Comprehensive Guide To Using Your Home Computer From Anywhere

Your home computer is the perfect machine. It's customised to your exact needs, runs all your must-have apps and holds every important file you'd ever need to access. The catch: it's not exactly practical to lug a computer with you everywhere you go. That's where remote access comes in. Here are three simple ways to control your home computer from anywhere -- your laptop, phone, or even a friend's computer -- as though you were sitting directly in front of it.

We've talked about remote access countless times before, but if you're just starting out with the subject, it can be pretty overwhelming. You have stacks of different programs to choose from, some of which only work on certain platforms, and each of which has their own strengths depending on what you're trying to accomplish. Here, we'll share our favourite remote access methods for different situations, as well as alternatives you can try if our favourite doesn't work for you.


Windows

Windows to Windows: Use the Built-In Remote Desktop Connection

Windows users have a lot of options, but we really like Windows' built-in Remote Desktop Connection for its Windows integration, high level of control, and the fact that it doesn't require any additional software to set up. Note that you'll need Windows Professional or higher for this feature to be available -- Windows Home and Home Premium users will have to try one of the alternatives listed below -- but that's usually pretty easy to get at a low price. Here's how to use it to access your Windows computer from another Windows machine.

Note that if you only want to access it from the inside of the network, you can just perform the steps in Option One, ignoring the first step of downloading and setting up Hamachi. Just fire up Remote Desktop, type in the name of the computer you want to access, and connect.

Option One: Connect to Your Home Network with Hamachi Hamachi is a simple program that sets up a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, in just a few clicks. When you take your laptop out and about and you connect to your VPN with Hamachi, your computer acts as if its on your home network, which means you can access your other computers hassle-free -- no need to forward ports or remember complicated IP addresses. It requires installing a separate program, but it's a program we recommend you have anyway -- in fact, you shouldn't be using public Wi-Fi without it, since it keeps all of your data safe from prying eyes. Here's how to use it in conjunction with Windows Remote Desktop.

  1. Download and set up Hamachi on both your home computer and your remote computer using our how-to.
  2. On the computer you want to access remotely, click the Start menu and search for "allow remote access". Choose the "Allow Remote Access to This Computer" option. You'll get something like the window to the right. You'll want to check one of the bottom two radio buttons, depending on how you'll be accessing the computer. If you're accessing it from another Windows 7 machine, you can use the more secure "Allow connections only from Remote Desktop with Network Level Authentication". If you're accessing it from other programs or versions of Windows, choose the "Allow connections from any version of Remote Desktop" option. Click OK when you're done.
  3. On your remote computer, go to the Start button and search for "Remote Desktop". Choose "Remote Desktop Connection", and type in the name of the computer you want to access (like STEVESCOMPUTER or LIVINGROOM -- the name you gave it when you installed Windows. (If you're not sure what your computer is named, go to the Start menu, right-click on Computer, and scroll down to "Computer Name".
  4. Click "Connect". Log in with the username and password you use on your home computer to gain access.

That's it! From now on, you should be able to connect to your home computer any time by starting up Hamachi, connecting to your VPN, and repeating steps 2 through 4. Remember that you need Hamachi running on your home computer and the computer you're connecting with, so your best bet is to let it start up with Windows and run in the system tray.

Option Two: Forward the Ports On Your Router Your second option is to forward the ports on your router so that you directly connect to your home computer from the internet. It takes a bit more initial setup, but you don't need to install any extra software. That said, if you're going to be browsing on public Wi-Fi, we recommend using Hamachi to secure your browsing anyway, so Option One is your best bet -- but if you're going to use Remote Desktop from a friend's house or other secure location, you can use this method if you want.

  1. From your home computer, log into your router's administration page and forward TCP port 3389 to the computer you want to access, as described in this how-to.
  2. Find your home computer's public IP by going to http://whatismyip.org and write down this IP address. Unfortunately, this public IP address could change at any time, leaving you without access. So, we actually recommend you also use a service like DynDNS to create a very simple domain name that you can use to connect your computer and using that instead.
  3. On the computer you want to access remotely, click the Start menu and search for "allow remote access". Choose the "Allow Remote Access to This Computer" option. You'll get something like the window to the right. You'll want to check one of the bottom two radio buttons, depending on how you'll be accessing the computer. If you're accessing it from another Windows 7 machine, you can use the more secure "Allow connections only from Remote Desktop with Network Level Authentication". If you're accessing it from other programs or versions of Windows, choose the "Allow connections from any version of Remote Desktop" option. Click OK when you're done.
  4. Once you've left the house, go to the Start button on your remote computer and search for "Remote Desktop". Choose "Remote Desktop Connection", and type in the IP address you found earlier (or your DynDNS name that you set up).
  5. Click "Connect". Log in with the username and password you use on your home computer to gain access.

