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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Remote Control Everything!

I have 3 different computers in the house, and at least 3 network-capable handheld devices. The computers and the gadgets are not in the same room, and in pursuit of my tech-writing hobby, I am constantly having to run up and down stairs to different machines to retrieve files/data or to run some program that I isn't locally installed. It can be a real pain. Let's face it, it's also just plain cool to have the power to remotely access your computers and gadgets from one central place. It's what I call the command center experience (like being on the bridge of the USS Enterprise). Your command center may have a few different elements than mine, and if you truly want to get all geekified, you can control stuff like your stereo and other A/V equipment. I'll stick to the basics of setting up your home computers, and a Windows Mobile handheld device so that you too can easily have the power of remote control over your tech-gear.

My basement command center...XP/Sun Machines

The upstairs computer lair...Vista PC

You might ask why in the world would you want to do this? I already explained my reasons, but maybe you aren't a technogeek writer with gadgets and computers all over the house. Why would you need to access them anywhere but wherever they are located? Good question, and for the most part, maybe you don't. Still, you might consider some other useful purposes. Maybe you want to take a peek at what your kids are doing on their computer, for example--I know, not the most honest way to be more involved in their lives, but sometimes you have to intrude into their space to really know what's going on. Another reason to use an R/C app on multiple computers is program compatibility. I have a Windows XP machine, a Vista laptop, and a Sun Ultra box that runs Solaris 10. If somethig doesn't run on Vista, I can easily try it on XP, not by running down 2 flights of stairs to my basement, but by simply opening up the R/C app on my Vista Machine. Even though I can't remotely control the Sun's user interface, I can at least telnet into it and run command-line commands--mostly I use it to monitor network traffic as it runs a specially configured firewall. My basement XP computer is also the computer with all my movies, e-books, pictures, music and a ton of programs, and other useful files. It's nice to be able to quickly open a window and browse or retrieve files from my remote machine.

OK, so that's cool, but why would I want to control my handheld, or use my handheld to control my computer? That's just stupid. Maybe not. Let's say you're in a meeting, and need a document. You don't have the information with you, but remember that it is on your home computer. You do have your mobile phone. Guess what, you can easily log into your home machine remotely through your cell-phone or PDA, access your home computer desktop, and open or even e-mail yourself the file. When you get home, you may have mobile applications on your phone that you do not have on your PC. Instead of squinting into a tiny display, you can run them on your more spacious PC desktop, and also benefit from the PC mouse and keyboard control of your handheld. Obviously there are different flavors of remote control. You can control a PC or multiple PCs remotely from your mobile, even from out on the internet, or control your device across your home network. Some apps in this genre are more simplified, giving you access to only specific things like folders or music. Let's take a look at the range of tools available for manipulating both PC and Windows Mobile remotely.

1. Online R/C Services: There are a number of services available on the web that enable you to easily remote control one or several PCs on your home network. Several offer PC and mobile client applications or at least some level of browser-based login service that can provide remote access to your desktop. The drawback to these services in my opinion is that they almost always require a connection to the internet server of the provider in order to function, and premium features are usually on a subscription basis. If you simply want to control stuff in your own home network, you still must actively connect to their servers on the web first in order to do so. I also don't like the fact that they often install services on your home computer that could make you more vulnerable to attack (warning: this is a danger with nearly every R/C application). Some examples I have tested on my own home network:

I'm InTouch-www.01com.com: User-friendly internet service with Windows Mobile client for accessing your desktop PC. Has a strong feature-set for checking e-mail, remote desktop control and more.

GoToMyPC Personal-www.gotomypc.com: Popular remote PC connection service that offers good desktop control features via your mobile device/PC.

Laplink Everywhere-www.laplink.com: Connect to your PC through online services.

2. Local R/C Services: Many people may not realize that Windows always had a remote control feature built-in to the OS called Terminal Services, and later referred to as Remote Desktop Protocol or Connection. Terminal Services allow a Terminal Services client to connect from a remote computer, establish a session, and control the desktop of the computer remotely through a GUI (graphic user interface) application window running on the remote machine. Windows Mobile devices even have a terminal services client built-in as well. However, there are several other applications (many are free), that do this much better than TS.

z2 Remote2PC-www.z2software.com: My pick for connecting and controlling your desktop from anywhere using another PC or Windows Mobile--some advanced firewall tweaking skills may be in order to use the remote features, but no subscription fees! PC-PC basic control is free, but the WM client and advanced features require a purchased license.

VNC-www.csd.uwo.ca/~magi/doc/vnc/index.html: Open source remote control product that is platform independent, meaning you can theoretically connect to your PC from any other machine type, providing the proper VNC client is installed. Completely free for private, not-for-profit use. RealVNC is a follow-on commercial effort by some of the original VNC developers, which has a free edition available here (http://www.realvnc.com/products/free/4.1/index.html).

3. Device-side R/C Services: The need for most users to remotely control a phone or handheld is probably not as common as going the other way, but a number of useful products have popped up over the years to do this, some with more robust features than others.

Pocket Controller-Professional-www.soti.net: Copy files, monitor resources, run a DOS shell, screenshots, make movies of your device actions and more... It's the total WM remote control experience, but not cheap!

MyMobiler-www.mymobiler.com: Very robust remote control application that is free, but some controversy exists over It's need to open FTP ports on your PC.

True Connect-www.raspberrysoftware.com: Solid control application, but lacks network support, so not really that useful for our purposes. Also NOT free...

Actually there are more services and applications that could be considered R/C in nature, but they only provide a subset of control features. For the sake of sanity and brevity I won't cover them all here. There are even ways to make non-standard A/V equipment as well as your home electrical system show up on your network (and be remotely controlled), but this is clearly beyond the scope of simple R/C for computers. In Part 2, I'll tell you how to set this all up. For now, go and check out some of these great products, and maybe grab a copy of z2 Remote2PC, as we will be using it in part 2....

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