By Stephen H. Wildstrom Unless you do all your computer work on a laptop that is always at hand, you have probably found yourself in desperate need of information stored on a PC somewhere that you weren't. Two new services, GoToMyPC and LogMeIn, promise simple and secure access to your computer from just about anywhere -- provided, of course, that you leave it on, and online.
Remote control programs such as Laplink and Symantec's (SYMC) PCAnywhere have been around almost as long as PCs. Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows XP Professional even includes a feature called Remote Desktop Access. But all of these require setting up a direct network connection between two computers, and they are easily frustrated by firewalls and other network complexities.
THROUGH FIREWALLS. GoToMyPC, from Citrix Online, and LogMeIn, from 3am Labs, make access a lot easier. To use either of these similar products, you start by installing a program on the Windows computer you want to control remotely and registering with the service. When you want to connect to your home or office PC, you log in on a Web page, then select the PC you want to connect to from a list of computers that you have registered. In theory you can do this on any Internet connection, but in practice dial-up will be too slow to give satisfactory results.
As soon as the server sets up a network path between the two computers, you're ready to take control. Your target computer need not have any user logged in, but it must be on and physically connected to the network. The log-in procedures are different for the two services, but each queries you for passwords on three separate occasions. All traffic between computers is encrypted from end to end.
Because the services use standard Web communications techniques, they work through most, though not all, corporate firewalls without intervention from information-technology departments. You may, however, run into trouble if you are trying to get into your PC from a public computer, such as those in libraries or hotel business centers. These may not permit you to download the application you need to establish remote connections.
PRICE DIFFERENCE. Although the computer being accessed must run Windows, you can use GoToMyPC from any browser that supports Java. That includes Macs and even Pocket PCs, though the latter's displays are too small to be of much use. LogMeIn can be used from Windows computers and Pocket PCs but not Macs.
Once a connection is established, the screen of the remote PC appears in a browser Window, which can be expanded to fill the screen with a single click. Your typing, mouse movements, and clicks act just as though you were working on the remote computer, though with a noticeable lag. (How bad the lag is depends mainly on the speed of your connection.)
There is one fundamental difference between the two services: GoToMyPC costs $20 a month after a free trial for 30 days or one hour of cumulative use. LogMeIn's basic version is free but lacks some features of GoToMyPC, including file transfer between two computers and the ability to print from the remote computer to a printer where you are working. A paid version of LogMeIn, at $13 a month, adds those services.
MORE THAN ADEQUATE. GoToMyPC is the more powerful of the two programs. It offers more flexibility in matching screen resolutions, especially if the PC you're working on has a smaller display than the remote one. And its more accurate rendering of the screen enhances the feeling that you are actually working at the remote computer.
But free is a good price, and LogMeIn is more than adequate for a lot of users. It also lets you set up multiple computers on a single account, so you can run your home PC from work and your work machine from home. When you need something badly and it's on a computer far away, either of these services can be a lifesaver. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek