Learn to control your PC from a 1000 miles away


18 December 2010  

Ever been away from home and wished you could get at your computer for just a second to get some contact info? There are any number of reasons why setting up your computer for remote access is a good idea, and it is going to show you how to do it.

The ability to access files and information on your computer over the Internet is useful for work and play, as well as being just plain impressive in a geeky kind of way.

Several technologies are available to enable this kind of access. They range from from the shared file system built into most versions of Windows up to the proprietary
systems developed for such software packages as PCanywhere by Symantec.

Generally, these technologies fall into one of two categories;
1) accessing files remotely
2) accessing and controlling the desktop remotely

File access is (quite obviously) intended to allow you to access your files from a remote location using the Internet, while remote control of the desktop brings the entire desktop of your home computer over to the computer you are currently using, allowing you to use your home computer as if you were currently sitting in front of it. At least, that's the idea anyway.

This article will cover using the remote access features included in Windows XP, as well as VNC (Virtual Network Computing) and other third party software to allow you to
control and access your computer over the Internet from anywhere in the world.What exactly is a remote desktop? Well, the idea of remote desktop software is to enable you to operate your home computer as if you were seated in front of it, from a remote, internet-enabled computer.

Ideally, the entire working environment of your computer is brought over the wire to wherever you are currently sitting, eliminating the need for synchronizing files between

laptops and desktops. Whether you are working away from home or office, or simply allowing users to access their data from any web enabled location it doesn't matter.

Current remote desktop software does have some drawbacks. The most major of which is the simple fact that the current technology does not allow for lag-free control of a computer over a remote connection.

Invariably the computing experience will be slower using remote control software than it would be if the user were seated in front of the actual machine. This is the case
because of the time it takes to transfer each move of the mouse and keystroke over a standard 10/100 network connection, and to return the results. The slower the
connection (or father away the computers), the less responsive it will be.

Development and tuning of remote access software has been ongoing for many years, and arguably the most well known (free) implementation of this is VNC , or Virtual
Network Computing. VNC is a free multi-platform remote control package which enables you to view and interact with a remote computer. It will run on most known
operating systems and requires very little computing power.

VNC has two components, the server and the viewer. The VNC server allows other computers to connect with your computer remotely, and the VNC viewer connects with
the server and must be installed on the client machines. The viewer authenticates with the server using a session password, which is set when the VNC server is opened.

Generally speaking, VNC connections over the Internet are not secure, since the traffic sent is not encrypted in any way. Thus, it is not advisable to use them for sensitive data. In practice, though, it's fine for everyday use. Using a form of encrypted connection such as a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is recommended for business use. The use of VPNs will covered in an upcoming guide on PCstats.

Installing and running VNC server

VNC is a no-frills remote desktop software package. There is no way to transfer files remotely using VNC, though you can still copy and paste text from documents across

the link. Included in the latest version is a simple web server that allows computers to connect to the VNC server machine using only a web browser, removing the
necessity to install the VNC viewer on the client machine.

Download the latest version of VNC (server and viewer) from www.realvnc.com if you would like to install it on your computer and follow along with the next few step. Once installed, to run the VNC server go to start/programs/realVNC and select 'run VNC server.' You will be prompted to enter a session password which anyone attempting to connect to the server must enter.

With VNC server now running, double click the VNC icon on the taskbar to get the options menu.From here we can specify the type of connections to accept; socket (via the VNC viewer) or Java (via a web browser). You can also specify whether or not the remote viewer can control the session with their mouse and keyboard, or only watch the screen using the 'disable remote mouse and keyboard' checkbox. This feature can come in handy if you wish to demonstrate something to a remote user, and also gives VNC some great classroom applications for demonstrating software procedures.

You can disable the mouse and keyboard on the local (server) box while the VNC server is active if you wish to make sure that no-one can interfere with your remote
session. Combine this with the option to lock, or log off the system when the VNC client disconnects for greater local security.

Connecting to a VNC server consists of two easy steps. Using the VNC client, run the client software and enter the IP address of your VNC server computer (note: to find
the external IP address of your home system, go to start/run and type 'cmd' to bring up the command prompt, then type 'ipconfig'). You will be prompted for the password once the connection is made.

VNC will open up a window containing your remote desktop, which you can now control as if you were sitting at that computer yourself. Some software will not work, or will
not work well over this type of link however. Any 3D game or application is likely to fail, as are movies. The general rule of thumb is that any software which requires
specific use of a 3D accelerator video card, or rapid refreshing of the desktop will either not work or be unusable.

To connect with a standard InternetExplorer browser via Java, bring up your browser and type 'https://(VNCserverIPaddress):5800'. This string will tell the browser to attempt to connect to port 5800 (VNC's default port) on the server. This should bring up a password prompt, which once entered will bring the remote desktop up in the browser.

Performance is notably worse in the Java mode, but it has a few convenient extras such as the ability to view the contents of the clipboard via a button at the top of the

Given that it is completely free, VNC offers an extremely valuable service. One can easily access and control any computer on a network or over the Internet. If you are
accessing another computer in a local network (LAN), you can substitute the computer name for the IP address. Also, if you are using DSL, or some other non-static IP
internet service you can still use VNC by creating an account with one of the many free dynamic DNS providers such as www.no-ip.com and entering the URL that they
provide you instead of an IP address. Keep the security limitations in mind though. VNC is not recommended for business use without additional security measures such
as a VPN.