Stay Connected With Remote-Access Software

The workday doesn't end at 5 p.m. anymore. Chances are, you take files home with you to work on using your home PC, and then you tote them back to your office the next morning. In the course of shuttling files back and forth, you've likely run into a particularly frustrating snag at least once--the file you need the most is the one you forgot to bring along.

Remote-access software can save the day. We looked at four services that promise to help you reach your PC's precious documents and programs, or share its functions with others, at any time. Two services, GoToMyPC and LogMeIn Pro, offer similar benefits: For a monthly fee you can take remote control of a configured computer from just about anywhere. Symantec's pcAnywhere charges just one fee, and offers many IT-friendly features best suited to managing multiple machines in the same network. Finally, Microsoft's free SharedView application allows you to share views of your individual applications or your entire desktop with colleagues you invite, or even to permit other people to take control of your PC.

pcAnywhere

Symantec's pcAnywhere is typically the favorite of IT departments in larger businesses, and setting it up can take a little techie know-how. But its one-time cost, as compared to the recurring monthly fee charged for services like GoToMyPC and LogMeIn Pro, could make it an attractive option for smaller companies and for on-the-go professionals.

A single license runs $200, and allows you to connect to one computer (the host) from another. (Both PCs must have the pcAnywhere software installed.) Symantec offers volume pricing and other licensing options for large installations, and thin clients that allow for remote-control connections without full administration options are available for Linux and Mac computers.

Once pcAnywhere is installed and set up, you can fire it up to connect to another computer. If that host is on the same network, it will be located in a 'Quick Connect' list.

If the host is not in the same network, you'll need to know its network name or IP address. In addition to a full remote-control session, where you can see and control a host's desktop as if you were at the PC, you can choose to transfer files or perform remote-management tasks such as file or Registry edits without starting a full remote-control session. Many of the available features, such as setting up remote-command queues, are particularly useful for help-desk or IT users.

When you connect to a host, you see a prompt for a user name and password, both of which you choose when you first set up the host. You can select an existing Windows log-in, but you can't have a blank password. Also, though you can configure a host to set up an encrypted session every time or to switch to encryption during remote control, encryption isn't enabled by default.

pcAnywhere could prove effective for people who want to remotely manage many PCs in the same network, and it's a definite option for large networks with their own IT staff. But it's probably not the best package for connecting to one or two PCs at home or at work across the Internet, as it requires you to open a connection through your home or company firewall directly to the host. Business networks with many pcAnywhere hosts can set up a gateway server (at additional cost) that can act as an intermediary.

GoToMyPC

While pcAnywhere is best for connecting to multiple PCs in the same network, the Citrix GoToMyPC service lets you easily connect to a host PC from just about anywhere. But you'll pay for the freedom, as GoToMyPC carries a monthly fee of $20 for one PC or $30 for two, with discounts for annual plans and additional PCs.

After performing a quick software install on a host PC, you can access that computer's desktop from most any other machine with a browser and an Internet connection. Though the software to set up a host requires that the host have at least Windows 2000 or a newer version of Windows, you can connect to that host from a Mac or Linux system, or even some Windows Mobile devices. Also, the host software makes its own connection to Citrix servers, so you don't need to open any firewalls or make any other adjustments. Just point your Java-enabled browser, on whatever PC or device you're using, to log in to your account at gotomypc.com.

Once there you'll see a list of your connected PCs. Choose one and enter its password (each PC gets its own), and a small Java client downloads through the browser and provides full remote control of the host. If you're using a PC that limits which programs you can run, such as a work computer with a strict security policy, you can use a universal viewer that runs completely within the browser. Mac and Linux computers also use the universal viewer.

You may notice a slight delay when you move windows around, but you won't have any trouble working with remote documents or using a Web browser on the host PC. Sound from the remote PC comes through fine, too. But full-screen video or other graphics-intensive tasks will be choppy at best.

To copy files to and from the host, you can drag and drop or use a separate file transfer and synchronization tool. And a simple slider allows for easily adjusting the display to favor either connection speed or appearance.

