Access Your Windows PC Remotely For Free
A variety of remote access services will let you reach your computer from wherever you happen to be. But if you'd like remote access without a monthly fee, check out Windows Remote Desktop feature.
by Joseph Moran
Whenever you're away from a computer you rely on, it's nice to have remote access to its files, via methods such as an online storage service or FTP server. But what's even more useful is to have direct remote control over a system so you can get access to applications as well as files.
A variety of remote access services will, for a monthly or annual fee, let you reach out and touch your home or office computer from wherever you happen to be. If you'd like remote access without the monthly fee, however, you may be able to turn to Windows' Remote Desktop feature.
Remote Desktop is available in both Windows XP and Vista, but unfortunately not in every version. It's in XP Professional and Media Center (the latter is a derivative of Professional), but not in XP Home Edition, for example. When it comes to Vista, you'll find Remote Desktop in Vista Ultimate and both corporate versions (Business and Enterprise) but not in Home Basic or Home Premium.
If you have one of the Windows versions with Remote Desktop, your system can be configured to be a "Host" that is, a computer you want to control from a distance. The computer you use to access the Host is in turn called the client, and in most cases it can be any flavor of XP or Vista, or even earlier versions of Windows (more on that in a bit).
Preparing Your Host System
To enable Remote Desktop on a Vista system (remember, it's not available on Home Basic or Premium), click the Start button and then choose Control Panel, System and Maintenance, and System. Next click the Remote Settings link under Tasks in the upper left corner.
Here you have a choice to make: whether you want the system to be accessible from any version of the Remote Desktop client or if you'd rather require the use of a version that supports Network Level Authentication. If you know you'll be using another Vista system as your client, or will use a specific system that you own (say, a personal notebook), you can choose the latter option.
If, on the other hand, you plan to use client computers not under your control such as those belonging to friends, family, clients and so on go for the first option. (If you want to specify any additional remote users on a Vista system, it works pretty much the same way as XP; just click the Select Users button to get started.)
Choosing a Client
In XP you'll find it under All Programs|Accessories|Communications (in Vista it's directly under Accessories). XP and Vista don't come with the same version of RDC, however. Vista is, not surprisingly, the more recent iteration (version 6.0) that among a variety of other enhancements provides better security through support for the aforementioned Network Level Authentication. For its part, XP comes with the older version of the client (5.1), though XP users can get the updated RDC software from Microsoft's Web site at here. (Be advised that you'll have to submit to Microsoft's Genuine Advantage validation process before you'll be able to download it.)
For XP clients the RDC version you need depends on the type of host you're going to connect to. If the host is an XP system, for example, than it really doesn't matter which one you use, since XP doesn't support RDC 6.0's enhancements anyway. But if your host is a Vista system that you've configured to require Network Level Authentication as described above and you want to connect to it via an XP machine, you'll need to download and install RDC 6.0.
Configuring Your Network
If your host system itself is running a software firewall, you'll also want to make sure in advance that it's configured to not reject the incoming port 3389 traffic it will receive (again, check the docs for your specific firewall software for details on how to do this).
Last but not least, when making the connection from client to host you'll need to specify the external, or "global" IP address assigned to your network by your Internet provider. If this address periodically changes (as is the case with most ISPs), then to maintain consistent access to Remote Desktop, you'll need to subscribe to a Dynamic DNS service. (More details on Dynamic DNS and how to set it up is available here:
Making the Connection
Be advised that once you establish a Remote Desktop connection, the host machine will automatically return to the welcome screen (anyone logged into the system will remain that way, however). Conversely, if someone logs into the host during a Remote Desktop session (there won't be any indication that one's in progress) the client's connection will get dropped.
Finally, if you click on the RDC client's Options button before making a connection, you'll find various configuration settings you can use to customize and tweak your session.
Compared to Remote Desktop, many of the subscription-based remote access services offer more features and easier configuration (especially with regard to firewalls). We'll check out some of those next week and discuss when they might make a better choice than Remote Desktop.
Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.
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