Remote-desktop software -- which lets you control a computer online through another machine -- can be handy, either when you want to access your own computer or when you need to fix somebody else's off-site. However, until recently, most of the applications were just not user-friendly, requiring that you run them on your own private network or that you set up your own domain address or server.
Fortunately, there are now Web-friendly services that take care of the networking details. Typically, you only need to sign up for an account on their sites and install software onto the computer you want to access. You can then use any other computer with Internet access to connect to your host. No muss, no fuss.
In this roundup, I look at four of these applications: GoToMyPC, LogMeIn, TeamViewer and Windows Live Mesh. They work similarly: You use a Web browser on your client computer to log in and connect to your host; three offer the option of using a separate client program.
Your host computer's desktop appears on your desktop screen as a separate window (or within a Web browser, if you use this method of access). You can then manipulate the remote computer -- for example, you can run programs or, depending on the particular remote-control service you're using, copy files from and to that computer. You can also, if necessary, send a command to reboot the host computer.
Keep in mind that in all cases, the host computer has to be left on. You can set your host to go into standby mode (so its screen switches off and hard drive spins down), but the computer has to stay on so that the host program itself is running.
For my tests, I used two Dell Inspiron notebooks (Models 1300 and 1440, running Windows Vista Business and Windows 7 Home Premium, respectively). The 1300 was assigned as the host and connected to Time Warner's Road Runner cable Internet (which had a download/upload rate of about 20Mbps/2Mbps). I used the 1440 as the client, accessing the Internet through various Wi-Fi hotspots in coffeehouses, bookstores and cafes, where the download/upload bandwidth typically starts at 1.5Mbps/1.5Mbps.
My goal was to see how these remote-desktop services would fare in situations where the Internet connections available for my client computer were wireless and possibly of less-than-ideal bandwidth. Controlling another computer over the Internet is usually not a speedy experience -- when you access a computer remotely and click something on its desktop, there can be a lag of up to a few seconds before you see a result.
So as you read the following, keep in mind that the usability of any remote-desktop service depends a lot on the reliability and bandwidth of both the host and client computers' Internet connections. And this should be obvious: While you can play a video file on your host computer and watch it streamed back to your client, doing so consumes precious bandwidth and will increase the lag of the connection between the two computers.
GoToMyPC provides access to your host computer through a Java application. (A viewer app for the iPad is also available.) There is a 30-day free trial, but you must submit your credit card information; after the free trial, the price is $9.95 per month or $99 annually for one user/one computer.
How It Works
GoToMyPC requires that Java be installed on both the client and the host computers. When you first start the hosting software, you give your computer a name and password. To remotely access it over the Internet, you use a Web browser on your client computer to log in to your user account on the GoToMyPC site.
The host's system name appears on your user page. Click it, type in the password you chose, and a Java-based viewer window pops open that shows your host computer's desktop.
Settings and Extra Tools
One useful setting in the Java client toolbar lets you scale the size of your window view of the host computer's desktop. An important setting allows you to decrease the number of colors that are displayed by your host's screen. Reducing this level should help to diminish lag because less color data needs to be streamed from the host to your client.
The client-side front end also includes a couple of tools. One lets you transfer files: A panel window on the left side shows the file directory of your host, and a panel on the right shows the file directory of your client. To transfer a file from one directory to another, you click a file to highlight it and drag it to the other panel window, or you click an appropriate button on the file transfer's UI to start the transfer. There's also a basic chatting tool.
GoToMyPC lets you hear the audio playing from your host computer, so I was able to remotely play MP3s. The sound quality of the playback as it streamed to my client notebook was decent, like a low-bitrate MP3 file.
At a Glance
Supported OSs: Windows 2000, XP, Vista, 7; OS X 10.5 or later
Price: $9.95/month per computer or $99 annually. GoToMyPC Pro (which offers access to teams of users) starts at $19.90/month or $198 annually for one administrator and two users (goes up to 50 users).
Navigating through my host computer's desktop, and clicking items, was decently fast. The lag wasn't too bad, although when I clicked on and dragged windows around, things stuttered a bit. Scaling down the range of colors to 256 improved things somewhat.
The fact that you can hear audio playing on your host streaming to your client computer is a plus; only one other remote-desktop service in this roundup, LogMeIn, offers this feature. However, I didn't like the fact that you have to enter credit card information on the GoToMyPC site to try out this service for free.
