Review: Free remote access tools for Windows and Mac

The best free tools combine firewall friendliness with easy remote access and an amazing array of handy features

For anyone whose work follows them wherever they go (and whose doesn't?), a remote access solution is an easy sell. With a remote access tool, your office computer can be reached from home, your home computer can be reached from the office, and both can be reached from your hotel in Omaha or Maui or wherever you happen to be. Remote access means nothing ever gets left behind -- except maybe your laptop.

Best of all, a good remote access tool doesn't have to cost you a dime. There are plenty of good free tools available, and some of them are downright excellent. In this review, I examine seven of the most popular free remote access tools available for Windows and, in four cases, Mac users. Many of the free tools listed here also have paid versions that offer additional features (such as support for remote printing) or licensing (extra host computers or clients). For some users, the paid version will be the only true option.

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As you read about each tool, you'll notice that I put a lot of emphasis on remote printing. I rely on remote access tools on a daily basis, and in most cases I need to be able to print to my remote PC. For someone that just wants to check their home/office email account or view documents from outside the office, all of the utilities here will work fine. But for those trying to get some serious work done, remote printing may be the deal breaker.

Check out these free remote access tools for Windows and Mac.

DESKTRA Freedom Desktop 1.1InfoWorld's Free RAS score: Fair

DESKTRA Freedom Desktop is a Windows-only utility that provides good remote access but is limited in functionality. Only available for 32-bit versions of Windows, DESKTRA's host component installs as a service and allows two users to access the same Windows PC at the same time without interrupting each other. While it does pass audio to the remote client, it does not provide remote printing capabilities or file transfers.

DESKTRA consumes minimal system resources on the host PC, even with a remote user connected. The three DESKTRA processes took only 14MB of RAM and almost no CPU time, even while actively browsing the host and playing back audio prompts. Remote resource usage was a bit heavier: about 20MB of RAM when connected but still almost no CPU usage. There was only a hint of latency when accessing my host, and screen refreshes were responsive over my remote link.

The host component requires a quick install, but the client application is light and portable. During the host installation, the client is simply dropped to the desktop. All that is necessary is to copy this executable to the remote client and launch it. The client .EXE file is less than 2MB and can even run from a USB thumb drive.

One interesting aspect of DESKTRA: Unlike other remote access utilities, DESKTRA doesn't give the remote user exclusive control over the host, but allows two users (or more) to work independently -- in their own unique and isolated environment -- on the same PC. When I connected to my remote PC, DESKTRA's host engine simply created a new session for me, so both a local user and a remote user had simultaneous access to the host. In this case, I was logged on locally to my Windows XP Pro host as administrator and connected remotely using my local user account.

The bad part is there is no remote printing or file transfer support in DESKTRA. Unless you connect to the host over a VPN (virtual private network) of some sort, where you can map drives and printers back to your remote PC, you will not be able to do anything more than work on the remote PC. Also, DESKTRA is not what I call firewall friendly -- it requires a couple of ports to be opened in order to pass traffic.

DESKTRA is unique in providing simultaneous access to the same PC to multiple users, so it could come in handy in certain scenarios. But it doesn't provide enough other features to warrant serious consideration as a personal remote access solution. There are too many other tools available that are both firewall friendly and richer in features.

Gbridge 2.0InfoWorld's Free RAS score: Excellent

One of the most versatile tools I came across is Gbridge 2.0. This free utility allows users not only to remotely control a Windows host, but also transfer files, share folders, and automatically synchronize files between PCs. Gbridge is firewall friendly and does not require any modifications to the network firewall. It does require a Gmail account (also free), but that shouldn't stop anyone from deploying it.

Gbridge is available for all versions of Windows from Windows 2000 to Windows 7, and it installs relatively simply on both host and client. The software creates a soft VPN between host and remote PCs using the gbridge.com Website and a Gmail account as the login authority. This VPN is fully meshed so that multiple clients can see one another and participate in file transfers, remote control, and shared file locations. Thus, Gbridge provides many-to-many connectivity instead of a one-to-one link as with most remote control utilities.

One of the most interesting things about Gbridge is its ability to create SecureShares that are accessible to all users. This is nothing more than a folder on one of the client PCs, but Gbridge extends it to all other participants. Gbridge will also allow you to create an automatic backup between folders on Gbridge clients. For example, I can have the My Documents folder on my office PC automatically back up to a folder on my home PC each night.

Remote desktop access is also done a little differently. You can use the built-in VNC client to take over the host PC or use Windows' own Remote Desktop Connection. Remote Desktop is off by default, but with just a simple click on the host side, I was able to take over my host without having to open any ports on my firewall.

Remote control performance when using VNC was a little sluggish compared to native VNC installations, and unlike with native VNC, I was not able to change color depth or screen resolution. Performance while using Remote Desktop was better, but still a little slower than a native connection, most likely due to the VPN overhead.

