Get IT Done: Remotely control Windows XP from older operating systems

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From a support tech’s point of view, one of the most useful new features in Windows XP is the Remote Desktop feature. With it, you can remotely access a Windows XP workstation without having to personally visit the user’s desk. Almost everything you can do sitting in front of the machine, you can do from the relative comfort of your cubicle.

If there’s one major drawback to Remote Desktop, though, it’s that you need to be running Windows XP from the machine you’re on to access the remote Windows XP workstation. At least, that was a drawback until Microsoft released a version of the Remote Desktop Client for older operating systems. Now, even if you’re running an antiquated Windows 95 workstation, you can still remotely access the newest Windows XP workstation or even a Windows XP Tablet PC workstation.

What is it and where can I get it?
The Remote Desktop Client ships with every version of Windows XP as a part of XP’s Remote Desktop feature. Think of the client and the host versions of Remote Desktop as a mini-version of Terminal Services. The host runs on the machine you want to access, and the client on your desktop. Like VNC or PCAnywhere, Remote Desktop allows you to temporarily take over the host machine, translating mouse movements and keyboard commands from your workstation across the network.

Remote Desktop works well, but as shipped, it works only with Windows XP workstations. If your workstation runs any other version of Windows, you’re out of luck. If you need to access the host system, you either have to physically go to the machine or rely on a non-Microsoft solution like VNC or PCAnywhere.

To solve this problem, Microsoft released a version of the Remote Desktop client that runs on Windows 2000 Professional, as well as comparatively ancient operating systems like Windows NT Workstation, Windows 98, and Windows 95. You can obtain the Remote Desktop Client from Microsoft’s Download Center. The file you need to download, Msrdpcli.exe, is only 3.4 MB, so it won’t take very long to download. This file is also the installer for the client, so you can either save it to a temporary directory on your workstation or just run the file directly from the Web site.

Installation and configuration
If you don’t open the file directly from the Web site, you must double-click the Msrdpcli.exe file to install the client. This begins a Microsoft Installer-based wizard that is fairly simple to use. Just click your way through the wizard. There’s only one potential gotcha and that’s when you get to the Customer Information screen on a Windows 2000 Professional or Windows NT Workstation computer. On this screen, you can choose to have the Installer allow the program to be available only to the user ID you’ve logged into your computer with or to all logged-in users. My recommendation is to make it available to all logged-in users.

After you’ve installed the Remote Desktop client, you can start it by clicking Start | Programs | Accessories | Communications | Remote Desktop Connection. When you do, you’ll see the Remote Desktop Connection screen shown in Figure A.

Figure A
You can run the Remote Desktop client on just about any version of Windows.

This is a very simple connect screen. You can select a computer to access from the Computer drop-down list. When you’ve found the computer, click Connect.

As simple as that sounds, don’t be surprised if the connection is initially refused by the remote Windows XP workstation. Don’t forget that Windows XP is more picky about who is allowed to access it than Windows 9x. You’ll need a valid local account on the workstation or a valid account in the domain that the computer belongs to.

You can gain a little more control over the connection by clicking Options. That will bring up the General tab shown in Figure B. On this page, you can specify an account to use to log on to the remote machine, not just the one you’ve used to log on to your personal machine. You can specify any account on the network, including the Administrator account. Enter the appropriate information in the Logon Settings section. If the user is already logged on remotely, you can only access the machine using that user’s logon information or by using a logon ID with Administrator rights to the machine.

Figure B
The General tab allows you to specify different account login information.

If you click the Display tab, you’ll see the screen shown in Figure C. Here you can control how the remote workstation will appear on your workstation. Remote Desktop will attempt to match your resolution and color settings to that of the remote workstation. You can use settings on the Display tab to customize the appearance. You can even have the remote display appear inside of a window on your workstation.

Figure C
You can control how the remote desktop appears on your workstation.

The Local Resources tab shown in Figure D gives you greater control over remote hardware resources. You can cause Remote Desktop to transmit or block sound that’s playing on the remote workstation to your computer by changing the options in the Remote Computer Sound drop-down list. The Keyboard drop-down list controls special Windows key combinations, either keeping them local to your workstation or sending them across the network. Finally, the Local Devices section allows you to share local drives and printers with the remote workstation.

Figure D
Local Resources controls various hardware resources between the computers.

If you want a certain program to run every time you make a connection, you can specify that on the Programs tab. Just select the Start The Following Program checkbox and enter the name of the program in the Program Path And Filename field.

The Experience tab, shown in Figure E, allows you to optimize the connection based on your connection speed. In a limited bandwidth environment (i.e., if you’re connecting to the remote desktop over a dial-up modem), you may not want to take the time to wait for the user’s background to appear on your machine. Likewise, although things like full window drag and desktop animations may be cool, they can run very slowly over the network, causing you to have to wait for your screen to constantly repaint. Make the changes here that best suit your connection speed.

Figure E
You can match your connection speed to various XP display features.

Finally accessing the workstation
After you’ve customized the settings, you’re done. Just click Connect to access the remote system. The remote Windows XP desktop will appear on your screen just as if you were running XP yourself, even if you’re still stuck with Windows 95 on your own system.


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