LogMeIn allows you to access your host computer through a Web browser. While the basic Web service is free, you can also use a standalone application called Ignition, which is sold separately, or use a for-pay plan called Pro2.
How It Works
After you install the hosting software on the computer you want to remotely connect to, you log in to your user account on the LogMeIn site from your client computer. Click the name of your host listed on your user page, and its desktop appears within the Web browser (it requires both Java and Flash.)
If you'd prefer to use a front end on the client side (which offers better performance than the Web-based version), you can download Ignition; it costs $7.95 monthly or $39.95 annually for the Windows and Mac versions. An Ignition app for the iPad, iPhone or an Android device costs $29.95.
Whether you use the Web interface or Ignition, you can use a chat tool to communicate between the host and client.
Settings and Extra Tools
Like GoToMyPC, both the Web browser interface and Ignition let you adjust the number of colors that your host computer's desktop shows.
If you want to receive audio from your host computer or transfer files between your host and client computers, you have to subscribe to the Pro2 plan, which has an annual fee of $69.95. The file-transfer tools in both the Web-access version of LogMeIn and in Ignition work like GoToMyPC's -- i.e., one panel displays the file directory of the host, the other the file directory of the client. (Incidentally, you can use the Ignition client with either the free Web version or the Pro2 version.)
On a few occasions, when I was using a Web browser to access my host's desktop, the delay was so long when I clicked an item on the desktop of my host computer that I wondered if LogMeIn had frozen. However, most of the time the lag wasn't that bad, and the delay experienced in response felt like less than a second at most. When I turned down the color range of the host computer's desktop, it improved things a bit, but not significantly. I got the same results using Firefox 4.0 and Chrome 12 (the developer's version).
At a Glance
Supported OSs: Windows, OS X.
Price: Free. Pro2 plan (which adds audio, file sharing, file transfer and other features) is $69.95/year. Ignition: $7.95/mo. or $39.95/year (Windows); $29.99 (iOS, Android)
Things were a lot more bearable and responsive when I used Ignition to control my host. Obviously, I prefer this method: LogMeIn with Ignition is clearly the faster and more workable solution.
Like GoToMyPC, the sound quality of the music files that I played on my host computer -- whether I was using Web access or Ignition to connect to and control my host -- was comparable to what you might expect to hear from a decent but not high-fidelity radio stream.
LogMeIn may have a free version of its service, but for the optimal experience (including hearing audio output from your host computer), you'll have to subscribe to the Pro2 plan and pay to use the standalone client, Ignition. Since you have to pay for both of these things separately, the total cost (the Pro2 plan plus an annual subscription to use the Windows version of Ignition) can hit $110 a year. That sounds pricey, but considering how well the product works, it could be worth it.
The unusual thing about this remote-desktop service is that you can use the same program to either host a computer or to connect to one.
How It Works
You can set TeamViewer to make the computer that it's running on act as the host, or use it as a client front-end program to connect to a host. Like GoToMyPC and LogMeIn, TeamViewer lets you access your host computer through your user account on the service's site. The Web version runs on Flash. There are also free apps for the iOS (iPad, iPhone) and Android platforms.
When you run TeamViewer, it generates a unique series of numbers and designates it as the computer's ID; it also generates a set of numbers and letters as its password. To remotely connect to this computer, you log in to your account on the TeamViewer site and enter this ID and password. Or, if you'd rather use TeamViewer's client, start up the application, go to client mode, and enter the ID and password assigned to your host computer.
The bad news: TeamViewer doesn't have any audio capabilities through either the Web browser or its client.
Settings and Extra Tools
Whether you use TeamViewer as a client front end or connect via a Web browser, there are presets to scale back the number of colors transmitted by the host's screen in order to cut back on lag.
TeamViewer also includes a file-transfer tool with an interface similar to those of GoToMyPC's and LogMeIn's. The file-transfer feature is totally free to use.
A chat feature is available when you use either TeamViewer's client or a Web browser to access your host. Like LogMeIn's and GoToMyPC's chat tools, this lets people sitting at the host and client computers message each other in real time.
The Web-access version of TeamViewer was more responsive than LogMeIn's Web equivalent. The lag in response from clicking items on the host computer's desktop wasn't nearly as great.
