March 19, 2009

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Control from a distance
Remote PC access for free
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

When most of us use a computer, we’re right at a local keyboard, mouse and monitor. Every now and then, we want to reach across a network or the Internet to control a computer in a different location. Sounds complex, but there are actually a bunch of ways to go about doing just that.

Built into Windows is Remote Desktop. This lets you log in to a Windows PC using one of that computer’s accounts, at the same time as some other user is sitting at its keyboard. The two of you see your own desktops that don’t interfere with each other.

If you have a Home edition of XP or Vista, you can initiate a Remote Desktop connection, but no one can connect to you. That’s either a plugged security hole or a crippled feature depending on your point of view. You can enable Remote Desktop connections to your Home edition PC, but the methods are too complex to go into here. Just Google “Remote Desktop XP home” or “Remote Desktop Vista home” and you’ll get several tutorials.

Besides, for most purposes there are simpler solutions that are still free. The first is a family of programs based on VNC, variously standings for Virtual Network Computing or Virtual Network Connection. With a program like TightVNC (www.tightVNC.com) or UltraVNC (www.uvnc.com) installed on two computers, you can access the desktop of either from the other. It’s different from Remote Desktop in that you see exactly the same desktop as the user at the local keyboard. Instead of logging into a Windows account, you provide a password set for the VNC software. Multiple people can access the same desktop at once, and they can be granted just viewing permission or full control.

VNC has some limitations; it only refreshes a couple times per second, so watching video remotely is a painful prospect. It also doesn’t transfer sound, so that halting video is silent as well. A piece of freeware from Japan called igRemote attempts to remedy these problems with a more steady stream of video and sound. With a good network connection, it’s almost as if you’re sitting right in front of the remote PC. With anything less, though, it might not display anything. Good luck reading any support materials, too, if you’re not up on your Asian languages.

Remote Desktop, VNC and igRemote are great if you’re on the same network. What about connecting to your home PC from work, or to your cousin’s computer from your house? You need something that reaches across the Internet.

There’s a paid service called GoToMyPC.com, but as usual, free alternatives abound. The most similar one is LogMeIn.com. They have a slew of different service levels for different prices, from secure Virtual Private Networking (VPN) and remote management of whole groups of PCs, but the basic desktop control is free. There’s even a control app for the iPhone.

Another free option is more of a guerilla effort called Gbridge. It uses Google accounts to establish connections, but the developers aren’t affiliated with Google. In addition to desktop control, it supports secure file sharing, synchronization and backup. Features built into the software make it simple to share photos and music with your friends — you know, those that you’ve created yourself or have been granted explicit written permission to distribute.

If you already have a VPN to your chosen PC, you’re probably better off with Remote Desktop or VNC than with LogMeIn or Gbridge. Not that the service provider is snooping on your session, but solutions that don’t rely on a third party are by their nature more secure when all else is equal.