Remotely accessing your PC

You don't need to be sitting at your PC to use it. Roland Waddilove shows how to access your computer from any device, anywhere

Hundreds of millions of desktop PCs running Windows are sold each year and for many people they are the primary computing device. The main reason for this is that they have such a wide range of uses. They can run any type of software, you can hook up any hardware device to them, they can be networked with wires or wirelessly, and so on.

Although it’s hard to imagine how it would be possible to cope without a desktop computer, they are being used far less than they used to be. Instead, laptops, tablets and smartphones are increasingly being used for lightweight tasks like email, social networking, and even web browsing and blogging on portable devices is on the rise.

Desktop computers are still essential, but they’re often used in different ways to how they used to be. They can be a media centre supplying video and audio to other computers and devices, and they can be accessed remotely, not only as file storage, but also to run software. A big, powerful desktop computer can run software that a lightweight laptop or netbook would struggle to cope with or may not run at all. Using remote access software, it’s possible to connect to your main computer and run software as if you were sat in front of it. The screen on the computer you are sat at mirrors the desktop of the remote computer and apart from a slightly slower screen refresh rate, it’s just like being there. You can run any software that is on the remote computer, even major applications like Photoshop and Office, and games too. If a game won’t run on your laptop, it may be possible to run it on your main computer remotely.

Access anywhere

A remote computer can be accessed from other devices like Android and iOS tablets and smartphones and not just other computers. This means that you could play a Windows game on your Android or iOS tablet using remote access software and screen mirroring. The game runs on your desktop PC elsewhere in the house while you sit on the sofa with a tablet. It’s not just for games, though: Windows 8 is designed for tablets. With remote access software, the new Start screen with its app tiles turn an Android or iOS tablet into a Windows tablet. Well, almost. It won’t quite be as good as running Windows 8 natively on the tablet, but it won’t be far off.

It is possible to install remote access software on Apple Macs and Linux PCs too. This enables you to run Mac or Linux software on a Windows PC, remotely that is, or to run Windows on a Mac or Linux PC. If you’ve set up a Windows PC or even a Linux PC as a media server, for example, it would be possible to connect to it and run applications, make changes, and perform other tasks without actually having to plug in a keyboard or monitor. You just connect remotely and access it from your local PC or device. You could even access a webcam on the remote computer and see into the room or wherever the webcam is pointing.

The remote computer can be at home or at work, and you can access the remote computer from either location over the internet. If you forget to print out a report at work, it’s possible to log into your PC from home, load the report and print it. Any device that is connected to the remote computer can be accessed as if you were there, such as printers, webcams and so on.

Remote access software works over the internet, so you could be in a coffee shop, hotel or other location with free wi-fi and access your home or work PC. When accessing a remote PC, the screen display is sent to the computer or device you’re using, so bandwidth limitations can make the screen updates a little slow, but it’s certainly possible. Accessing a PC over a local network, such as wi-fi throughout your home, is much faster and smoother.

Remote access software is mostly free, which is great for anyone who wants to try it. With nothing more than Google Chrome running on two computers, for example, it’s possible to remotely access one from the other. This is useful for technical support, and you could use it to take control of a friend’s or relative’s computer to fix it by running virus scans, tweaking the start-up configuration, removing unwanted software and so on.

Google Chrome

Google has its own remote access facility, and all you need is the Chrome browser. With Chrome running on a remote computer at work or at home, you can connect to it and access it within Chrome on your local computer. Chrome remote access works over a local network or over the internet from any location with wi-fi. It’s interesting that Google has developed this and perhaps its aim is to provide access to a Windows PC from a Chromebook, showing that you don’t need a Windows laptop on the go and a simple netbook running Chrome OS is all you need. You can leave your Windows PC in the office or at home.

Chrome Remote Desktop is a Chrome extension, so it works on any version of Chrome that can install extensions. That includes Windows, Apple Mac and Linux, although not Android or iOS (Android extensions are promised, though). You can’t control a computer from a mobile device or tablet using Chrome, but you can control a Windows PC from a Mac or Linux PC. You can also control a Linux PC from Windows, Windows from Windows and so on. Any combination works, and all you need to do is to leave the remote computer running when you’re away from it. 

To get started, open Chrome, and sign in if you aren't already. Open a new tab and click the Chrome Web Store icon. Search for Chrome Remote Desktop and click 'Add to Chrome'. In a new tab, you'll see the new Chrome Remote Desktop icon. Click to start it and work your way through the security messages to authorise the app and allow it access. Then click 'Get started' under 'My Computers'.