On the plus side, I had all the features of Remote Desktop, including remote drives, printer support, remote sound, and a shared clipboard. The best part was I didn't have to open up my firewall, and I could click and choose among potential hosts. Unless your network has Windows Small Business Server, this flexibility is not available to you.

Gbridge is one of the best free remote access tools available. Remote access to Windows hosts is easy and flexible, and the SecureShares and automatic backup features are unique. The use of Gmail for authentication and the soft VPN allow for easy access to your host without having to mess with the firewall, and they still retain remote printing capabilities.

LogMeIn Free EditionInfoWorld's Fee RAS score: Good

LogMeIn Free Edition is a simple-to-use, firewall-friendly remote access tool that comes close to being everything a remote user would need. The free edition provides safe and secure remote access to both Mac and Windows PCs via all popular browsers. However, due to the lack of remote printing, remote sound, and file transfer, most business users will want to consider another offering or pony up the $69.95 annual subscription cost of the Pro2 version.

LogMeIn uses www.logmein.com as a bridge between your remote and host computers. You start by creating an account on LogMeIn.com and installing the host software on your computer. The host agent installed with no difficulty on my Windows XP Pro system and consumed only about 8MB of RAM when idle, although it did jump to around 44MB when a remote user connected.

To take over the host computer, simply log into your account at logmein.com with your Web browser and select your host PC from the list of available computers. Because the host agent connects to the LogMeIn Website, no changes to the firewall are required.

LogMeIn works with Internet Explorer 7 or later, Firefox 3.0 or later, Google Chrome 2.0 or later, and Safari 3.0 or later. Browser support comes via an ActiveX control, Firefox plug-in, Java, or Flash. Host computers must be Windows 2000 (32-bit only) and newer (both 32-bit and 64-bit) or Mac OS X 10.4.6 (Tiger) or newer. Client support ranges from Windows NT 4 to Windows 7 (all editions) and Mac OS X 10.4 and newer.

I tested LogMeIn using all three Windows browsers and found the color depth and overall performance to be on par with one another. The Web connection to the host is secured using 256-bit AES SSL encryption.

The free version of LogMeIn is limited to the most basic use cases. It provides easy, straightforward access to a host and any resource on the domain, but printing and file transfers are out. If remote access to PCs and Macs is the only requirement, then LogMeIn Free edition is perfect. But for more demanding users, LogMeIn offers the $69.95-per-year subscription.

Remote Desktop ConnectionInfoWorld's Free RAS score: Very good

No list of free remote connection tools would be complete without Microsoft's Remote Desktop Connection. Built into every version of Windows starting with Windows XP, Remote Desktop provides excellent remote access benefits, including remote printer support. Its one downside is that it requires an open port on the firewall in order to access the remote host.

Microsoft has also made available a downloadable version of Remote Desktop for versions of Windows all the way back to Windows 95 and NT 4.0. Host PCs must be Windows 2000 (via Terminal Services), Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2008, or the Professional or Enterprise versions of Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7. There is no host version available for Windows Home editions or early Windows operating systems.

Remote Desktop Connection Client for Mac 2 lets Mac users connect to Windows-based PCs so that they can get to files, applications, and other network resources. This too is a free download, and like its Windows cousin, it allows users to print from the remote host back to the client's printers.

Remote Desktop is one of the best remote access utilities available, not because it is built into Windows, but because of all the extras it includes. First and foremost is its ability to print remotely. Other than Gbridge (when using the Remote Desktop client), no other free remote access tool allows printing from the host to the remote client.

Other features include the ability to pass audio from host to remote, redirect USB/serial ports, connect to smart cards on the client, map drives between host and remote, and share a clipboard. This list covers just about everything a remote worker could need.

Like other remote access tools that require port forwarding, Remote Desktop is difficult to scale to multiple hosts. In small offices running Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 or 2008, remote users have more flexibility. For example, via the Remote Web Workplace portal, users can log into Small Business Server via Internet Explorer, choose their PC from a list of computers on the network, and take it over using Remote Desktop's ActiveX control. This negates the per-PC/per-port requirement normally required for Remote Desktop Connection.

TeamViewer 5InfoWorld's Free RAS score: Very good

TeamViewer 5 allows remote users to control both Windows and Mac computers behind a firewall by way of a small client application. It provides good all-around access to your remote PC, but the free version is limited to noncommercial users only. Remote printing isn't readily available in TeamViewer, but VoIP, video, and conference call support are included.

Like LogMeIn, TeamViewer 5 is firewall-friendly and uses the standard HTTP port (port 80) to connect a remote client to a host computer. Unlike LogMeIn, TeamViewer does not use a browser or intermediate Website. Each side must run a small agent -- either an installed client application or a no-install, memory resident client -- to make the connection. I tried TeamViewer both ways with success. During remote sessions, the installed agent used only 13MB of RAM, while the memory resident agent used just 7MB. TeamViewer 5 works with all versions of Windows from Windows 98 to present, and with Mac OS X 10.4 and up.

