Top Free Remote Access Tools for Windows, Mac

LogMeIn works with Internet Explorer 7 or later, Firefox 3.0 or later, Google Chrome 2.0 or later, and Safari 3.0 or later. Browser support comes via an ActiveX control, Firefox plug-in, Java, or Flash. Host computers must be Windows 2000 (32-bit only) and newer (both 32-bit and 64-bit) or Mac OS X 10.4.6 (Tiger) or newer. Client support ranges from Windows NT 4 to Windows 7 (all editions) and Mac OS X 10.4 and newer.

I tested LogMeIn using all three Windows browsers and found the color depth and overall performance to be on par with one another. The Web connection to the host is secured using 256-bit AES SSL encryption.

The free version of LogMeIn is limited to the most basic use cases. It provides easy, straightforward access to a host and any resource on the domain, but printing and file transfers are out. If remote access to PCs and Macs is the only requirement, then LogMeIn Free edition is perfect. But for more demanding users, LogMeIn offers the $69.95-per-year subscription.

Remote Desktop ConnectionInfoWorld's Free RAS score: Very good

No list of free remote connection tools would be complete without Microsoft's Remote Desktop Connection. Built into every version of Windows starting with Windows XP, Remote Desktop provides excellent remote access benefits, including remote printer support. Its one downside is that it requires an open port on the firewall in order to access the remote host.

Microsoft has also made available a downloadable version of Remote Desktop for versions of Windows all the way back to Windows 95 and NT 4.0. Host PCs must be Windows 2000 (via Terminal Services), Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2008, or the Professional or Enterprise versions of Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7. There is no host version available for Windows Home editions or early Windows operating systems.

Remote Desktop Connection Client for Mac 2 lets Mac users connect to Windows-based PCs so that they can get to files, applications, and other network resources. This too is a free download, and like its Windows cousin, it allows users to print from the remote host back to the client's printers.

Remote Desktop is one of the best remote access utilities available, not because it is built into Windows, but because of all the extras it includes. First and foremost is its ability to print remotely. Other than Gbridge (when using the Remote Desktop client), no other free remote access tool allows printing from the host to the remote client.

Other features include the ability to pass audio from host to remote, redirect USB/serial ports, connect to smart cards on the client, map drives between host and remote, and share a clipboard. This list covers just about everything a remote worker could need.

Like other remote access tools that require port forwarding, Remote Desktop is difficult to scale to multiple hosts. In small offices running Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 or 2008, remote users have more flexibility. For example, via the Remote Web Workplace portal, users can log into Small Business Server via Internet Explorer, choose their PC from a list of computers on the network, and take it over using Remote Desktop's ActiveX control. This negates the per-PC/per-port requirement normally required for Remote Desktop Connection.

TeamViewer 5InfoWorld's Free RAS score: Very good

TeamViewer 5 allows remote users to control both Windows and Mac computers behind a firewall by way of a small client application. It provides good all-around access to your remote PC, but the free version is limited to noncommercial users only. Remote printing isn't readily available in TeamViewer, but VoIP, video, and conference call support are included.

Like LogMeIn, TeamViewer 5 is firewall-friendly and uses the standard HTTP port (port 80) to connect a remote client to a host computer. Unlike LogMeIn, TeamViewer does not use a browser or intermediate Website. Each side must run a small agent -- either an installed client application or a no-install, memory resident client -- to make the connection. I tried TeamViewer both ways with success. During remote sessions, the installed agent used only 13MB of RAM, while the memory resident agent used just 7MB. TeamViewer 5 works with all versions of Windows from Windows 98 to present, and with Mac OS X 10.4 and up.

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