You'll see a button to enable remote connections, so click on it. You'll need to set up a six-figure PIN to stop anyone else accessing your PC, so enter a number here. Now your PC is set up. On the computer or device you want to use to access that PC, you'll need to repeat the first few steps to download and install Chrome Remote Desktop. When you're signed in, you'll see the remote computer listed under 'My Computers', so click and enter the PIN when prompted and you'll be able to see and use the desktop of your computer at home from your remote PC.

TeamViewer

TeamViewer is one of the best-known remote access applications and is now up to version 7. Among the new features in the latest version is Windows 8 compatibility. It’s free for personal use and you only need to pay for it for commercial use, so you can remotely access your home computer or your friends’ and relatives’, but you can’t charge for technical support, for example, which is fair enough.

There are many different versions, which can be a bit confusing at first, but a couple you should try first are TeamViewer Portable and TeamViewer QuickSupport. Neither of these requires any installation and they don’t change Windows in any way. The Portable version can be placed on a USB flash drive, which would enable you to run it on any computer. Because it doesn’t install anything, you might be allowed to run it on a work computer to access your home PC, although you should always ask permission first to avoid getting into trouble. If it’s okay, you could play games installed on your home PC at lunch time on your work PC or run other applications that you aren’t normally allowed to run at work.

A nice feature of TeamViewer is its support for operating systems and devices. It runs on Windows, Linux and OS X desktop operating systems, and Android and iOS phones and tablets. Any desktop version can remotely control any other desktop version, but the mobile versions can only control desktop PCs. You can’t control an iPad from your PC for example, but you can control your PC from an iPad.
Another nice feature of TeamViewer is that it’s very easy to get up and running. All you need to do is to unzip the portable version and run TeamViewer.exe. This single application can act as either a client or server. When it’s run, it displays a nine-digit ID and a four-digit password. Run TeamViewer on another computer, phone or tablet and then just enter the ID and password to connect to it and view the remote computer’s screen.

The remote computer’s wallpaper is automatically hidden and a simple black background is displayed. TeamViewer also adjusts the quality and reduces the colour palette. This is to improve the screen refresh rate and make accessing the remote computer more responsive. Running TeamViewer on a Google Nexus 7 Android tablet and accessing a desktop PC running Windows 7 over a home wi-fi network, though, it’s possible to display the wallpaper and select the high-quality display setting without affecting performance.

If you use a portable device like a tablet or a smartphone to access a desktop PC, it won’t be possible to see all of the screen. The mobile app responds to the usual pinch and spread touches to zoom out and in. In addition to this, the screen automatically scrolls when the mouse cursor is dragged across it.

Accessing a Windows PC on a small touch-screen is never going to be perfect, but TeamViewer does a really good job of making it straightforward and easy to use. If you want to access one PC from another, there are lots of additional options. For example, you can reboot the remote computer or lock it. If there’s a person on the other computer, for example, if you’re providing technical support to a friend or relative, there’s a VoIP (Voice over IP) video and chat facility. Files can be transferred from one computer to the other and sessions can be recorded.

Splashtop Remote Desktop

Splashtop is similar to TeamViewer, although there are some major differences. There’s a desktop version called Streamer, which is installed on the computer that you want to remotely access. It comes in Windows PC and Apple Mac flavours, but not Linux. What’s different about this remote access software is that you can’t access a computer from a computer. You can only access a computer from an Android or iOS tablet or phone. This limitation will put off some users and it makes is less useful than TeamViewer, which runs everywhere.

When the Splashtop Streamer is first run, it prompts you to create a Splashtop account. This is free and just requires an email address and a password. You can then log in and the computer is registered with Splashtop. This is so that other computers and devices running Splashtop can access it. You then need to install an app on the device that is to access the computer. There are versions for Windows and Apple Mac, Android and iOS, and even Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble Nook, BlackBerry PlayBook and others.

I tried it on a Google Nexus 7, mainly because it’s free, whereas it costs £4.99 on the iPad and that’s a special sale price. It is just 69p for the iPhone, but do you want to access a desktop PC with a big screen on such a small device? The free Splashtop 2 HD app for Android installed in a few seconds and then you just log in to your Splashtop account. The home screen shows a list of computers that are running Splashtop and you aren’t limited to just one; there can be as many as you want. Tap the computer you want to connect to and its desktop is displayed on the screen. Although access to your account is password protected, an additional password can be added, so each of your computers can be password protected too.

The quality of the screen display is excellent and the image on the tablet or phone is nearly as good as the real desktop. Although the quality is high, it does affect the performance, and it appeared to be sluggish when using Windows. Drag your finger around the screen and the mouse cursor can trail quite a long way behind it. Zooming in and out is with pinch and spread, and a three-fingered touch can be used to scroll the screen in any direction. It’s not quite as intuitive as TeamViewer, and using it to access software running on a Windows PC wasn’t quite so good on the Google Nexus 7.