TeamViewer (installed version) can be set to start prior to the Windows login screen. It even allows a remote user to reboot the host PC into Safe Mode and reconnect. This is a fantastic feature for anyone doing remote help desk support.

Video performance was very good with just a slightly discernable lag in screen refreshes. One feature that I really like is its ability to handle multiple displays on the host. A remote user can choose which monitor to view, or they can view both at once. However, if the remote monitors are at a high resolution, the view is too small to be usable. I also like that once connected, I can choose to "switch sides" with my partner. This means that one user can initiate the connection, then pass control over their desktop to the second user later in the session.

Remote printing is supported a little differently in TeamViewer. Unlike Remote Desktop, TeamViewer doesn't redirect print jobs to the remote client. Instead, you must turn on the VPN in the TeamViewer agent at each end of the connection, then map a printer on the host computer to a shared printer on the remote device. It's a bit of a kludge and not the easiest task for nontechnical users.

TeamViewer is available in commercial versions that add more features, but at a substantial cost. The free noncommercial version is a good choice for basic remote access, but if you need to print remotely, other tools simplify the process.

VNCInfoWorld's Free RAS score: Good

The hugely popular VNC family of utilities is virtually synonymous with remote access. There are three major versions of VNC: RealVNC, TightVNC, and UltraVNC. There's also a popular version for the Mac called Chicken of the VNC. Among them, RealVNC is by far the most mature, but only in its paid incarnation. RealVNC, TightVNC, and UltraVNC all support Windows hosts and clients and provide browser-based access via Java, but none of the free releases provide remote printing. Performance is on par with the other remote access tools listed here, and the Java version is no exception. VNC is not as firewall friendly as Gbridge, LogMeIn, and TeamViewer, requiring a specific port to be forwarded to each target host.

Installation of VNC is quick and easy on Windows hosts up to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, including 32- and 64-bit versions. TightVNC is available in a beta version for Vista and Windows 7, while support for these platforms comes via the paid version of RealVNC ($30). After you've installed the host and client software, your network admin will have to open a port in the firewall and point it at the VNC host before a remote user can connect. As with Remote Desktop, a different port must be used for each additional host.

Remote clients will have to connect to either a fully qualified URL (such as vnc.mydomain.com) or the external IP address of the firewall. It's not as elegant as logging into a Website and clicking your host PC out of a list of available devices, as you do with LogMeIn, but it works. It just requires a little more coordination between IT and the remote users.

None of the free versions of VNC support remote printing, but the paid version of RealVNC does. TightVNC and UltraVNC both allow file transfers between host and remote client as part of the free package, while this too is a paid feature in RealVNC.

Overall, the three major VNC releases work well with Windows hosts and provide an intuitive platform for remote control. Unfortunately, the lack of printing support keeps TightVNC and UltraVNC from being a first choice for anything but remote control needs. The $30 license for RealVNC is still a good deal, but most Windows users would be served just as well by Remote Desktop.

WinRemotePC 2009 LiteInfoWorld's Free RAS score: Good

WinRemotePC 2009 Lite by WinSoftMagic is a utility that stuffs a lot into a little package. WinRemotePC Lite is another Windows-only program that requires an open port in your firewall. But unlike DESKTRA, it includes the ability to transfer files between host and remote client. WinRemotePC Lite does not provide remote printing capabilities, but does include a couple of unique features.

WinRemotePC is a simple 3MB download for both host and client. It installed without a hitch on my Windows XP Pro systems. As with DESKTRA, Remote Desktop, and VNC, I had to open up a port in to my host. Once the system is running and a client connects, the WinRemotePC Lite host uses only 40MB of RAM and very little CPU time during sessions. The client side also used very few system resources: 40MB when connected.

Remote control of the host PC worked well and was quite responsive. I was able to resize the screen by simply dragging the edges of the client window. I noticed very little latency when opening windows and moving around the host desktop from my remote PC.

Where WinRemotePC Lite gets interesting is in the various plug-ins built into the system. In addition to the remote desktop plug-in, seven others provide drag-and-drop file transfers, a shared clipboard, and a command-line/Telnet console. One plug-in that help desk technicians would find useful is the process explorer. This tool gives the remote-connected user an expanded Task Manager view of the host PC. Registered users can have access to WinSoftMagic's plug-in SDK to add their own plug-ins to the program.

Unfortunately, like most of the remote access programs covered in this review, WinRemotePC 2009 Lite doesn't provide remote printing support. As with the others, if the remote user connected over a VPN to the host, then printing to a shared printer is possible. But there is no native support for redirected printing.

For users who need remote access to their desktops and want to transfer files between the host and client, WinRemotePC 2009 Lite works well. Like the other tools that require port forwarding, it doesn't scale well for multiple users to multiple hosts inside the firewall. Mainly, however, WinRemotePC Lite needs native remote printer support to be a well-rounded alternative to other free utilities.

Read about more great free tools for Windows and Mac users:

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This story, "Review: Free remote access tools for Windows and Mac" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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