Whether you're missing a crucial file at work or home, or you just need to tweak one little setting to get Mom's email working again, having remote control of another desktop can be seriously handy. But not everybody can walk the less-tech-inclined through installing a VNC server and opening up their router ports, or have the time to create their own SingleClick tech support tool (cool as it may be). Today, we're looking at the best solutions for getting into a computer remotely, whether you're helping out Uncle Bif, grabbing files from home, or controlling your media server from the lounger. Photo by miguelb.
The tech support solution: From personal experience, the most techno-phobic aunt, uncle, or boss-with-a-favor-to-ask can hook up with you through CrossLoop, a dead-simple app that uses simple access codes to make sure it's the right two screens hooking up. Lifehacker friend The How-To Geek has a full screenshot walk-through on hooking up the connection (remember to have the help-ees click "Unblock"!). If you're truly tech-savvy, you can even make some money in CrossLoop's Marketplace, helping similarly lost souls battle it out with their systems.
The file grabber: Those among our commenters who had the chance to try out Microsoft's Live Mesh service before it opened to anyone who wanted it agreed that once you got the (admittedly clingy) service installed, making remote connections was a nearly pain-free process. It doesn't mind multiple monitors, it serves up crisp graphics (on fast connections, at least), and can even follow your remote computer through a reboot. What's more, you get 5 GB free to store and sync documents to a "Live Desktop," so if you can't wait for a big package to transfer directly, you can log in, start moving it into the 5 GB cloud, and come back later to grab it. The remote connection happens through Internet Explorer (a convenience or drawback, depending on your mindset), but the rest of Live Mesh's tools work fine with Firefox.
Other options: If you shy away from VNC connections more out of security concerns than difficulty level, it's not too much work to create a secure VNC connection with Hamachi. If you don't like dealing with all those port numbers, IP addresses, and such, ShowMyPC wraps up a VNC client, SSH, and a simple two-way password authorization, similar to CrossLoop, but with clients for Linux and OS X as well.
Mac OS X
The tech support solution: One of the Mac's less-touted assets is its super-simple screen, file, and printer-sharing capabilities. With the introduction of OS X Leopard (10.5), it's easy to control how much of your system is shared and to whom, and screen sharing simply requires an enabling click and a password. Better still, another Mac or any ol' VNC client can connect and command. If we had to choose, though, we're partial to TightVNC.
The file grabber: Apple has rolled their $US100/year .Mac service into the similarly-priced MobileMe, but one thing remains the same—they want you to pay them to link together the tools you already have. Adam's guide to getting Back to Your Mac for free still holds true, using a combination of FTP and screen sharing and setting up a domain name for your home network.
Other options: As noted above, Mac-to-Mac connections are seriously simple (at least with Leopard installed). If you're a Mac wizard but still know enough to help a frustrated Windows user, the free program CoRD lets you create a Remote Desktop connection, which is generally faster and more secure than a straight-up VNC link-up. And if you were on a Mac and wanted to grab files from a PC, you're best off using a simple app like FileZilla to build a home FTP server.
The tech support solution: You're telling me your grandmother runs Linux? Seriously? Well, we've got a few options to help her out too—or is it the other way around? If one of the two parties needs n00b-level help, luckily most user-friendly distros will have VNC built in—just head to System->Preferences->Remote Desktop to enable it, and the Linux guru should be able to jump in. But for faster, cross-platform support, our commenters recommend a faster client/server combo: NoMachine NX.
The file grabber: To save yourself a lot of headaches, you're best off learning how to set up an SSH server (as described in Ubuntu's wiki), then open it up to outside traffic, and then get familiar with a little cross-platform command line, like the all-important
scp command detailed in an earlier series by Gina. Not the simplest solution, indeed, but you will have a secure system that you can get to from any operating system.
We've offered up our picks for the best, or just easiest, ways to get onto your computer, or Aunt Margies', but we want to hear from you. What apps make grabbing a file remotely as easy as sliding a mouse? What solutions did we overlook? Tell us in the comments.
Kevin Purdy, associate editor at Lifehacker, admits to feeling like a pretend hacker when he's using a remote desktop client. His feature Open Sourcery appears Fridays on Lifehacker.