Hands-on: 4 remote-desktop services

Remote access to your home computer can be quick and easy.

Remote-desktop software -- which lets you control a computer online through another machine -- can be handy, either when you want to access your own computer or when you need to fix somebody else's off-site. However, until recently, most of the applications were just not user-friendly, requiring that you run them on your own private network or that you set up your own domain address or server.

Fortunately, there are now Web-friendly services that take care of the networking details. Typically, you only need to sign up for an account on their sites and install software onto the computer you want to access. You can then use any other computer with Internet access to connect to your host. No muss, no fuss.

In this roundup, I look at four of these applications: GoToMyPC, LogMeIn, TeamViewer and Windows Live Mesh. They work similarly: You use a Web browser on your client computer to log in and connect to your host; three offer the option of using a separate client program.

Your host computer's desktop appears on your desktop screen as a separate window (or within a Web browser, if you use this method of access). You can then manipulate the remote computer -- for example, you can run programs or, depending on the particular remote-control service you're using, copy files from and to that computer. You can also, if necessary, send a command to reboot the host computer.

Keep in mind that in all cases, the host computer has to be left on. You can set your host to go into standby mode (so its screen switches off and hard drive spins down), but the computer has to stay on so that the host program itself is running.

For my tests, I used two Dell Inspiron notebooks (Models 1300 and 1440, running Windows Vista Business and Windows 7 Home Premium, respectively). The 1300 was assigned as the host and connected to Time Warner's Road Runner cable Internet (which had a download/upload rate of about 20Mbps/2Mbps). I used the 1440 as the client, accessing the Internet through various Wi-Fi hotspots in coffeehouses, bookstores and cafes, where the download/upload bandwidth typically starts at 1.5Mbps/1.5Mbps.

My goal was to see how these remote-desktop services would fare in situations where the Internet connections available for my client computer were wireless and possibly of less-than-ideal bandwidth. Controlling another computer over the Internet is usually not a speedy experience -- when you access a computer remotely and click something on its desktop, there can be a lag of up to a few seconds before you see a result.

So as you read the following, keep in mind that the usability of any remote-desktop service depends a lot on the reliability and bandwidth of both the host and client computers' Internet connections. And this should be obvious: While you can play a video file on your host computer and watch it streamed back to your client, doing so consumes precious bandwidth and will increase the lag of the connection between the two computers.

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