Parallels Access 2 review: Control your Mac (or PC) from your iPad or iPhone

Parallels Access 2.0 is a remote-access app that lets you view and control your Mac or Windows machine from any iOS device. You can connect either over a local network, or (as long as both machines are connected to the Internet) over the Internet.

Version 2 of Parallels Access includes a new file browser, an iPhone version of the iOS app, the capability to use your iOS device's microphone to dictate to Mac apps, multiple screen-resolution options, and a wake-on-LAN feature. Combine those changes with new lower subscription pricing, and the second version of Parallels Access is a remote-access solution worth considering.

Setting it up

To set up Parallels Access, you first install the free Parallels Access app on your iOS device(s), and then sign in to your Parallels account. On your Mac, you download and install an agent which handles the interactions with the iOS app.

Installing both components is straightforward, though the Mac agent requires you to provide your admin password (as you might expect for an app that lets you control your Mac remotely), and it doesn't include an uninstaller. If you ever want to uninstall the agent, you need to download a script from the company's web site, and then run that script from within Terminal. To me, this is not an acceptable solution--there's no reason a user should have to visit a website, download a script, and then execute it in the intimidating Terminal just to remove an application. The uninstaller should be a part of the Mac app itself.

With the app on your iOS device and the agent running on your Mac, you just need one more thing: an annual subscription, which costs $20 for one year (or $30 for two years) and allows you to access up to five computers. (The subscription cost for the original version of Parallels Access was $80 per year per computer, so the price has been lowered dramatically.) The company offers a free 14-day trial, so you can see how well the package works before committing.

And committing you will be, as subscription plans auto-renew, with no way to opt out of the auto-renewal at signup time. Subscriptions are also non-refundable, so once you buy, you're in. These subscription "features" are skewed heavily in Parallels' favor, especially as one-year plans expire and consumers find themselves paying for a non-refundable second year they may not really have wanted.

About the agent

The Mac agent app displays a systemwide menu that hosts only a few menu entries: Turn Off Access, Preferences, Check for Updates, Report a Problem, About, and Quit. In that Preferences window, you can access your Parallels account settings (though this actually opens a webpage in your default browser), and enable or disable access to the Mac.

The Advanced tab in Preferences contains a number of useful settings. In particular, if your Mac is in an office or other visible location, you'll want to check the "Lock this computer when working remotely" box (it's not checked by default). This option prevents others from being able to view your screen while you're working via your iOS device.

One other setting of interest is the (checked by default) "Participate in the Customer Experience Program." Parallels provides no in-app information on what this program is or how it works. I had to search the company's website to find the details. While the program description states that Parallels simply collects configuration data, the related privacy policy adds that Parallels can collect information on "Program use, such as the features that you use the most often and how often you use Help resources." Depending on your feelings about sharing your usage habits with third parties, you may want to disable this setting.

Another concern is the lack of in-app documentation on either OS X or iOS--there's no help to be found, not even a Read Me with the installer. You can access some video help for gestures from within the iOS app, and there is a downloadable user's guide, but you'll only find a link to it when logged in to your Parallels account in your web browser.

Putting it to use

There are many remote access apps for iOS that display your Mac's screen on your iOS device, and then let you interact with the desktop as if you were sitting in front of the Mac. The downside to this approach is that you're not sitting in front of the Mac; you're using a touch-based device with a relatively small screen, so the desktop-and-mouse metaphor really doesn't work well.

Parallels Access takes a different approach: After connecting to a Mac running the agent, the iOS app opens to an app-launcher screen. (You can use Parallels Access in the traditional "full desktop" manner, but the launcher screen is the default.)

This screen will look familiar to anyone who has used OS X's Launchpad, as it's basically a big screen of icons. Tap an icon on your iOS device, and the chosen application launches on your Mac.

By default, the Access launcher shows a subset of apps from the Applications folder, in a seemingly random order. Parallels explains that the subset is based on an analysis of the apps you use most often, along with a set of apps that they expect most Mac users will use. These apps are displayed with the most-recently-used apps listed first, then the set of expected-to-be-used apps.

Personally, I found this layout to be confusing, as I expected to see apps listed in alphaetical order, with perhaps a most-used section at the top. Thankfully, a search box lets you find apps by name, and Edit and Add buttons let you easily rearrange, delete, and add apps.

One limitation of the launcher is that you can launch only programs that reside in the main Applications folder (/Applications), or subfolders of that folder. If you have programs on an external drive, you cannot launch them (even by searching) from the launcher, nor can you manually add them to the launcher screen. It doesn't even include applications in user-level application folders (~/Applications). The only way to launch programs outside of the main Applications folder is via the file browser (more on that in a bit).

