Top Free Remote Access Tools for Windows, Mac

DESKTRA consumes minimal system resources on the host PC, even with a remote user connected. The three DESKTRA processes took only 14MB of RAM and almost no CPU time, even while actively browsing the host and playing back audio prompts. Remote resource usage was a bit heavier: about 20MB of RAM when connected but still almost no CPU usage. There was only a hint of latency when accessing my host, and screen refreshes were responsive over my remote link.

The host component requires a quick install, but the client application is light and portable. During the host installation, the client is simply dropped to the desktop. All that is necessary is to copy this executable to the remote client and launch it. The client .EXE file is less than 2MB and can even run from a USB thumb drive.

One interesting aspect of DESKTRA: Unlike other remote access utilities, DESKTRA doesn't give the remote user exclusive control over the host, but allows two users (or more) to work independently -- in their own unique and isolated environment -- on the same PC. When I connected to my remote PC, DESKTRA's host engine simply created a new session for me, so both a local user and a remote user had simultaneous access to the host. In this case, I was logged on locally to my Windows XP Pro host as administrator and connected remotely using my local user account.

The bad part is there is no remote printing or file transfer support in DESKTRA. Unless you connect to the host over a VPN (virtual private network) of some sort, where you can map drives and printers back to your remote PC, you will not be able to do anything more than work on the remote PC. Also, DESKTRA is not what I call firewall friendly -- it requires a couple of ports to be opened in order to pass traffic.

DESKTRA is unique in providing simultaneous access to the same PC to multiple users, so it could come in handy in certain scenarios. But it doesn't provide enough other features to warrant serious consideration as a personal remote access solution. There are too many other tools available that are both firewall friendly and richer in features.

Gbridge 2.0InfoWorld's Free RAS score: Excellent

One of the most versatile tools I came across is Gbridge 2.0. This free utility allows users not only to remotely control a Windows host, but also transfer files, share folders, and automatically synchronize files between PCs. Gbridge is firewall friendly and does not require any modifications to the network firewall. It does require a Gmail account (also free), but that shouldn't stop anyone from deploying it.

Gbridge is available for all versions of Windows from Windows 2000 to Windows 7, and it installs relatively simply on both host and client. The software creates a soft VPN between host and remote PCs using the gbridge.com Website and a Gmail account as the login authority. This VPN is fully meshed so that multiple clients can see one another and participate in file transfers, remote control, and shared file locations. Thus, Gbridge provides many-to-many connectivity instead of a one-to-one link as with most remote control utilities.

One of the most interesting things about Gbridge is its ability to create SecureShares that are accessible to all users. This is nothing more than a folder on one of the client PCs, but Gbridge extends it to all other participants. Gbridge will also allow you to create an automatic backup between folders on Gbridge clients. For example, I can have the My Documents folder on my office PC automatically back up to a folder on my home PC each night.

Remote desktop access is also done a little differently. You can use the built-in VNC client to take over the host PC or use Windows' own Remote Desktop Connection. Remote Desktop is off by default, but with just a simple click on the host side, I was able to take over my host without having to open any ports on my firewall.

Remote control performance when using VNC was a little sluggish compared to native VNC installations, and unlike with native VNC, I was not able to change color depth or screen resolution. Performance while using Remote Desktop was better, but still a little slower than a native connection, most likely due to the VPN overhead.

On the plus side, I had all the features of Remote Desktop, including remote drives, printer support, remote sound, and a shared clipboard. The best part was I didn't have to open up my firewall, and I could click and choose among potential hosts. Unless your network has Windows Small Business Server, this flexibility is not available to you.

Gbridge is one of the best free remote access tools available. Remote access to Windows hosts is easy and flexible, and the SecureShares and automatic backup features are unique. The use of Gmail for authentication and the soft VPN allow for easy access to your host without having to mess with the firewall, and they still retain remote printing capabilities.

LogMeIn Free EditionInfoWorld's Fee RAS score: Good

LogMeIn Free Edition is a simple-to-use, firewall-friendly remote access tool that comes close to being everything a remote user would need. The free edition provides safe and secure remote access to both Mac and Windows PCs via all popular browsers. However, due to the lack of remote printing, remote sound, and file transfer, most business users will want to consider another offering or pony up the $69.95 annual subscription cost of the Pro2 version.

LogMeIn uses www.logmein.com as a bridge between your remote and host computers. You start by creating an account on LogMeIn.com and installing the host software on your computer. The host agent installed with no difficulty on my Windows XP Pro system and consumed only about 8MB of RAM when idle, although it did jump to around 44MB when a remote user connected.

To take over the host computer, simply log into your account at logmein.com with your Web browser and select your host PC from the list of available computers. Because the host agent connects to the LogMeIn Website, no changes to the firewall are required.

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