work for the company. She's also a partner in a California CPA firm.