Remote control of your PC

March 12, 2001|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

You spend the night laboring at home on a report that's due at the end of the week. When you arrive at the office the next morning, you sit down at your PC, ready to finish the job, and suddenly you get that sinking feeling. Yup - you're an idiot. You forgot to e-mail yourself a copy of the work you did the night before. So you're downtown and the report is on your hard drive at home.

Sound familiar? Maybe you've experienced the reverse - wishing you'd remembered to bring home an important file from your work computer. Or perhaps you're traveling and suddenly realize you've left critical information on your PC back at the office. The common thread here is that the PC you're using isn't the one you really need in front of you at the moment.

Big companies with aggressive IT departments have attacked this problem with Virtual Private Networking (VPN) - a scheme that allows employees at home or on the road to use the Internet to connect securely with their computers at the office.

Unfortunately, VPN is too difficult and expensive to set up for the average user - or even the average business.

Standalone programs such as Symantec's pcAnywhere allow you to connect PCs via modem or over a network, but they're difficult to configure and not always reliable.

Now a new Web-based service called GoToMyPC.com promises the Holy Grail for the peripatetic PC user - the ability to control one computer from another one across town, or half-way around the world - with about a 3-minute setup.

Although the service is free for the time being, you'll eventually have to pay for it. And it may be worth the monthly charge. But if you need remote control only occasionally - and you're willing to geek it up a bit - you can download a free program called VNC from an AT&T Web site that allows you to do the same thing without paying a cent.

GoToMyPC and VNC both use a scheme known as "desktop streaming," which passes a constantly updated image of the host computer's screen to the remote user and passes keystrokes and mouse clicks from the remote user to the host PC.

This allows you to control another computer from a remote location just as if you were sitting in front of it - with a few caveats. The main one being that everything moves a lot slower than it normally would.

GoToMyPC was developed by the creators of Expertcity.com, a Web site that matches customers who have problems with their PCs to experts who are willing to solve them for a fee.

When two parties on the site agree to terms, the customer downloads a program developed by Expertcity that allows the expert to take control of the customer's machine. Expertcity has sold the same technology to a variety of large companies that maintain extensive help desks, including CompUSA.

To sign up for the service, you must establish a password-protected account with GoToMyPC. That done, you can log on to the Web site from any PC that you want to be able to control, register it and download a program that allows it to serve as a "host."

You'll also be prompted to set up a password for the computer, which is stored on the PC and not on the Web site. This double security level makes it tough for would-be hackers to break in.

When you want to take control of the PC from a remote location, you log onto your account on GoToMyPC.com and choose the PC you want to use. GoToMyPC automatically uploads a small viewer program to your computer and a few seconds later, you're staring at the screen of your host PC, where you can access your files and run programs, just as if you were sitting at the keyboard.

The beauty of all this is that it works through the same protocol as your Web browser, which eliminates the need for complicated configurations and software installation. You can control your home or work PC from any Web-connected computer.

The catch, of course, is that your host machine must be running and connected to the Internet when you want to start a session. This isn't a problem for computers on Internet-connected office networks or home users with high-speed, always-on cable or DSL service. But if your remote computer uses a dialup connection, someone will have to be there to turn it on and connect with your Internet Service Provider.

Having tried out various remote control solutions over the years, I was impressed by GoToMyPC's ease of use. I was able to set up three machines - two at work and one at home - and control any of them from all the others without a hiccup. A built-in transfer feature allowed me to move files from one PC to the other with a few mouse clicks. Next time I'm at my mom's, I'll register her computer, too, which will save me a lot of troubleshooting hassles.

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