Being able to remotely control your own (or someone else) computer from another location and from a foreign computer is very essential for many users. One big reason many need remote access capabilities is so that they can have a peace of mind knowing that they can retrieve any files they may have forgotten on their home or work computers. There are other times when we need to get access to an application installed on our home or work computers that can’t be installed on the computer we are currently using. Or it could be that you simply want to listen to your music collection while you’re in a hotel or something. Remote access allows you to easily control and take over your computer anywhere you may be, as long as you have an active Internet connection (provided nothing else, like a firewall, is preventing access).
I do admit that if you’re not really a road warrior, there isn’t much incentive on needing to have remote desktop capabilities. Tools like Dropbox, for example, allows you to easily sync your documents to the cloud so that you’re never without your documents while on the road. Whatever the case, there are a couple of ways to initiate remote desktop should you need it. Here, I’ll go over three different methods.
UPDATE 2017: This article is largely obsolete in that there are many more options today if you want to remote back in to your computer. The built-in RDP feature in Windows is obviously still there and TightVNC is still available. These two options are good in that you’re making a direct connection to your remote desktop without really having to rely on a third party service. However, LogMeIn no longer offers a free version. Personally, I’m not using any of these. I have been relying on TeamViewer and Anydesk for my remote desktop needs for years and they have served me very, very well! Couple this with the Wake-on-Lan feature and not only are you able to get access to your PC remotely from anywhere but you’ll also be saving on electricity as well!
Remote desktop access is not the same as the Remote Assistance feature in Windows. Remote Assistance, as the name implies, allows you to remotely connect to a remote computer of a friend or family member having computer woes so you can help them troubleshoot the problem. The big difference between Remote Desktop and Remote Assistance is that the latter requires another person to be in front of the computer to acknowledge/permit the remote connection before anything happens. As you can see, you really can’t use Remote Assistance on your home computer as a means for remote access because you can’t be at two places at the same time! Remote Desktop on the other hand is a set-it-and-forget-it ordeal. Once properly configured, you’ll be able to remotely connect to it without any “help”. For more information on Remote Assistance, please read the linked article above.
Remote Desktop in Windows
The good news: Windows has their own built-in remote access technology. The bad news: you must be using Windows 7 Professional or higher (XP Professional, Vista Business or higher) in order to have that computer act as a remote server. Basically, if you have a Home Premium edition (of Vista or Windows 7), then you won’t be able to turn your computer into a Remote Desktop server. However, in those editions, you are able to still use Remote Desktop as a guest. For example, if the computer you are using right now (and want remote access to) is Windows 7 Professional, you can enable the Remote Desktop feature which will turn it into a server. Let’s say you visit a friend across town and want to show him something cool installed on your computer. His own computer is currently using Windows 7 Home Premium. You are still able to use Windows own Remote Desktop utility to make the connection back to your home computer and control it. However, your friend’s computer does not have the capability to be remotely controlled via Remote Desktop from another computer.
1. By default, the ability to remotely connect to a computer is disabled. Believe it or not, all it takes is a couple of simple clicks to enable the feature. Head over over the System applet by right clicking the Computer icon and selecting Properties from the menu.
Look on the left column and click on the Advanced System Settings link.
In the System Properties dialog box, click on the Remote tab. Under Remote Desktop, you’ll need to make a semi-tough decision. If you pick the option of “Allow connections from computers running any version of Remote Desktop”, then it means exactly that. You’ll be able to use any Remote Desktop client version to initiate the connection, including from within Windows XP. The third option of “Allow connections only from computers running Remote Desktop with Network Level Authentication” will only allow the connection to come through if the Remote Desktop client is from Windows Vista and Windows 7 computers. If you are sure that you will never be using a Windows XP or lower edition of operating system to initiate a Remote Desktop connection, pick the third option. If not, you’ll need to opt for the second. You can also select which “standard user accounts” can actually connect back to this computer by selecting the Select Users button and specifying the actual user accounts.
If you are using the default firewall built into Windows, then you don’t have to worry about anything because the exceptions will be made automatically for you. If you are using a third party firewall, you might want to check that the exception is made for you. If not, you’ll have to make it manually and allow for incoming connections with port 3389 (the default port Windows Remote Desktop uses).
