Remote desktop access has been and continues to be an essential application — so popular that Windows, MacOS, and Linux all include remote desktop access host software, and there is a wide range of client apps for the iPad.
Remote-access software can run over your home or office network, your tablet’s 4G LTE connection, or even a Wi-Fi hotspot at a local cafe. That means you can connect from your living room to your office desktop, or from your hotel to your home computer.
In case it doesn’t go without saying, this assumes that the target is on and the requisite host software is already installed, set up, and running on that distant computer.
An iPad can be used as the client device to access hosts running Windows, MacOS, and Linux desktop OSs — including Windows 8’s touch-oriented Metro UI.
This doesn’t go the other way, however; with a few possible exceptions for some administrative setting/configuration tweaking, you can’t remotely access an iOS device.
The remote-access-from-a-touch-tablet experience frankly isn’t always salubrious. Trying to remotely control keyboard-and-mouse oriented Windows and Windows applications like Excel can be like playing foosball while wearing a raincoat and boxing gloves … even if you’ve got a Bluetooth keyboard. Even trying to remote control Windows 8’s touch-oriented Metro UI from a tablet can be tricky.
This can make many of the common uses for remote-access, such as remote tech support, harder.
Remote access between far-flung computers also means there’s latency — delay — between what’s happening at each machine because they’re usually connecting via the Internet and the remote-access company’s cloud. Try it with your iPad and desktop or notebook adjacent to each other — have both machines’ speakers on, play a YouTube video, and you’ll see/hear the delay I’m talking about.
On the other hand, for activities like running a productivity-oriented Windows app that’s on your distant PC, or retrieving a file, or even viewing a video stored on far away computer, remote access from an iPad can be good enough … and certainly better than not being able to do it.
Below is a look at a few of the more popular remote-access iPad client apps. (Most of these apps are also available for some of the other mobile platforms, of course.)
As you’ll see, the basic capabilities are the same; the differing factors include pricing, added features, performance, and usability. To get features like remote-printing, file transfer, nicknaming target systems, more security, and support often means paying, or paying more.
All have server software for accessing Windows and Mac desktop-OS machines. Some can also access Linux/Unix systems.
In general, remote-access is priced based on a per-user and/or per-host basis, and the mobile and desktop client apps are free.
Many of them offer free trials, so you can take them out for a spin and see which you like best.
$9.95/month ($99/year) per host computer
Citrix’s GoToMyPC lets you access Windows and MacOS desktop and notebook computers from your iPad — once you’ve installed the Java-based host software (an easy download from the GoToMyPC website) on the target computer, created an account, and installed the iOS app.
- Remote file access
- Sound so that you can hear audio on your iPad from applications running on the host machine.
Distinctive features include multi-monitor support — if the host computer has multiple monitors, you can switch among them on your client device, using either the edge-of-screen icon, or keyboard shortcuts.
GoToMyPC helpfully starts each session with a gestures tip sheet, has a mouse-like icon to aid in controlling the pointer, and displays a toolbar at the top of your iPad screen showing icons for the virtual keyboard, arrow keys, mouse and some settings.
$99/year/two hosts (see below for more info)
LogMeIn Pro has been letting users access Windows and MacOS machines for much longer than the iPad has been available.
The iOS client for LogMeIn Pro accommodates the iPad’s touch UI, allowing taps to act as single- and double-clicks (with one-finger taps as left-clicks and two-finger taps as right-clicks), pinch to zoom in or out, plus other combinations for drag, scroll, show/hide virtual keyboard, and more. (All conveniently listed in a start-up “Hints” screen).
Also, on the iPad display, LogMeIn Pro positions a mouse-like graphic floating about half an inch below the cursor, whose left and right buttons are tappable.
That makes LogMeIn Pro on the iPad comparatively more useful for desktop apps like Microsoft Office, where precise cursor placement and mouse-clicking are often necessary. However, doing this can still be tricky.
Sadly, LogMeIn no longer offers the free version of its remote-access app (and any free-version copies you had will expire soon).
LogMeIn Pro is still available though, for an annual subscription price of roughly $50 per host system — although LogMeIn’s subscription pricing levels are odd: $99/year for access to two host computers; $250 for access to up to five hosts; $449 for access to up to 10 hosts. This is somewhat annoying — if, say, you only have one, or three, or six systems, you end up paying for access you can’t use. (I suppose you could right-size for four, six, seven, eight or nine by mixing and matching subscriptions, but I suspect that would complicate the sign-on — assuming it’s even possible — and that doesn’t address the single-system user having to basically waste fifty bucks a year. Tsk.)
That said, LogMeIn Pro not only provides remote-desktop access, but also includes features like file transfer, remote printing, and support for watching videos in HD while listening to remote audio.
TeamViewer: Remote Control
Free for non-commercial users (see below)
This app supports Windows and MacOS, plus it can also connect to Linux machines.