From now on, you can connect to your home computer just by repeating steps 4 and 5. There are no advantages to this method beyond not having to install Hamachi -- they both run at about the same speed and the experience is otherwise identical once you connect.

As you can see, Remote Desktop requires a bit more initial setup than something like TeamViewer (see section 3 of this guide), but it's really worth it for the speed and great Windows integration it brings you. Not only does it match the resolution of your remote computer, so it really feels like you're using that machine -- but you can copy and paste text or files just by pressing Ctrl+C as normal in the Remote Access window, then pressing Ctrl+V to paste them onto your current computer. I also recommend you check out the options available in the Remote Desktop Connection program -- you can choose how much of your display to show, whether to show high quality graphics, which hard drives to share, share your printer and lots more.

Its main downsides are that it isn't exactly the prettiest option, and that it doesn't support multiple monitors at all. The resolution thing might also be a downside for some. I like it because it makes it feel more like the computer's in front of me, but it will resize all your windows to fit the new resolution and you'll have to fix them once you get home. I recommend you give both Remote Desktop and TeamViewer a try, because they're almost equally good in my opinion (though they each have their own strengths and weaknesses).

Other Windows to Windows Programs As I said above, you should definitely try TeamViewer as described in the cross-platform section below -- it's just as good as Remote Desktop, and if you have multiple monitors, it's going to probably be even better. It will require a bit more setup (like creating a TeamViewer account and installing some software), but it's worth it. Remote Desktop seems to be a bit more responsive when typing and clicking, though TeamViewer seems much smoother when it comes to moving around windows. Give them both a try and see which one you like better.

Other popular options for Windows include screen-sharing clients like UltraVNC. TightVNC is also popular (and available on Linux), though UltraVNC is a bit more feature-filled. Both clients let you access your computer from any web browser as well, which is nice, but they're also a bit more complicated than Remote Desktop or TeamViewer. You can check out our how-to for TightVNC here.


Mac

Mac to Mac: Use the Built-In Screen Sharing

OS X has a pretty great Screen Sharing feature built right into the OS, and you can use it to access any Mac from another Mac in no time at all. Here's how to use it.

Note that if you only want to access it from the inside of the network, you can just perform the steps in Option One, ignoring the first step of downloading and setting up Hamachi. Just fire up Finder, navigate to the computer you want to access, and click Share Screen.

Option One: Connect to Your Home Network with Hamachi Hamachi is a simple program that sets up a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, in just a few clicks. When you take your laptop out and about and you connect to your VPN with Hamachi, your computer acts as if its on your home network, which means you can access your other computers hassle-free -- no need to forward ports or remember complicated IP addresses. It requires installing a separate program, but it's a program we recommend you have anyway -- in fact, you shouldn't be using public wi-fi without it, since it keeps all of your data safe from prying eyes. Here's how to use it in conjunction with OS X's Screen Sharing.

  1. Download and set up Hamachi on both your home computer and your remote computer using our how-to.
  2. On the computer you want to access remotely, head to System Preferences and click on the Sharing Pane. Check the box that says "Screen Sharing". Then exit System Preferences.
  3. On your remote computer, start up Hamachi and join the VPN you created in step one. Then, open the Finder and scroll down to "Shared". Find the name of the computer you want to connect to under the "All" option, double-click on it, then click the Share Screen button in the upper right-hand corner. Log in with the username and password you use on your home computer, and you should connect immediately.

That's it! From now on, you should be able to connect to your home computer any time by starting up Hamachi, connecting to your VPN, and repeating 3. Remember that you need Hamachi up and running on your home computer for this to work, so don't forget to start it up before you leave the house!

Option Two: Forward the Ports On Your Router Your second option is to forward the ports on your router so that you directly connect to your home computer from the internet. It takes a bit more initial setup, but you don't need to install any extra software. That said, if you're going to be browsing on public Wi-Fi, we recommend using Hamachi to secure your browsing anyway, so Option One is your best bet -- but if you're going to use Remote Desktop from a friend's house or other secure location, you can use this method if you want.

  1. From your home computer, log into your router's administration page and forward TCP port 3389 to the computer you want to access, as described in this how-to.
  2. Find your home computer's public ip by going to http://whatismyip.org and write down this IP address. Unfortunately, this public IP address could change at any time, leaving you without access. So, we actually recommend you also use a service like DynDNS to create a very simple domain name that you can use to connect your computer and using that instead.
  3. On the computer you want to access remotely, head to System Preferences and click on the Sharing Pane. Check the box that says "Screen Sharing". Then exit System Preferences.
  4. Once you've left the house, start up Hamachi on your remote computer and join the VPN you created in step one. Then, open the Finder and go to Go > Connect to Server. Type in vnc://12.345.678.90, using the IP address or DynDNS address from step two. Click Connect, log in with the username and password you use on your home computer, and you should see the Screen Sharing client pop up.

