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Stay in Control With Remote Access Services

Microsoft's Remote Desktop is free, so why would you pay for a service? For starters, Microsoft doesn't offer Remote Desktop in Windows XP Home, Vista Home Basic or Windows Home Premium. But even if your version of Windows has Remote Desktop, a remote access service is easier to configure.

by Joseph Moran

Last week we took a look at Remote Desktop, a Windows feature that lets you remotely access and control your system from a distance. This week we'll explore an alternative way to achieve the same thing — using a subscription-based remote access service.

Why would you consider paying for a capability that Remote Desktop gives you for free? There are a number of possible reasons. For starters, Microsoft considers Remote Desktop a business feature, and as such they leave it out of the Windows versions you're most likely to use at home or in a home/small office — you won't find Remote Desktop in Windows XP Home, Vista Home Basic or even Windows Home Premium.

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Even if you have a version of Windows with Remote Desktop, a reason to consider a remote access service is that they're generally a lot easier to configure when it comes to getting your remote connection to work through a broadband router's firewall.

Some quick review — firewalls automatically discard any unsolicited inbound traffic, so in order for your Remote Desktop connection to get through, you must create a port-forwarding rule pointed at the system you want to get to.

Then, in order for that firewall rule to always point to the correct system, you need to assign it a static IP address. And if the ISP-assigned IP address for your network changes periodically — as is typical — you'll also need to set up Dynamic DNS so you'll have a consistent way to access your system. When using Remote Desktop in a corporate environment, firewall and addressing issues can be solved various ways, including setting up a special gateway server or using a VPN (Virtual Private Network), but these methods often aren't feasible or cost effective for home users or small businesses.

For their part, subscription-based remote access services get around connectivity problems by using a small software agent you install on the system you want remote access to. The agent sets up a link with a gateway maintained by the remote access service provider, so the system it's running on will always be accessible even when its IP address — or the address of your entire network-changes.

Also, since the agent is in constant contact with the server, your remote connection attempt isn't unsolicited traffic, which means it will work without any advance firewall configuration — much like instant messaging software does. (If your remote PC is running a software firewall, you'll still have to configure it to allow the agent's outbound communication, of course.)

There are a number of good remote access services to choose from. Citrix's GoToMyPC is perhaps the oldest and best-known (and also happens to be the most expensive). Other popular services include WebEx's PCNow and LogMeIn.

Each of these remote access services provide a similar set of basic remote capabilities like remote control, printing, and file transfer, and all of them conveniently allow you to control a remote system via a browser plug-in. All three services offer free 30-day trial periods so you can try before you buy. (LogMeIn only gives you 2 hours of actual remote access time during its trial period, but it's also the only one that also offers a service — albeit a version with several features removed — that you can access free of charge.)

So what will the convenience of a remote access service cost you? Monthly pricing to access a single PC is $12.95 for PCNow and LogMeIn and $19.95 for GoToMYPC. That's pricey, but signing up for an annual rather than monthly payment plan will net you a considerable discount (some services discount more than others, and naturally you have to ante up for the entire year's service in advance). The remote access services also offer discounted pricing when you sign up the same account to control multiple PCs — even as few as two.

When setting up two or more machines for remote access, the systems don't necessarily need to be in the same place. This can be helpful when you regularly need to access a system that's not yours — say, one of a family member you provide tech support for.

Next week, we'll look at another way to provide remote technical support that's related to Remote Desktop, Windows' Remote Assistance feature.

Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.

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