We’re not yet living in a Star Trek universe with teleporters to beam us from place to place instantly, but virtual network computing (VNC) and remote access might be the next best thing. Want to check up on a video file that you left exporting to a different format at work overnight? Or need to help troubleshoot a distant employee’s PC? These tools let you assume control of the remote system as if you were there. Your monitor shows a view of the far-away screen, and your mouse controls the remote pointer.
You have several options for configuring and setting up remote control. I’ll explain how to get started with tools built into Windows, and I’ll cover third-party options that may be a better fit for some users. Security is important, too; so I’ll show you how to tunnel through a virtual private network (VPN) to make sure that your data stays safe.
Enable Built-In Windows Remote Access on a Host PC
Remote Access lets you connect to remote PCs without installing additional software, but there’s a catch: The tool lets you create a host machine only in Windows XP Pro, Windows Vista Business, and Windows Vista Ultimate. Any version of Windows XP or Vista can connect as a client, however.
As an administrator in Windows XP, click Start, right-click My Computer, select Properties, and click the Remote tab. Click the checkbox next to Allow users to connect remotely to this computer. This setting will enable you to connect from another computer as long as you know this PC’s administrator name and password. If you want to give people who aren’t privy to this information access, select Remote Users and click Add. Enter the username into the box, and click OK. Click OK again if needed to get back to System Properties. Click Apply.
In Windows Vista, click Start, right-click Computer, select Properties, and click Remote settings in the left pane. Click the radio button next to Allow connections from computers running any version of Remote Desktop. (If you’re connecting exclusively between Windows Vista PCs, click the final radio button for a more secure process.) You’ll be able to connect from another computer if you know this PC’s administrator name and password. To give other people access, click Select Users, click Add, enter the user name, and click OK to permit that access. Click Apply in System Properties.
Connect to a PC With Built-In Windows Remote Access
As I mentioned earlier, any version of Windows XP or Vista can connect as a Remote Access client. Here’s how to establish that connection, especially over a local network. Unfortunately, such connections have limited security; see “Connect Securely With a Software VPN” to learn how to protect your data over the Internet by tunneling through a VPN.
In Windows XP, click the Start button and then select All Programs, Accessories, Communications, Remote Desktop Connection. Enter the name of the computer (if it’s listed on a local network) or its IP address (if it’s in another location). Click Connect.
In Windows Vista, click the Start button and then choose All Programs, Accessories, Remote Desktop Connection. On a local network, enter the name of the PC or browse for its listing. If you’re reaching across the Internet, enter the IP address for the remote PC (or better, connect securely as outlined in the software VPN section below.) Click Connect. Enter your log-in name and password, and click OK. If you’re connecting to an XP PC, you may see a warning; click Yes to connect. Once connected, the host PC will display its log-in screen, while the remote PC is in control.
Your local PC will now behave just like the remote machine. When you’re ready to end the connection, click the X at the top of the screen. To regain control of the local PC temporarily, enter a windowed mode by clicking the frame icon (or click the minimize icon).
A PC has to be powered on to accept a remote connection, but you don’t have to leave it running; Wake-on-LAN (which nearly all recent PCs support in their ethernet hardware) listens for a certain network request to rouse a sleeping computer. Some systems can even boot a mostly powered-off system. In either situation, the networking system uses less power than a wide-awake PC, but it does have to keep one eye open to be ready for reveille.
In Windows XP, click Start, right-click My Network Places, and select Properties. Right-click your network connection, choose Properties, and click Configure. In the Power Management tab, click Allow this device to bring the computer out of standby. Click OK.
In Windows Vista, open the Network and Sharing Control Panel and click Manage network connections. Right-click the connection that gets you online, and then select Properties. Click Continue followed by Configure. In the Power Management tab, click the checkbox next to Allow this device to wake the computer. Press OK.