2. We now have officially enabled the Remote Desktop feature. But there is still work to be done. Because you are most likely behind a router of some sort and using DHCP to acquire IP addresses for your computers, it’s usually best to configure our remote computer with a static (non-changing) IP address instead. The reason for doing is due to the port forwarding mechanism which I detail in the next step.
To change our network card to use static IP addressing, we need to configure the card’s property values. In the Start Menu search, type in Network Connections and hit Enter. You should now see the network adapters installed on the computer. Right click on your Local Area Connection and select Properties.
Double click on the Internet Protocol Version 4 option. In the resulting Properties box for the adapter, you’ll most likely see that it is currently set to “Obtain an IP address automatically”. Select “Use the following IP address” radio button to input your own configuration information. If you are not sure of what to put, perform an “ipconfig /all” in a command prompt to view your current IP address information.
3. Now we configure our router for port forwarding. By configuring a static IP address for our computer, the address never changes and therefore, the router will always be able to find it once you initiate a remote desktop connection from the outside world. If your computer’s IP address changes frequently (due to DHCP), then there could be chance that the router will not be able to communicate with it because the information in the port forwarding section is different.
To configure port forwarding, you will need to actually log inside of your router. Because there are many different router models available, I can’t possibly know which one you are using. Therefore, the exact steps to configure port forwarding are different for each router model and type. A good place to learn how to configure port forwarding for your router brand and model is from Portforward.com. Basically, you need to configure port forwarding for port 3389 to the static IP address you configured above.
What that basically tells the router is that every time an incoming connection comes in over port TCP/UDP 3389 (which is what Remote Desktop uses by default), forward it to the computer with the IP address of 192.168.1.50 because it will know what to do with it. As you can see, if your IP address changes, this could be a problem.
If these steps are confusing, you might want to use the “Logmein” method for remote access instead.
4. We know have everything set up to begin using Remote Desktop. In order to access your computer from the outside world, you’ll need to know your public IP address (the one assigned to you by your Internet Service Provider). You can either check for this in your router’s status page or head over to What Is My IP.
On another computer, open up the Remote Desktop Connection utility by searching for it in the Start Menu search. Before actually initiating a connection, you’ll definitely want to spend a little time configuring some options. Remember, we are accessing our remote computer over an Internet connection. If that connection is slow (if you are in a hotel for example), you’ll want to save bandwidth by turning off unnecessary features. Hit the Options button and you’ll see a couple of tabs in which you can configure your settings. For example, you can configure the resolution to be displayed, the color depth for the remote session, starting a specific program upon connection, displaying desktop background, drives to share or whatnot and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Once configured, you can opt to save the profile for future use. In the Computer field, you’ll need to input your public IP address as found earlier. Next, enter your user name in the appropriate section. If everything goes smoothly, you’ll be presented with a credentials dialog box asking for the password of your account.
If that proved successful, then you’ll be presented with your desktop! The remote computer will be logged off and cannot be accessed until you end your remote session.
TightVNC has been around for a while and they gave everyone the opportunity to initiate remote desktop connections. Yups, no matter what version of the Windows operating system you are using (heck, they even have an older TightVNC version that supports Windows 95), TightVNC got you covered. Therefore, if you have Windows XP Home or a Home version of Vista or Windows 7, than you’ll definitely want to take a look at this free remote control software.
1. You can download TightVNC from here.
TightVNC consists of a server piece and a viewer piece. You’ll want to install the server piece on the computer you want remote access to. Install the viewer piece on the computer you will be using to initiate the remote access connection. You’ll be able to select which piece to install during the installation of TightVNC.
You will next be greeted with the additional tasks window. By default, all three options are enabled. The only one you really should think about is the first one, labeled “Register TightVNC Server as a system service”. As stated on their website, there are two ways to run the server component of TightVNC. The first way is as a system service. Basically, this is saying that TightVNC will be run “every time” the computer is turned on. It doesn’t matter if anyone is actually logged on or not. The second way is running TightVNC as a program, which is what most casual users are familiar with. In order to initiate a remote session with TightVNC, you must have already started the program. If not, then no connection will be made. Don’t think too hard though because you’ll always be able to install and register the TightVNC service post installation.