From now on, you can connect to your home computer just by repeating step 4. There are no advantages to this method beyond not having to install Hamachi -- they both run at about the same speed and the experience is otherwise identical once you connect.

Screen Sharing is really, really simple to set up, but it isn't without a few downsides. Namely, you can't share files directly between your remote computer and the one you're currently using. Of course, you could just use something like Dropbox to work around this problem, but it's kind of annoying. You can, however, copy text in one machine and paste it into the other, so that's at least nice. And, if you use screen sharing often, be sure to check out previously mentioned ScreenSharingMenulet for instant access to your machine from your menu bar.

Other Mac to Mac Programs Apple has a few other remote access options for you on OS X. iCloud's Back to My Mac is pretty similar to Screen Sharing, and is very easy to set up through iCloud -- though we've found it to be a bit less reliable than the built-in Screen Sharing method. You can also check out Apple Remote Desktop, which lets you share files, run Automator scripts, and do a lot more advanced things -- but for the somewhat high price of $US79.

Lastly, you also have the cross-platform TeamViewer, described below. It requires some extra software and creating an account with the TeamViewer service, but you'll get better file sharing features and quite a bit of control over your remote machine. If Screen Sharing isn't cutting it, TeamViewer is definitely worth a shot.

If You're Accessing Your Computer Across Platforms: Use TeamViewer

If your home computer and remote computer run different platforms -- say, if one's Windows and one's a Mac, or one's a Mac and one's Linux -- you can use the awesome, cross-platform TeamViewer. It's pretty simple to set up, and has some very nice features. Here's how it works.

  1. Download and install TeamViewer on both your home computer and remote computer. Start it up and create an account by going to Connection > Set Up Unattended Access. This will make all your computers accessible over the internet with just a quick username and password combination.
  2. Log into your account on your home computer. You should see that it's already been added to TeamViewer's list of machines. Leave TeamViewer running in the background when you leave the house.
  3. Run TeamViewer on your remote machine and log into your account. You should immediately see your home computer in the list. Double-click on it to start a remote session with that machine.

It really is that simple. Sure, it requires creating an account and downloading extra software, but it's worth it. You can share files between machines (though not quite as easily as you can with Windows Remote Desktop), you can view multiple monitors, and configure advanced View settings to make it run as smoothly as possible. Even if you're trying to connect two Windows computers or two Macs, I'd still check out TeamViewer in addition to our platform-specific choices above -- it's very good, and might offer you a few advantages over the other options. Note that TeamViewer also has an iPhone and Android app, if you want to connect from your phone, as well as a web client, if you're on a friend's computer and don't want to install any extra software on their machine.

Other Cross Platform Programs TeamViewer isn't the only cross-platform option, but it is our favourite for its simplicity. LogMeIn is TeamViewer's closest competition, though its biggest strength is its $US13 a month Pro version that adds things like drag-and-drop file transfer, file sync and more. It's only accessible from a web browser and has a slightly more confusing setup, which is why we gave TeamViewer the edge.

If you're connecting from a Windows computer to a Mac, you can use a screen-sharing client like TightVNC or UltraVNC to connect to your Mac running the built-in Screen Sharing. Just download one of the clients and use the Hamachi method or the IP address you found in Method Two to connect.

For more options, check out our guide on troubleshooting your family's computer from afar, as well as our Hive Five on the best remote desktop tools.


That seems like a lot of information, but all of the above options are pretty darn simple to set up -- you just have a lot of choices as to how you want to do it. What's your favourite way to connect to your computer remotely? Let us know what you prefer and why in the comments below.


Comments

    I don't know if its me or Hamachi, but in the last few months my hamachi connections are all now relayed tunnels, and it is sooooo slow, it is unusable. It used to be a good service when the connections were fast.

    You missed one major free product with the Windows side. Windows Live Mesh. Not only does it give a small amount of cloud storage (5Gb) you can also remote into your PC by logging in via the live.com website.

    logmein is free and pretty decent as well, you can even Wake-On-LAN

      I did some trials for work a year or so ago, and we went with logmein - primarily because it worked in a bunch of network situations that teamviewer crapped out on. We also have ye olde vpn+terminal server for most users.

      For home use I just use ssh. Tunnelling works as easily as vpn, but I mostly just use the terminal.

    surprised the word "firewall" is not on this page at all? (before this comment)

    Splash Top Remote FTW!

    I believe that the default port for VNC in OSX is 5900, not 3389 a stated in this article. It is worth mentioning that if you are opening ports on your router you want to make sure that you have very secure passwords for these services as you are leaving yourself open to brute force attacks.

    Hamachi is not required for OSX as it has an inbuilt VPN server that can be activated and configured with a few terminal commands. Alternatively VPN activation and configuration can be achieved using the very affordable OSX Server upgrade purchased through the Mac App Store or the even cheaper iVPN software.

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