It’s “free for non-commercial users,” meaning you aren’t using it in an office, for your job, etc. — not even if you’re simply accessing your home office computer while you’re out. Depending on what you do and how often, TeamViewer’s performance may automatically degrade over time to incent you to buy a license.
And TeamViewer isn’t cheap: a business license for a target is $749, and another $139 for each additional target. Additionally, there’s a premium service for $1,499 and a corporate version for $2,839. Granted, these are one-time fees, and you can transfer a license from one host machine to another, and even resell the license number. But it’s still a non-trivial purchase.
Wake-on-LAN is the most distinctive feature. This allows you to remotely “wake up” (power up) unattended computers if they have the appropriate hardware.
I’ve tried TeamViewer a number of times desktop-to-notebook, for various reviews, and that’s been fine. But for a home business or even a small business, that $749 license price, even though it’s a one-time fee and resellable, can be a dealbreaker.
Free (see below)
This app provides remote access to Windows, MacOS, Linux, and even Unix systems.
RealVNC’s VNC is a delicate balance between affordability (for the host-side server license — all the client apps are free), useful features, and more complexity than the average non-technical consumer — or even many medium-techy users — will want to deal with.
Price-wise, the developer offers a free personal license, as well as paid personal and enterprise licenses, which offer support and more features. You can get a 30-day free trial of the paid versions.
After purchasing a personal or enterprise license ($30 and $44/target, respectively), you can use it for remote-connecting forever. However, the license fee is only good for a year’s worth of upgrades and tech support.
You might need that tech support immediately. RealVNC’s app is harder to set up than the other remote-access tools covered in this roundup. While VNC Server can automatically do the necessary configuration changes to your firewall and router settings, it took me a few tries — and reading through the online documentation — to make it work, and I’d nearly given up by then.
For all that, the free version of RealVNC is feature-sparse.
All versions include mouse emulation, support for Apple’s “Bonjour” zero-configuration protocol, and support for high-resolution screens. Most critically, the free version doesn’t include encryption, except in the initial password handshake, so anything you do on the remote system, including entering IDs and passwords for apps or websites, would be accessible to network eavesdroppers.
I don’t like VNC’s touchscreen mouse as much as GoToMyPC’s or LogMeIn’s, although VNC does have a large pop-up for mouse-button control.
Premium (paid) features include encrypted connections, system authentication, text transfer, and enhanced performance.
In my brief tests, VNC definitely works, but I found it more cumbersome than the other remote-access apps in this roundup, both in setup and general use.
Wyse PocketCloud Remote Desktop – RDP / VNC
Wyse PocketCloud Remote Desktop lets your iPad connect to Mac and Windows desktop systems, once you’ve installed and configured Wyse’s desktop software: Wyse Pocket Cloud for Windows, or Wyse PocketCloud OS X Companion.
Wyse PocketCloud has both free and paid versions, and the iPad client. PocketCloud Pro, the paid version of the app, is $14.99. The service’s premium version (as opposed to the Pro version of the app) is either $5/month or $7.99/3 month. Dell’s website — Dell owns Wyse — is vague on this, and Dell customer support couldn’t even find PocketCloud as something the company sells.
Like RealVNC VNC, Wyse PocketCloud takes some fiddling to configure and connect. It can use your Gmail account for its own ID/password, plus you may have to create a “domain” name for the target computer.
UI features include a toolbar with a “workplace switch”, touch pointer activation for frequently-used tools and better pointer precision, “zoom toggle,” and enabling tap as mouse right-click).
In addition to remote access, Wyse throws in cloud storage.
Interestingly, unlike the other remote-access apps I tried for this round-up, the target system sees the client app as a remote user — on the local display (connected to the target system), it put up the default login splash screen, and when I used the keyboard on that computer, it disconnected my iPad’s remote session.
Premium features for the iPad client include a full-screen “file browser,” desktop search, video streaming, and file download/email/print.
Parallels Access lets you access Windows and MacOS systems (once you’ve installed Parallel’s Access Agent on them) from your iPad.
A distinct, nifty feature of Parallels Access is the ability to view any one application as full-screen (including the screen turf normally occupied by the Windows task bar), so that Windows or Mac software looks like other iPad apps, Naturally, viewing the full desktop and all the active windows is also an option.
The cursor/mouse handling isn’t quite as good by default as some of the other remote-access apps discussed here, although the “magnify” view helps with precision control.
In terms of iPad-oriented usability, Parallels Access has some of the most appealing features, although I don’t like its cursor/mouse control the most.
Price-wise, there’s no charge for RealVNC VNC or TeamViewer: Remote Access (for personal use).
Of course, there are other remote-access iPad apps you can consider, now that you have a sense of what features and considerations to look for.
Again, remote-access from an iPad won’t be, for many tasks, as good or as easy as from a desktop-OS device. But for many tasks, it will do just fine — and for most others, better than no remote access at all.