Technological innovations such as smartphones, tablets, and inexpensive cloud-based data storage have significantly increased productivity for today’s mobile worker. Nevertheless, there are times when you may need to work with a particular application or file stored on a conventional PC that's sitting back on a desk at the office, at home, or anywhere else you aren’t.
For times like these, remote access services and software, which let you use your distant PC as if you were sitting right in front of it, come in handy. We’ll review features to look for and give you the lowdown on five good (free and for-fee) remote access products to consider.
Remote PC Control Features
The fundamental purpose of all remote access tools and services is to let the monitor, keyboard and mouse of the computer you’re sitting in front of act like they’re connected directly to your remote PC (or Mac). Other useful features include the capability to transfer a file from the remote PC to the one you’re using (or vice-versa). If you just need a hard copy of a document, remote printing lets you print a document on the distant PC to a local printer.
Figure 1: Windows Remote Desktop
Then there are remote access mobile apps, which let you connect from a tablet or smartphone, thus saving you from having to find a desktop or carry a laptop for remote control. Be warned, however: the PC world of big screens, tiny cursors, and mouse control doesn’t translate particularly well to devices (particularly phones) with no keyboard and relatively small, touch-operated screens.
Many mobile remote control apps make the experience of controlling a PC from a handheld device as painless as possible, but there’s still a substantial learning curve, so don’t risk being flummoxed because you’re under the gun—try it out once or twice for practice before you really need the access.
3 Free Remote Control Options
1. Windows Remote Desktop
Microsoft’s Remote Desktop feature has been built into Windows for a long time (since the now-defunct Windows XP) and, provided you can live with its limitations, it remains a great option for no-cost (if not quite no-effort) remote access.
A major limitation of Remote Desktop is that it only controls Windows PCs—no surprise there—but moreover, it only controls systems running Pro/Professional versions of Windows, i.e. not consumer-oriented Home/Home Premium versions. Note that this limitation only applies to the computer being controlled; the one you’re using to do the controlling can be running any version of Windows.
If you’re not sure which version of Windows is running on a given PC, here’s how to check. In fact, you don’t need to necessarily use a Windows PC to control a Windows PC—Microsoft offers a version of Remote Desktop for the Mac, as well as for iOS and Android devices (but oddly enough, not yet for Windows Phone).
The other caveat about Remote Desktop is that it requires a fair amount of tinkering to get it to work over an Internet connection. For starters, you need to configure the network firewall where your PC is located to automatically forward incoming traffic on the network port Remote Desktop uses (3389) to whatever IP address your PC is using.
Then, to get Remote Desktop to work reliably after a day, a week, or a month, you need to make sure that the PC’s IP address will never change—either by assigning a static IP or by using a DHCP reservation. Finally, if your ISP periodically changes the IP address it assigns to your Internet connection, as many do, you also need to set up a Dynamic DNS so you’ll have a consistent Web address to connect to.
If that sounds like a lot of work—and it is— there’s a way to avoid it. If you combine Remote Desktop with Pertino, a cloud-based VPN (free for up to three devices—read our review), your remote PC will be reachable without all the firewall and IP address hassles. This tutorial video shows how it works.
If you want remote access with more polish and fewer moving parts (but still free), check out TeamViewer. Just install the TeamViewer app on two computers, and you can use either one to remotely control the other. To make the connection, you’ll need the 9-digit ID number and password TeamViewer automatically generates and assigns to the computer you want to control (you can substitute your own password). TeamViewer is cross-platform, so aside from Windows you'll also find Mac, Mobile, and even Linux versions of the software.
Figure 2: Teamviewer
TeamViewer comes with a major caveat, though, in that it's free only for private, non-commercial use (you stipulate your usage type when you install the software), which precludes many business-use scenarios. You’re on your honor to comply with the license terms, and you can expect the software to periodically remind you of TeamViewer’s paid version. But with a starting price of $749, it’s not a cost-effective option for people who need remote control for just a single computer or even a small handful of them.
3. Chrome Remote Desktop
If you want a remote access method that’s both free and unfettered by license restrictions, and you already use Google’s Chrome Web browser (or even if you don’t), the Chrome Remote Desktop app may be a good choice. It works with any computer that supports Chrome—which is to say Windows, Mac, and Linux systems.
By its nature Chrome Remote Desktop will also run on a Chromebook, which sets up an interesting "have your cake and eat it too" scenario for the inexpensive notebooks. Although Chromebooks won’t run Windows, the ability to control remote Windows PCs is arguably the next best thing.
It’s worth noting that Chrome Remote Desktop doesn’t allow file transfers or remote printing. Nor does it support smartphone and tablets, though an Android version is evidently under development (and an iOS one is reportedly in the works as well).
Two Paid Remote Access Options
If you really want the utmost in remote access features and reliability (plus access to phone-based technical support in case something goes awry), then you want paid subscription services such as GoToMyPC and LogMeIn Pro. LogMeIn terminated a free version of its service back in January amid much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.
Both services let you control Windows or Mac PCs without fiddling with firewalls, and both offer mobile apps for iOS, Android, and even Amazon’s Kindle Fire. GoToMyPC and LogMeIn Pro also both support file transfer and remote printing (Windows only for GoToMyPC).
One area where the two services differ is in pricing. A subscription to GoToMyPC costs $10 per computer per month. To save a few bucks you can pay $99 per computer per year, but the per-computer pricing plan doesn’t change whether you want remote access to one, two, or ten computers.
LogMeIn Pro’s pricing is a bit more attractive—it costs $99 per year to access two computers, or $249 to access five, so about $50 bucks per computer per year. On the down side, LogMeIn offers only annual billing; there’s no month-to-month option available. (Both services offer 30-day trials.)
Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.