2. Once TightVNC is install, we now configure some basic access settings. Start the TightVNC program (“Run TightVNC Server” in your Start Menu). You should see the TightVNC icon in the notification area. Right click on it and select Configuration.
First up is the Server tab. The first thing you’ll want to set is the port number in which you want TightVNC to listen to for incoming connections. Sticking with the default port is fine but I recommend you changing it for security reasons. Here, I’ve changed it to port 6001. The next important configuration is the TightVNC’s authentication password. You’ll definitely want to require authentication for obvious security reasons. You are allowed to set a primary password along with a view-only password. The maximum password length oddly is only 8 characters. Under the Miscellaneous section, you can opt to enable file transfers, hide the desktop wallpaper, and whether or not to show the notification icon in the system tray area.
There really isn’t anything I changed in the Access Control tab. I’m guessing here is where you can define IP addresses to deny from initiating remote sessions to your computer.
In the Administrator tab. you’ll want to set a password for the Control Interface. This ensures that every time you or someone else want to change configuration information for TightVNC, they must type in this password. Under “When last client disconnects”, I chose Lock Desktop (please read the blockquote below). Session Sharing allows you to specify how to treat multiple remote sessions. If you are the only one who will be initiating remote connections to the computer, the options here shouldn’t affect you.
If you’re not installing TightVNC as a service, please do not make the mistake of choosing the option to Lock Desktop like I did! You’ll initially be able to log on (provided that you started TightVNC and didn’t log out) and do your work but once you exit the remote session, TightVNC will do what you told it to do and lock your desktop. It’s weird because even if our desktop is “locked”, we didn’t actually “log out” so the service should still be running. Well, that’s not the case. If you try to reconnect again, you’ll be presented with a nice and clear black screen! It’s best to just install and register the TightVNC service. That way you’ll be able to remotely log on no matter the circumstances.
3. Now that TightVNC is configured, we now need to make a port forwarding exception for it. Please visit Portforward.com for instructions on how to access the port forwarding section for your specific router. Also, if you haven’t done so already, you’ll want to set a static IP address for your computer. I mentioned how to do this in step 2 in the Windows Remote Desktop section above. You’ll need to correctly port forward either the default port of TightVNC or the one that you have manually specified.
4. We are now ready to initiate the connection. On another computer, make sure you have installed the TightVNC Viewer piece. Open it and play with the options a bit to suit your needs. Type in your public IP address followed by two colons and then your port number, as seen in the picture below.
If you did everything correctly, you should be presented with a TightVNC password box. Once done so, you’ll be logged in to your remote computer! You are able to perform many additional tasks (like initiating a file transfer between computers) by utilizing the buttons toolbar up top.
If all that port forwarding and static IP configuration scares the heck out of you, worry not. Another option is available. Rather than performing all the setup work ourselves, we are simply going to let a third party online service create the connection for us! The main advantage of using a third party online service to remotely access our computer is for simplicity sakes. Don’t get me wrong, you are still using the “Internet” in the previous two methods I’ve listed above but those dedicated remote access programs are using their own ports. With Logmein, they are using basic HTTP and HTTPS (port 80 and port 443) for the remote session. Basically all routers understand how to handle these protocols (as they are widely used for basic Internet access). Therefore, hardly any configuration is necessary on the client’s part other than installing the necessary agent on the computer. No port forwarding of any sort needs to be performed. If you want more information on how Logmein actually works, then I advise you read over this security whitepaper.
1. Logmein comes in two versions: Professional and Free. If all you need is basic remote computer access, then the free version is all you’ll ever need. However, if you need to perform more important tasks, like transferring files, then you’ll need to purchase the Professional version. The good news is that Logmein will automatically start you up with a trial of the Professional version for a month or so.
You can create an account with Logmein here.
To add computers for remote access, all you need to do is download a small piece of software and install it on that computer. That’s it! The software is about 15MB in size and installs just like any other program. You should encounter no problems whatsoever. Once done, the Logmein service will then start whenever you log into Windows as evident by their icon in notification area. By default, everything works out of the box. No configuration is needed on your part. However, you can tweak extra security settings by opening up the Logmein program from the notification area.
2. To begin a remote session with that computer, you’ll need to log in to Logmein’s website from the computer you want to initiate the connection from. Everything will be done within your browser. Cool isn’t it? Logmein Central should be displayed and within the Home tab, you should now see your remote computer. Hit the big green Remote Control button to initiate the connection.