GoToMyPC uses encryption for all connections, and it allows you to print out a list of one-time passwords for each host. If you want to give other people access to your host PC, you can send a temporary e-mail invitation to share your desktop with a guest. The invitation automatically expires in your choice of 1 to 3 hours, or you can cancel it manually.

Though GoToMyPC isn't cheap, you can give it a whirl with a free 30-day trial for one PC. For businesses that want to provide the service for up to 50 employees, a Pro version offers central administration and billing. A Corporate version allows for more than 50 users.

LogMeIn Pro

LogMeIn Pro's remote-desktop service directly competes with GoToMyPC, and the two offerings are similar in most respects. But LogMeIn Pro costs a fair bit less, with a monthly fee for one PC of $13. Each additional computer (up to ten) runs an additional $10, with discounts for each PC beyond ten. The service also provides a free trial for 30 days (or for 120 minutes of usage, whichever comes first). A no-cost, feature-limited version of the service, called LogMeIn Free, lacks options such as sound and remote printing.

You can install LogMeIn Pro on a PC running Windows Vista, XP, or 2000, or Windows Server 2003, 98, or Me. Macs with Tiger or Leopard can run LogMeIn Free, but not the Pro version. You can take remote control of a configured PC or Mac from almost any Windows, Mac, or Linux PC, or Pocket PC device.

Similar to the process with GoToMyPC, you start by logging in at logmein.com and choosing from a list of connected computers. But whereas GoToMyPC then launches a Java client outside the browser, LogMeIn runs within the browser, so first you'll need to install an ActiveX control for Internet Explorer or a plug-in for Firefox. You can skip the plug-in and use a less attractive Java interface instead, if you wish (either option allows a full-screen view).

Within the remote-control browser session, you'll find a useful toolbar along the top that lets you access features and options such as sound controls and screen settings. On the left, you can choose the file manager, sharing, and "mini-meeting" tasks from a collapsible navigation bar.

Sharing allows you to send a friend or coworker a link to download files from your LogMeIn-enabled PC, which is a good option for sharing files too large to send via e-mail. You can set time limits or restrict how many times a given file can be downloaded.  And to start a mini-meeting, you can send e-mail recipients a time-limited invitation to access your desktop.

LogMeIn, like GoToMyPC, encrypts connections and uses a separate password for each host PC. You can also enable one-time passwords.

If you're trying to choose between LogMeIn and GoToMyPC, take them both for a spin through their free trials. See which user interface you prefer, and test out GoToMyPC's claims of a faster display to justify its higher cost for yourself.

SharedView

Microsoft's free SharedView download offers remote-desktop functions as well, but with a twist. Instead of giving you remote access to your PCs, it lets you share your PC with other people for meetings, demonstrations, or support.

To use SharedView, you'll have to download it. You'll need Windows XP SP2, Vista, or Server 2003 to install the software.

You can then start a new shared session by double-clicking the program icon or clicking a 'Work with me' button that appears on a new toolbar in Office applications. When the silver control bar displays at the top of your screen, you must sign in with a Windows Live ID.

After logging in, you can start a session and invite up to 15 people to join you, via an e-mail that SharedView can quickly set up for you. Each participant will have to download the software and sign in with their own Windows Live ID. When others join, you can choose to share a view of your entire desktop or just specific applications; in the latter case invitees will see only those particular program windows.

Any session participant can offer a file from their own computer as a handout that other participants can download. A participant can also ask to take control of your desktop, which you must approve--and can quickly revoke if they start poking around somewhere you don't want them to go.

While you can type text messages that other participants can see, the program gives no option for sound or voice. For that you'll need to hop on the phone or use something like Skype on your PC. Despite lacking that capabililty, SharedView is a good free and easy option for sharing your desktop or program views with colleagues.

All four of these options for reaching far-flung computers can help reduce the risk of depending too much on one PC for handling critical tasks and files. Go ahead, depend away.

Erik Larkin is a San Francisco-based writer who writes about security and other technology topics. He writes the blog Erik Larkin on the Web  on PCWorld.com.

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