At a Glance
Supported OSs: Windows, OS X, Linux (Red Hat, SUSE, Ubuntu)
Price: Free for "personal, noncommercial use." Business plan costs $719 for up to three host computers. Premium plan ($1,449) allows up to 10 hosts, Corporate ($2,690) up to 15.
Using the client application to connect to and control my host was, of course, much faster. Its performance was similar to using LogMeIn's standalone front-end Ignition but has the benefit of being free.
Considering price, TeamViewer is an attractive deal over GoToMyPC and LogMeIn, since the company lets you use both its service and standalone client software indefinitely for free. This remote-desktop service also has the advantage of supporting the greatest number of operating systems, including three Linux distributions and two mobile platforms. Its biggest drawback is that it doesn't offer audio from your host computer.
As part of the Windows Live Essentials 2011 suite of home productivity applications, Mesh provides basic remote-desktop control for Windows Vista and Windows 7 computers.
How It Works
Whether the Windows computer you are using is to be the host or the client, you run the Windows Live Essentials 2011 installation program and specify that Mesh be downloaded and installed.
Mesh appears as a double-arrow icon set in the Windows notification tray. On your host computer, click this icon to open the program. From there, you can add the computer to a list that permits other Windows computers to access it over the Internet. (You need to have a Windows Live ID or a Hotmail account to do this.)
On the client computer, you click the same Mesh notification tray icon, log on with your Windows Live ID/Hotmail account, and your aforementioned host computer will appear on a list. When you click its icon, a connection between your client and host is made, and a separate window pops open showing your host computer's screen.
Mesh also lets you connect to your host through the Web, but only using Internet Explorer.
There is no way to hear audio from your host computer, whether you connect to your host through the Mesh program or IE.
Settings and Extra Tools
The program that's used to connect to your Windows host computer is bare-bones. The only noteworthy setting it has lets you adjust the viewing size of the host's desktop. (It also lets you send a Ctrl-Alt-Del command to the host). It doesn't even have an option for scaling back the color level of the host's screen output in order to help reduce lag -- Mesh always displays your host computer's native color range. These settings (and lack thereof) are the same when you use Mesh through Internet Explorer.
Unlike the three other services in this roundup, there is no file-transfer tool or chat function.
Clicking through my host computer's desktop was surprisingly speedy when I accessed it with the Mesh client program, despite the fact that Mesh doesn't have the option to reduce the color range of your host computer's graphics.
At a Glance
Windows Live Mesh
Supported OSs: Windows Vista, Windows 7
Using Mesh through Internet Explorer 9, performance was, as you'd expect, slower, with some more noticeable lag, but things were still fast and workable enough for me to click items and drag open windows around my host's desktop -- much more responsive and less laggy than the Web interfaces available with GoToMyPC or LogMeIn.
Mesh does the job well, especially in a pinch if you already have a Windows Live ID or Hotmail account and don't need to hear audio from your host computer or transfer files. Of course, this Windows service isn't an option if you need to remotely access a Mac, Linux or even Windows XP computer.
If you need to provide simple technical support or help someone out, and you're both using computers running either Windows 7 or Vista, then Windows Live Mesh is capable enough to do this job. However, it offers only the most basic functionality.
GoToMyPC has a variety of features and offers good performance. However, it provides access to your host computer through a Java-based client, which may not work for some users. (LogMeIn's Web-based service requires both Java and Flash, but at least you don't have to pay for the privilege.) The requirement that you enter a credit card number in order to try it out for free for 30 days is bothersome (and you need to cancel your account once the trial expires, or you'll automatically be charged).
TeamViewer's All-In-One client is free, and using it to transfer files between your computers also costs nothing. It also supports more OS platforms than the other remote-desktop services in this roundup. The trade-off is that you don't get audio -- but if you don't need sound and are satisfied with Web-based performance, then TeamViewer is a good deal.
While LogMeIn offers basic features for free, you have to pay extra for LogMeIn's Pro2 plan for audio and file transfer. If you want the better performance provided by LogMeIn's client, Ignition, that's another fee. However, with those features added, it is an excellent remote application and may well be worth the cost.
Howard Wen reports frequently as a contributor to Computerworld and Network World.
This story, "Hands-on: 4 remote-desktop services" was originally published by Computerworld.