The Next Best Thing to Being There

Use a distant PC as if you were sitting in front of it

By Robert Luhn

If you frequently spend time away from a PC that you need to access, a remote-control program may be just the thing for you. Slap a little software on both computers, make sure they're both turned on, and you can dial in from the other PC to grab a copy of that forgotten presentation, run a program, delete files, or even check your e-mail. In short, you can use a distant PC as if you were sitting in front of it.

The granddaddy of remote-control programs is Symantec's PCAnywhere. Both Netopia's Timbuktu Pro and AT&T's WinVNC, however, give PCAnywhere some compelling (and cheaper) competition. Just remember that casual users won't find remote-access programs easy to operate.


  PCAnywhere has impressively strong security: You can use three forms of encryption (including public key) to protect communications, and you can verify remote callers via authentication schemes ranging from HTTPS to Novell LDAP. Timbuktu Pro is easier to set up and use, and it has much clearer documentation than PCAnywhere. Meanwhile, WinVNC is strictly for techies with a masochistic bent, but its viewer runs on more than 30 platforms.

Windows XP Professional does carry a built-in remote-access feature known as Remote Desktop, but even if XP Pro is your PC's operating system, you might want to consider third-party software for enhanced controls and heightened security.

My shipping copy of PCAnywhere 10.5 had loads of setup wizards, convenient dialog boxes for checking off various controls (for example, you can limit the time allowed per session), and some very cool tools that my downloadable copy of WinVNC and the shipping Timbuktu lack. The optimization wizard can boost performance by downshifting the PC's screen resolution and encryption, by shrinking the desktop, and so on.

You can sync and update files between two PCs with a click, copy clipboard contents back and forth, and even record a session for later playback (although that playback To transfer files, you load the dual-pane File Manager and drag files from the window for one PC to the window for the other. When you click a button on the toolbar at the top of the screen, the host PC's desktop appears. From there, you can open the host's Start menu, run its apps, and more.


  But Symantec's documentation needlessly complicates setup and use. It's poorly indexed and sometimes incomplete; it also drops advanced features into the middle of basic setup discussions. And you can't easily tell which PC you're running, especially when the host's desktop appears in full-screen mode and covers PCAnywhere's toolbar. In contrast, Timbuktu Pro always displays a little tag that identifies the active PC.

Finally, PCAnywhere's behavior is a little erratic. You'll set a control (such as a timeout), and it won't work the first few times; then for no discernible reason, it will.

Now, if you're fond of editing Windows' Registry, using command-line switches, relying on vague documentation, and having no formal support, you'll love WinVNC 3.3.3r9. Developed by AT&T's U.K. research center for accessing in-house PCs, WinVNC is popular with network administrators because it's free, flexible, and stable, and its viewer can run on many different platforms. But it clearly wasn't written for the commercial market. And its own manual admits that it isn't very secure.

Once you make a connection, running a host's desktop is similar to using PCAnywhere. But you can't transfer items, sync files, or open a chat session. The program has a decent set of access and security controls, but you'll have to edit Registry keys to use some of them. In short, despite its price, WinVNC just isn't ready for prime time.


  In contrast, Timbuktu Pro for Windows 4.5 is what PCAnywhere should be: cleaner, leaner, and more logically organized, with a straightforward manual. From a central panel you select the connection type (say, Dial Direct or TCP/IP), and the appropriate options appear. Enter the host's phone number or IP address, select access privileges from a menu, and you're ready. Once you're connected, you can click icons on the panel to move files (via a file manager like PCAnywhere's), take control of the host's desktop, chat, and so on.

Timbuktu can't match PCAnywhere's suite of controls, or its encryption and authentication features, but the Netopia program has some useful extras. For example, you can access a PC over the Net via the computer's primary e-mail address--a handy capability if the host's ISP assigns dynamic IP addresses. With its Flash Notes (instant messaging) service, you can attach and send files to the other PC. You can even grant remote users' requests for expanded access rights, on the spot.

If you've got to have extra authentication, encryption, and goodies, go with PCAnywhere. But Timbuktu Pro makes life a lot easier and has a solid feature set. Given a choice, I'd pick the latter.

From the April 2002 issue of PC World magazine

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