To see which apps are currently running on your Mac, tap the red overlapping-boxes icon at the bottom right of the launcher window. This opens the App Switcher, which displays a row of icons at the bottom of the screen showing all running programs and their open windows. (If you have more running apps than will fit, you can scroll this area by swiping with a finger.) This is the Access equivalent of the Command-Tab application switcher in OS X.

You can tap any application in this display to switch to that program. For programs with more than one window, tap the numeric indicator at the top of the icon to show all the program's windows. You can then open any window with another tap.

Instead of trying to recreate the desktop experience, Access's interface is designed to help you complete tasks and work with apps. This approach to working remotely on a Mac is very easy to use, and it makes a lot of sense, as you're typically accessing your Mac to do a specific task.

I tested Parallels Access on both an iPad mini and an iPhone 5. While the app is usable on both, the experience is much better, as you'd expect, on the iPad. On the iPhone, getting anything done requires either superhuman eyesight or lots of scrolling around, but it does work in a pinch--say, if you're stuck with just your iPhone.

Working in apps

Once in an app, that app's window takes up your iOS device's full screen, along with a specially modified app-specific menu bar: You won't see the Apple menu, nor will you see any of your systemwide {{Is that really one word? Weird.}} menu extras. But you will see that program's full set of menu commands, so you can do whatever you need to do within that app.

Along the right side of the screen is the toolbar, a five-icon palette that lets you quickly access the app switcher or launcher, browse files on your Mac, activate some special modes (via the gear-icon button), and show or hide the onscreen keyboard. If you find that the toolbar gets in your way, a quick rightward swipe along the right-hand side of the screen will hide it; reverse the gesture to display the toolbar again.

Tap the gear-icon button in the toolbar and a palette (visible in the screenshot here) pops up from the bottom of the screen. Buttons on this palette lets you display a row of special keys (Escape, Tab, Delete, Home, End, and so on) while working, activate mouse-pointer mode (as an alternative to iOS-style tap-to-select), switch to desktop mode (which shows the Mac's entire screen), change the desktop resolution (to see more or less of your windows), enable or disable the microphone, watch videos on using gestures in Access, and send feedback.

Access also includes some touch-specific features that make working via an iOS device more efficient. For example, Smart Tap technology tries to adjust for off-target taps, so that your tap winds up where you thought (or at least where Access thinks you thought) it should be. I was impressed by how well this feature seemed to work--even when I thought I'd mis-tapped a menu item, for example, Access frequently activated the proper button or command.

Similarly, if you want to select text in, say, BBEdit on your Mac, you do so just as you would in an iOS app: tap-and-hold to display the cursor, position the cursor, release the tap, and then choose Select from the pop-up menu. When performing mouse clicks, a single tap is a standard mouse click, while a two-finger tap is a right-click.

If you prefer a more Mac-like point-and-click experience, you can use the gear icon in the toolbar to activate a typical mouse pointer. This mode also places two mouse icons on screen: one for left-click and one for right-click. You can view your full Mac desktop by tapping the Desktop icon in the gear menu of the toolbar.

Working with files

With Access's standard mode being application centric, you might think that you'd have to switch to its Desktop view to work with your files in Finder. But thanks to Access's Files mode, that's not the case. Tap the Files icon at the top of the launcher, or on the Toolbar, and you'll enter a Finder-like interface that's optimized for the screen size and touch experience of an iOS device.

In the file browser, you can view your files in icon or list views, and sort them by name, date, or size (though the actual size isn't displayed). Tap and hold to drag a file to a new folder, or tap to open a file. When you tap a file, your Mac will open the file using the app that created it, and Access will then present that document on the screen of your iOS device.

Switch to Edit mode in Files mode, and you can copy, move, rename, and delete one or more files at a time. You just select the desired file(s), then choose the desired operation in the sidebar. You can also use Edit mode to open a particular file with an application other than its default, as well as to create new folders.

In my testing, Access's file browser was much faster and easier to use than trying to manage the Finder in the traditional remote-desktop view. The file browser is also the only way to open applications that don't reside in your Applications folder.

The bottom line

Parallels Access is a unique and well-thought-out remote-access solution. It offers both the traditional "show me my Mac" view and an application-centric view that I found easier and more productive to use. Access's Smart Tap technology really made a difference in my taps, regularly registering where I wanted to tap instead of where I actually did.

On the downside, the in-app documentation is lacking, you can't add programs outside of the Applications folder to the launcher, and Parallels opts you in to a data-collection program without your approval.

However, Access's $20-per-year pricing is probably it's biggest stumbling block. That fee lets you access up to five Macs from anywhere you might be, so if you travel a lot, it's probably a reasonable expense, but if you only occasionally need to control and use your Mac from afar, you may be better off with one of the pay-once alternatives, such as Screens ($20), iTeleport ($25), or VNC Viewer (free).

This story, "Parallels Access 2 review: Control your Mac (or PC) from your iPad or iPhone" was originally published by Macworld.

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