Remote access to a desktop computer or server is a critical part of any IT administrator’s toolset. Microsoft Windows has a built-in Remote Desktop feature, plus there a ton of other tools – both free and paid. This article lists and compares the various Windows Remote Desktop options available to you.

There are no right or wrong options when selecting a remote desktop solution, so be sure to look deeply into the various options and choose the most appropriate.

Windows Remote Desktop

This built-in tool is my primary remote desktop utility. It allows for the easiest form of remote access, as every PC already has the required tools built-in. However, there are some limitations. It can’t be used for desktop sharing. The local user can’t see what’s happening while someone is using it remotely. Also, you must know the user’s password if you want to access their desktop even if they are already logged in.

Pros:

Limitations:

  • No desktop sharing
  • Need the end user’s password to access their desktop
  • Need to port-forward, tunnel or VPN for external access
  • Limited file sharing

If you are looking for a Microsoft tool that allows Desktop Sharing, take a look at Remote Assistance. This tool allows for a desktop-sharing model, and even allows for unsolicited connections (so you can force your way into a desktop, rather than requiring user intervention).

LogMeIn Pro

LogMeIn Pro allows for remote access via a web-browser. The utility must already be installed on your remote computer and linked to your account. Unlike Windows Remote Desktop, this application allows for desktop sharing.

Pros:

  • Cross-platform
  • Web-browser support
  • No need for port-forwarding or VPNs
  • Central management console
  • Desktop sharing
  • Built-in file transfer

Limitations:

  • Need to install utility on each PC and link to account
  • Cost: AU$120/year for 2 PCs

LogMeIn Rescue

LogMeIn Rescue is designed for quick, once-off access. A end-user would be instructed to download a customised executable, and it would provide the support person direct desktop access. This is designed for quick access to perform a specific task. Perfect for remote support where consistent, managed access is not required.

Pros:

  • Easy, on-time access with limited setup
  • No need for port-forwarding or VPNs
  • Cross-platform
  • Web-browser support
  • Central management console
  • Desktop sharing
  • Built-in file transfer

Limitations:

  • No consistant access
  • Requires user interaction to allow remote connection
  • Cost: $130/year per user

Team Viewer

TeamViewer is similar to LogMeIn Pro, where you can setup remote access for behind firewalls. It operates on a desktop-sharing model, and also packs features such as file transfer and chat. It is purchased on a buy-out basis, rather than a ongoing license model.

Pros:

  • Cross-platform
  • Web-browser support
  • No need for port-forwarding or VPNs
  • Central management console
  • Desktop sharing
  • Built-in file transfer
  • Free for personal use

Limitations:

  • Business-use Cost: AU$699 per user (buy-out)
  • Need to install utility on each PC and link to account OR get user to provide once-off usage code

GoToAssist

This Citrix product allows for remote desktop access, as well as a lot of management tools. In fact, I think GoToAssist places a lot more emphasis on monitoring and management of remote computers, as well as the standard remote desktop tools – this could be very useful for IT departments and service desks.

Pros:

  • Cross-platform
  • Web-browser support
  • No need for port-forwarding or VPNs
  • Central management console
  • Desktop sharing
  • Built-in file transfer
  • Monitoring tools

Limitations:

  • Price $89/month per technician
  • Requires ahead-of-time desploymemt

VNC

The VNC protocol is probably one of the older and less sophisticated technologies used, but still plays an important role. It’s probably the best way to achieve LAN-based desktop sharing. Unlike Windows Remote Desktop, it doesn’t kick the end-user out – it does desktop sharing.

The big point of difference between products such as LogMeIn/TeamViewer and VNC is that VNC runs on the local network. This means you don’t need to rely on a third-party server to relay your traffic.

Pros:

  • Free, Open Source
  • Reliable
  • Desktop sharing
  • Runs on your local LAN with local resources, not relying on third-party resources

Limitations:

  • Need to port-forward, tunnel or VPN for external access
  • Poorer performance than some alternatives
  • Required ahead-of-time deployment

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I'm Anthony Eden, and I'm a broadcast technologist. I've been working in broadcast media since 2008 (getting my start in Community Radio while still at school), and developing software and websites for just as long. Right now, I work full time for Hope Media, and provide some freelance services through Media Realm.

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