If you are currently using Firefox as your browser, you should be presented with a pop-up at this point recommending you to install the Logmein Firefox plug-in. Let me save you some thinking right now. JUST DO IT! Controlling my remote computer without the plug-in installed was a total nightmare. Not only were the colors disoriented, but the speeds at which I controlled things on my remote computer was crippled with slow speeds and lag. Once the plug-in was installed, the experience was much, much better. I’m talking about day and night differences.
Next, you’ll be presented with the credentials dialog box. As stated, enter your Windows user name and password.
3. At this point, you should be successfully logged in on your remote computer and you can begin doing whatever it is you need to do.
You’ll notice all the different options and tools you can play with. That’s mainly due to the professional trial account Logmein has granted you. Once the trial period ends, I’m sure many of these options will disappear. However, the fact remains that you can still freely use Logmein to remotely control a computer.
No longer need to utilize Logmein services? Simply delete the computer within your Logmein’s account and uninstall the agent on the computer. That’s it.
Notes to Consider..
– By utilizing remote desktop capabilities, the remote computer must be turned on! But does it really make sense to leave our computer on all the time while we are away? From an energy standpoint, that’s hardly efficient at all. Therefore, in order to take advantage of being able to remotely control your computer while still conserving energy, the computer should support a feature called Wake-on-LAN. When you leave your house, you would put your computer either in the Standby or Hibernate stage. Thus, this helps you conserve energy. With Wake-on-LAN enabled, the network adapter still has power. When you need to remotely access the computer, a special packet is sent to the network adapter and if everything works correctly, the computer should “wake up” and be read for access remotely.
– By using either Windows Remote Desktop or TightVNC, you’ll need to actually know your current public IP address ahead of time before making the connection. Remembering a single IP address isn’t that hard but the problem here is that your public IP address can change from time to time! Your ISP can change your public IP address all without you knowing it. Normally, this isn’t a problem for most users. However, it is very important if you have a server of some sort that needs to be accessed by others. The IP address is like a house address. Imagine the difficulty you’ll have in finding a friend if they constantly moved from location to location! You could request to have a static address assigned to you but that will cost money and it’s not usually meant for home users. So how do we solve this problem?
One simple solution is to use the Logmein service. The agent installed on the remote computer should be able to detect when your public IP address has changed and when it does, it can notifcy the changes back to the Logmein’s servers. The next time you initiate a remote connection to your computer (which had a recent public IP address change) via Logmein’s website, the connection will be successful because the IP address has been correctly changed.
A poor man’s solution would be to simply figure out what your current public IP address is before heading out. As you can see, this isn’t really practical. While it is fairly simple to find what your current public IP address is at the moment, there isn’t any guarantee’s that it won’t change between the time you leave your house and when you actually initiate a remote connection.
A third option is to use a free service such as DynDNS. DynDNS helps assign a hostname to your public IP address. That way rather than having to type (and remember) 184.108.40.206, you can instead type in Mycomputer.blogdns.com. A list of free domains to pick from can be viewed here. DynDNS allows you to install their client on your computer to help track when your public IP address changes. Once it does, the client software will automatically update their records back at DynDNS headquarters all without you having to do anything. Once everything is configured, anytime you need to use Windows Remote Desktop or TightVNC, you simply use your DynDNS assigned hostname (which never changes).
In the End…
Remotely accessing a computer is extremely easy as I presented three different methods here for doing so. Accessing a computer remotely allows you to easily help a friend or family member with computer troubles. Unless you enjoy traveling between cities on your day off to help fix your aunt’s computer, remote computer access is a must.
If you want a native method of performing remote access, Windows Remote Desktop is for you. There really isn’t anything to install and all you need to do is configure proper port forwarding. Own a version of Windows that doesn’t support Remote Desktop as a host? Then your next option would be TightVNC. It’s free, easy to configure and works fairly well, although it’s a bit on the slow side. The best part is how easy it is to transfer files from the remote computer back onto your local computer. If setting up port forwarding and static IP address is not your thing, then your last option is to rely on online based services like Logmein. This is the easiest setup as all it requires is you installing a small piece of software on the remote computer. So easy, even your aunt or grandma can do it.