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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.

What's That Term?
Not sure what a particular term means? Check out the searchable PracticallyNetworked Glossary.

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 turn on Remote Desktop on an XP Professional/Media Center system, head to the System Properties dialog (right-click My Computer and select Properties), click on the Remote tab, and put a check mark next to Allow users to connect remotely to this computer. Anyone with an administrator account on the system will automatically have rights to remote access, but if you want to give the capability to anyone else, clicking the Select Remote Users button will allow you to add new users from among the existing accounts on the 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
Once you have the host system configured, it's time to turn your attention to your client. You can connect to the host system through a client utility called (logically enough) Remote Desktop Connection (RDC), that you'll find installed on all versions of Windows XP and Vista.

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
Although configuring a system to act as a Remote Desktop host is a breeze, getting the connection to work through a router/firewall takes some doing. First, you'll need to set up a port-forwarding rule in your firewall so that incoming traffic on port 3389 gets delivered to your host system. (Check your hardware's documentation for the correct procedure.) It's also a good idea to configure your host system with a static rather than dynamically assigned IP address, which would render your port-forwarding rule useless when the address changed).

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
To connect to your host system, fire up the RDC software, and in the computer field, type your network's the IP address (or your Dynamic DNS domain name, if you go that route). After clicking Connect and entering your account username and password, your client system will display a full-screen view of the host, and you'll have full keyboard and mouse control over it. The yellow bar centered at the top of the screen will allow you to switch your RDC session to a window, minimize it or shut it down.

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.

For more help, don't forget to try one of our PracticallyNetworked Forums.

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