It claims to be 15 times faster than competitors, but it didn’t feel very responsive. In the Performance section of the website the company quotes frame-rates and video latency. With its excellent image quality I think this app is designed for running Flash content and watching videos on tablets and smartphones. It would certainly give you a better experience watching movies on your tablet than many rival remote access applications, because this is where it excels.

There are a number of other apps for Splashtop and they are quite innovative. For example, there’s XDisplay, which turns an iPad into a second wireless monitor for your PC. This is a brilliant idea and all you need to do is to stand the iPad next to the PC’s monitor and you can drag windows over to it. This and apps like Whiteboard, Presenter, Touchpad and others are interesting, but they aren’t about remotely accessing your PC, so they won’t be covered here. Check them out if you’re interested.

Join.me

Join.me is an interesting service that provides a form of remote access. With TeamViewer, Splashtop and others, you can set it running before you leave home or work or wherever the PC is and then access it remotely from another location on another PC. With Join.me there needs to be another person at the remote computer, because when you try to connect, it asks for the user’s permission. They must click to accept the remote connection.

It’s designed for screen sharing at meetings, and one person downloads and runs the Join.me software. When it’s run, it displays a nine-digit code number on the screen. Anyone who wants to view that user’s screen can simply go to the join.me website and enter the code. The remote desktop is displayed in the browser window. There’s a button in a little control panel at the top of the page to ask permission to take control and from then on you can open windows, run software and so on. It’s not the best or the fastest screen display, but it’s okay and it’s super quick and simple to set up.

In addition to meetings, it’s useful for technical support too. Just ask the person to run Join.me Basic free and they can email the code to you or phone you. It’s not useful if you want to access your own PC, because you won’t be there to accept the connection.

VNC

Virtual network computing is basically a system for viewing and accessing another computer remotely over a network or the internet. The code is open source and many remote access programs are based on it. TightVNC, UltraVNC and RealVNC are all variations of VNC as you can guess from their names. All of them are free, but the free version of RealVNC has a limited feature set. There are Personal and Enterprise versions that add extras like file transfers, encrypted communications, printing, chat and so on. All VNC applications are basically the same, so to a certain degree you can mix and match the server software that runs on the remote computer that you want to access and the viewer, which runs on the computer that accesses it.

TightVNC is available in 32-bit and 64-bit Windows versions. It runs as a service in the background, so it’s always available or it can be run as an application when you need it. To access the computer running TightVNC, a Java viewer is used. As it’s a standard Java application, any computer and operating system with Java can be used to access the remote PC, such as Windows, OS X and Linux. It has useful controls to set the image quality of the remote PC and you can adjust the quality to match the network speed.

Because VNC is open source, other people have created viewers and there are several to choose from for Android phones and tablets. Android-VNC-Viewer is a popular choice, but MultiVNC, Mocha VNC Lite, and Jump Desktop Free are also available. They’re all free in the Google Play Store. A search for VNC at the iOS App Store will also reveal many remote access apps, such as Mocha VNC Lite, VNC Viewer, and Connect My Mac. The Android VNC viewers apps weren’t quite as good as TeamViewer when it comes to using Windows, but they’re okay. The image quality could be set quite high, but the update speed was a bit sluggish.

If your Android phone or tablet is rooted, you might want to experiment with VNC servers. There are several apps, which enable you to control your Android device from the PC with a reverse remote control connection. I’m not sure why you would want to, but it’s certainly worth investigating if you want to use Android apps on your PC.

One thing worth bearing in mind with VNC servers is that they often require you to configure port forwarding on the router if you want to access your PC over the internet. On a local area network, all that is required is the IP address of the computer to connect to, but this isn’t possible over the internet without port forwarding.

Don’t go to sleep

One thing that you have to watch out for with remote access software is sleep mode. It’s common for laptop computers to automatically go into sleep mode after a certain period of inactivity, which is to save the battery. It’s less common in desktop computers, but they can be set to sleep too. When the computer is in sleep mode, it cannot accept incoming connections, because everything is suspended and nothing is running. A remote computer must be configured not to sleep. However, you can still use some power saving options. For example, it is okay to power down the disk drive when it’s not being used, and there’s no need for the monitor to be switched on.

To set the power saving and sleep functions, click Start in Windows 7 or Vista and enter ‘power’. Click Power Options in the menu and then either select the Balanced or High Performance plan. Whichever one you choose, click ‘Change plan settings’. There’s an option to put the computer to sleep, which should be set to Never. The display can be set to turn off after ten minutes. Go to ‘Advanced power settings’. Expand ‘Hard disk’ and it can be set to turn off after 15 or 20 minutes. Make sure the wi-fi does not go to sleep if you’re using a wireless network. With the monitor off, the disk off, and the CPU doing no work, the computer won’t be using much power or generating a lot of heat, so leave it on when you go out.