Smartphones are all about being connected — to the Internet, to your data, and even to your work computer's desktop. Although we can now store much of our information in the cloud and access it from anywhere, there are still times when you may need to connect to the desktop of your work computer to run a program or a script, shut down something, or check on something that's running on that machine.
Remote desktop connection
If your work computer is a PC that runs Windows XP Professional, Windows Vista Business, Windows 7 Pro, or a Windows Server operating system, you can set it up to be a remote desktop server; this will allow you to be able to connect to it over Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) from your iPhone/iPad, Android device, or Windows phone.
To configure your Windows computer to accept Remote Desktop connections, follow these instructions for Windows 7.
Be sure your firewall is configured to allow RDP. By default, RDP uses port 3389.
The next step is to install an RDP client app on your smartphone. There are a number of these apps available for different phone platforms.
- Android clients include Omnidesk, Wyse PocketCloud, and Remote RDP. (Remote RDP comes in a Lite version that's free, a regular version that costs $9.98, and an Enterprise version that's $19.98. The Enterprise version supports TLS/SSL encryption and bidirectional audio. The Lite version doesn't support touchpad mode, drive mapping, sound, clipboard, or auto-rotation).
- iPhone/iPad clients include Remote Desktop Lite - RDP by MochaSoft, iTap RDP by HLW, and Splashtop Remote from Splashtop, Inc. In October 2010, Splashtop was reported to be the number one paid iPad app in four countries (Australia, Japan, Korea, and the United Kingdom), the number two app in Canada and China, and the number one paid business app in the United States.
- Windows Phone 7, ironically, does not yet have an RDP client available in the Marketplace (the app named Remote Desktop is actually a VNC app). Many Windows Mobile devices come with a remote desktop client built in, and there are several clients available for download from various websites.
The remote desktop service that's built into Windows is handy, but what if you want to connect to the desktop of a Windows edition that doesn't include it, such as a Home edition (which some small businesses are still running)? Or what if you want to connect to the desktop of a Linux computer? In those cases, you can use one of many VNC programs.
To use VNC, you'll need to install a VNC server service on the PC to which you want to connect remotely, since that service isn't built in like RDP (in some editions of Windows). Then you'll install the VNC client on the mobile device.
iTeleport is a VNC app for iPhone/iPad. You'll find several VNC apps in the Android Market, including Remote VNC Pro, In-Hand VNC, and clients that support both RDP and VNC, such as Wyse PocketCloud Pro. The Remote Desktop application in the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace, despite having a name that would lead you to think it's an RDP client, is actually a VNC client.
Another way to connect remotely to your computer's desktop is via web-based services. You may be familiar with GoToMyPC or LogMeIn. LogMeIn Ignition allows you to use the LogMeIn service to connect to your work desktop from an iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch or Android device, or from another Windows PC. Ignition for Apple devices can be purchased through the App Store, and Ignition for Android is available in the Android Market. The app costs $29.99 and can be used to access the desktop of either a PC or a Mac. With LogMeIn, you can use multitouch gestures to navigate the remote desktop, and you can log in automatically without having to type your computer's password.
Another option for Android users is PhoneMyPC from SoftwareForMe. You install one piece of software on your PC and another on your phone, and both connect to the PhoneMyPC servers using SSL encryption. If the phone and PC are on the same LAN, they connect directly without going through the Internet for better performance. In addition to remotely controlling your PC, you can get snapshots of the PC screen and save them to your phone.
The experience of using remote control software or services on a phone, whether RDP, VNC or a web service, is a bit different from using it from a client that is a laptop or a desktop system. One big problem is the screen size — with most of the remote programs, you will only be able to see a part of the PC's desktop at one time, rather than the entire desktop as you can with a full-sized client computer. This can make it difficult to navigate.
Another difficulty in navigation is caused by not having a mouse or other pointing device, so you'll have to use keyboard controls to do things you would normally do with the pointing device. There are keyboard combinations for zooming in or out, accessing the toolbar, right clicking, and other activities, so there can be a bit of a learning curve until you've memorized all the combinations.
You may also experience a lag in performance, especially over a 3G network; this can make it very difficult to perform routine tasks via the remote desktop connection.
And a common complaint is that most of the remote desktop apps are expensive relative to other apps for phone platforms, ranging from $4.99 to $29.99 or even more. The cost often deters users from experimenting with different apps to find the one that works best for them.
Despite all of these drawbacks, the ability to connect to your desktop from your smartphone can be a lifesaver in some situations, and RDP, VNC, or various web based services will get the job done. However, don't expect the experience to be as seamless and snappy as when you use similar programs in a PC-to-PC setup.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.