PC in a Browser

Your Desktop Awaits

Illustration: Marc Rosenthal
We examined six remote-access services: 01 Communique's I'm InTouch 4, 3am Labs' LogMeIn Pro, Citrix Online's GoToMyPC 4.1, Laplink Everywhere 4, MyWebEx PC Pro (beta), and Pro Softnet's RemotePC 3. Each takes its own approach, but all six deliver a real-time image of your desktop in a Web browser. From that screen, you can use any program installed on the remote PC and access corporate data that might not be available otherwise (when you don't have VPN access to your corporate network, for example). All six require that you keep the host PC on at all times and connected to the Internet.

Our Best Buy is MyWebEx PC Pro for its reasonable price, attractive interface, and phone-based log-in. GoToMyPC's PDA access, centralized management, and other features help it retain its market-leading status; however, it costs roughly twice as much as some alternatives. All six of the services we tested performed well. We did experience installation woes with RemotePC on one of our test machines, however; and I'm InTouch lacks screen-blanking (for security) and other important features.

Two of the six companies offer a free service that allows you to send files from the remote PC to your e-mail account rather than transfer the files directly. This helps you avoid the paid services' subscription fees, which range from $10 to $20 per month.

We also tested two services that offer quick, simple, and safe file sharing as an alternative to remote control. See "Keep Your Files at Your Fingertips" for more on BeInSync and FolderShare.

We conducted our tests using Internet Explorer 6 because of its ubiquity. All of the services also work with the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox and with other browsers. (The services offer universal applications for Macintosh, Linux, and other non-Windows operating systems as well, but their file-transfer and other capabilities are limited.)

We tested seven operations: logging in from a Web browser with a high-speed connection; opening, editing, and saving a Word file on the host PC; transferring a set of files and folders from the host to the client machine; deleting a file on the host; sending and receiving e-mail messages on the host; changing the screen resolution of the host; and transferring files from a network drive attached to the host. The first six tasks were easy for all of the services, although once we were unable to save a Word document remotely when using RemotePC. The network file transfer initially caused problems for many of the services, but we solved them by mapping the network drive in Explorer beforehand.

Start in a Snap

After you create your account at the vendor's site, you download and install the host software (the process usually took us only a few minutes to complete, and it never dragged on for longer than 30 minutes). All of the services we tested except I'm InTouch let you have more than one host attached to each account (for an extra fee, with the exception of Remote PC, which supports three hosts for one price). From then on, you access the host by returning to the vendor's site in a browser (the MyWebEx PC Pro beta that we evaluated is the only one of the six services in this roundup that required Microsoft's Internet Explorer) and logging in to the account that you created previously. An ActiveX control (for IE) or Java applet (for other browsers) necessary for the connection typically takes only a minute or two to load on the client (GoToMyPC sometimes uses an executable file). Eventually your remote screen will appear in a window, ready for you to operate just as you would if you were right in front of the host. Well, pretty close, anyway.

Keep It to Yourself

There's a good chance that you'll be using one of these services at a wireless hotspot, a public computer, or another vulnerable location. That's why it's critical that the connection to the host be encrypted. All of these programs provide strong 128-bit or 256-bit encryption.

For open-office environments, you need the ability to blank the host PC's screen while you're connected, thus keeping passersby in the office from seeing what you're doing. Some programs also let you block input from the host keyboard and mouse so that no one can use your computer while you're away. In addition to leaving your machine on and connected to the Internet, you'll need to turn off its hibernate function (although you can use password-protected screen savers), since none of the products we tested can wake up a hibernating computer. If you forget to turn off sleep, you won't be able to log on, period. GoToMyPC and RemotePC, however, each have a preference setting that automatically turns off sleep for you. We wish all of the services had such a setting, so we wouldn't need to remember to turn sleep off. MyWebEx PC Pro, GoToMyPC, and Laplink Everywhere allow you to connect when the host PC is in standby mode, in which case you'll be asked to enter your Windows account name and password for an extra layer of protection. With the other services, you'll have to deactivate the standby feature as well.

Almost Like Being There?

All six of the remote-access services we tested operate just fine through normal NAT firewalls; all six also claim to operate through most corporate firewalls too, but we did not test this ability. They use normal browser ports. While all of the PCs we used for testing had their own firewalls, only a couple of the services required unblocking when installing the host software, a minor inconvenience.

The services' performance depends on the speed of the connection, as well as on that of the client machine. We got much better results with a 1.6-GHz Dell Pentium M laptop than with an older 796-MHz Pentium III IBM notebook. To improve performance, most remote-access programs default to scaling the remote screen into a smaller browser window on the local desktop, usually in fewer colors and often with a plain blue background instead of your fancy desktop wallpaper.

The vagaries of transmission lines, system configurations, and Internet traffic in general made it impossible for us to meaningfully quantify the services' performance, so we offer only subjective observations comparing their results. For most tasks, the reduced colors and screen resolution work surprisingly well. While lag times were noticeable in our tests, we found the services' speed tolerable for typical applications over the 1.5-mbps DSL connection we used for testing.

All but RemotePC let you access network servers. The server must be mapped with a drive letter in some cases, or included in My Network Places in others. We were glad to see that GoToMyPC and MyWebEx PC Pro offer around-the-clock toll-free support: When you're on the road trying to get connected, it's often in the evening or on a weekend, and daytime-only tech support just won't cut it.

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