We live in a world where a computer is never more than an arm’s length away, whether it’s your phone, your tablet or even your watch. But sometimes, you have to perform tasks that need an honest to goodness, full-featured computer.
Other times, you need access to files that you don’t have on you, or maybe you want to make sure that a large file that needs downloading or transferring is ready and waiting for you when you get home.
Whatever the reason, remote access programs give you direct control of your computer from the devices you carry with you everyday, when you need it most.
So how does remote access work? Desktop sharing is made possible via a server component, which is installed on the computer you wish to control, and a client app (or viewer) that’s installed on your remote device. Once a network connection is made between the client and server, everything you do remotely is replicated exactly on your server PC.
Traditionally, the remote client device was a PC or laptop, but most remote access platforms now let you use a smartphone or tablet as well.
Maintaining control of a PC from your handheld device is surprisingly easy. While each Remote Access app has its own specific way of doing things, for the most part, you can control your PC’s mouse cursor by dragging your finger around on the screen – some even give you the option to skip the cursor and just tap the things you want to click on. Your device’s touchscreen keyboard can be used for any text that you need to input.
Access to your computer isn’t open to everyone, though. Your server computer needs to have given login permission to the client computer or device that wants to remotely access it. This usually involves setting up a unique PIN or password, which the remote device will need to know in order to get in. This provides a layer of security to desktop sharing experience.
There are numerous factors involved in choosing the right service for your needs. Some remote access apps are free of charge, but might not offer everything you need. Other services are subscription-based, for which you’ll need to pay a monthly or yearly fee.
Another chief concern is convenience and ease of use – you’ll want a service which will give you access to your server from whichever device you happen to use, whether it’s an iOS, Android or Windows smartphone or tablet.
With that in mind, we’ve taken the liberty of testing and reviewing the most popular and well-regarded remote access apps available to help guide you to the right service for your needs. Given how mobile we’ve all become, we’ve paid particular attention to how well the smartphone and tablet clients work.
Chrome Remote Desktop
With the Chrome Remote Desktop extension installed on your server computer’s Chrome browser, you’ll be able to assume control of it from any other Chrome Browser that you logged into (your connections become tied to your Google account) or from the Chrome Remote Desktop Android or iOS app.
Security is provided by a six-digit PIN, so you don’t have to worry about people opening your browsing and having full access to your files.
Controlling Chrome Remote Desktop from a smart device is a breeze, with a responsive app that features two control methods – Touch Mode gives you touchscreen control of your desktop, while Trackpad Mode gives you a mouse pointer for more accuracy. A touch keyboard can be brought up at any time, but it lacks most function keys.
Pinch, zoom and scroll functions are also available, but It’s not ideal for multi-monitor setups. Still, it’s the easiest and cheapest remote access solution out there.
Verdict: Might not be as feature-packed as some paid options, but it works great and is the most hassle-free remote access software you’re likely to find.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Setup is a piece of cake, you just have to download and run GoToMyPC’s software on your server computer, create a login and then connect to it from your iOS or Android device using the slick GoToMyPC app.
While your desktop display is crisp and clear, there is noticeable lag between actions on your server and remote computers.
Mouse controls are also awkward, as you have to tap and drag around a transparent mouse icon to move your cursor. As the pointer rests above the mouse icon, we had a tough time trying to reach anything on the Windows taskbar.
Still, you can use GoToMyPC to transfer files and print remotely, which works well, but we just can’t get over how expensive it is US$19.95 a month (almost US$240 a year) is a ridiculous price to pay for an experience that isn’t all that special.
Verdict: GoToMyPC gets the job done, but is flawed and hugely expensive.
Price: US$19.95 per month
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5
LogMeIn is a premium remote access application that runs smooth, looks great and is easy to use, however all of this comes at a significant cost, especially when compared to most other remote desktop services.
Setting up LogMeIn is incredibly easy. Simply create an account, download and install the LogMeIn software client, and add the computer you’re on to LogMeIn’s list.
From here, you only have to download and login to LogMeIn’s accompanying iOS or Android app to find your connections there waiting for you.
Your desktop will be replicated with total clarity, with multiple resolution and colour options available if you want to simplify things. Mouse movements are smooth and instant, and you also have the option of running a diagnostic toolkit on remote machines.
While LogMeIn is impressive in every respect, casual users will want to steer clear of its exorbitant prices, starting at US$99 a year for two measly devices, and up to US$449 a year for ten devices.
Verdict: LogMeIn is great, hard to recommend at those prices.
Price: $US$99 per year
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Your apps are laid as icons, like on OS X’s Launchpad or a smart device home screen. Opening an app presents it in fullscreen mode. You can swipe between open apps by tapping on the window icon on the right side of the screen.
While this is a novel approach, all of your apps aren’t immediately accessible and it’ll require some awkward searching around to find the rest. Thankfully, a more traditional experience can be acquired by adjusting the settings.
When Parallels Access is actually replicating your desktop, it works very well. Touch and mouse pointer modes are available (with special function keys and right and left click buttons), and you can still cycle through apps easily if you want to avoid manually moving windows around.
Parallels Access is smooth and speedy, though you can get a similar experience elsewhere for free.
Verdict: Very good, but other free options are just as good.
Price: $19.99 a year
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
First of all, you’ll likely need a bit of knowledge regarding firewalls and ports and encrypted connections in order to set it up.
Our initial attempt to install the RealVNC client on a Mac ran into some hurdles regarding occupied ports which took some time to address, though the Windows installation ran much smoother.
Once everything is up and running however, RealVNC works remarkably well. Actions are translated instantly between remote and server computers, with differences between the two only measurable in nanoseconds.
Mouse control is fast and accurate, scaling could be smoother but works well nonetheless, and its keyboard is the most full-functioned we’ve come across.
RealVNC does everything well, however we’d only recommend it to people with intermediate computer skills. Clients are available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux computers.
Verdict: RealVNC is perfect for administrators and people who know their way around computer settings, but novices should find something else.
Price: Free for private use
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
TeamViewer: Remote Control
With over two hundred million users, TeamViewer is arguably the most popular remote access service in the world – and that many people can’t be wrong. Featuring a range of advanced features, TeamViewer lets you connect to multiple computers and even host meetings remotely.
Admittedly, TeamViewer’s app didn’t leave an amazing first impression with its default touch settings, however after some tinkering with input methods and screen resolutions, the app worked fantastically.
Its keyboard also provides access to special function keys along the top of the screen.
You can opt to prioritize speed over quality, however the app is remarkably fast on either setting – lag feels almost non-existent. While picture quality is quite fuzzy, the response time makes that sacrifice acceptable.
There’s a free version for personal use that works well, though you’ll have to get used to annoying pop-up messages thanking you for being “fair”. However, If you’re a bit of a big-shot, you can opt to purchase a business or corporate package.
Verdict: Advanced features and quick response time makes TeamViewer a winner.