You’ll need the IP and MAC addresses of the sleeping computer to wake it up. You can easily get these off the PC, but that won’t work if you need to access it remotely over the Internet and if a router stands between the PC and the outside world. In that case, you’ll need to know your router’s IP and MAC addresses. Look up these details in your router’s administration area.
To find your PC’s IP and MAC addresses, click Start, Run, type cmd, and press OK. Type ipconfig /all, and press Enter. Locate the ethernet IP address and the physical address (known elsewhere as the MAC address)–the set of six pairs of numbers and letters that appear beneath the ethernet adapter in the Wireless Network Configuration area.
Once you have those addresses, you can wake up the remote PC with a visit to DSL Reports’ Wake On LAN page. (Just remember to omit the dashes or colons when you enter the MAC address.) If this doesn’t work with your router’s addresses, consult the router’s documentation for instructions on how to open port 9; the wake-up prompt will be sent to that destination.
Connect Securely With a Software VPN
Remote Access and VNC are convenient but insecure protocols; a data thief can easily intercept and read unprotected transmissions. If you connect to a remote PC within a secure, local network, you’re unlikely to be compromised. But you need to take precautions when connecting over the Internet.
A VPN creates an encrypted path for your data. This renders your information difficult to intercept; and if it is captured, a thief will have great difficulty unscrambling the content. Some high-end routers include VPN hosts. If yours does, consult your documentation for instructions on how to proceed. (Actually including a VPN host is different from merely allowing VPN pass-through connections, a much more common router feature.) You could even hack a router to add this capability.
Setting up a software VPN is simpler, though you have to install it on each remote PC that you may need to reach. I like LogMeIn Hamachi, which is free for noncommercial use. Here’s how to configure that tool.
Install and launch Hamachi on both PCs, and then enter a nickname for each. On the host PC, click the triangle icon at the bottom of the window, and select Create a new network. Enter a network name and a strong password, and click Create.
On the client PC, click the triangle icon, and choose Join an existing network. Then enter the network name and password, and click Join. You can now securely interact with the other PC as if it were on a local network. Connect by identifying the computer name, or type the Hamachi IP address (instead of the internal IP address).
Connect With a Free VNC Server and Client
VNC is a traditionally open client-and-server protocol for remote PC control. Many VNC setups are interoperable and span different operating systems; even smartphones can control a VNC-enabled PC. Some host software includes more-advanced features (such as encryption) that work only with its clients, but in most instances you’ll be able to connect across brands in basic modes.
The VNC process is great if your version of Windows doesn’t include Remote Desktop. Instead of activating operating-system tools, you just install host software on the PC that may need to be reached and client software on the computer that will take control. Here’s how to get started with RealVNC.
Download the free version of RealVNC. This app will power basic connections, with a few important caveats. I’m comfortable using it on a secure home network, but I don’t use it online unless I’m tunneling through an encrypted connection, such as with LogMeIn Hamachi. Otherwise, the free edition adheres to the basic, insecure VNC standard. Consider upgrading to a paid version for improved security and many other features.
Run the RealVNC installer on the host PC. In the middle of the process, you’ll encounter a setup screen prompt. Click Configure to enter a password, and then finish the installation. On the client PC, run the RealVNC installer again. If you want to view only the remote system, check the box for VNC Viewer only. Open the client application (Run VNC Viewer), enter the server’s IP address, and click OK. Enter the password, click OK, and you’ll have a connection to the remote PC.
Connect With a Proprietary Service
VNC and Remote Access might be able to satisfy your need to control a remote PC, but they can be complicated, and without additional software, they offer minimal security. In addition, many home routers have difficulty passing the connections to their private network. To offset these limitations, you might want to consider one of several proprietary services.
LogMeIn and GoToMyPC, each available in free and paid versions, can simplify the entire process. You install a server application on the host machine, leave that computer online, and then connect through a Web browser anywhere else. Best of all, since you’re connecting through the Web site, you can reach a home PC with a dynamic IP address, and your router should support the connection. LogMeIn even works from an iPhone.