If you’re like lots of smartphone users, there are times when you’d find it useful to access a PC in your home or office from your mobile device. So here’s the lowdown on eight remote access apps that will put your Windows PC or Mac at your fingertips no matter where you are. Specifically, we’ll delve into LogMeIn Ingition, Jump Desktop, Splashtop, Wyse PocketCloud, VNC Viewer, GoToMyPC, TeamViewer, and the new Microsoft Remote Desktop. We’ll also pick some winners. All eight apps are available for both Android and iOS devices, but we’ve tested them on Android. As you’ll see, some of them are better suited to individuals and others to groups of users. Pricing ranges from hefty to free.
The ABCs of Remote Access: VNC, RDP & VPN
Before we get to the apps, though, here are quick definition sof VNC, RDP, and VPN, three acronyms that you might encounter when you’re looking at remote access software.
VNC, or Virtual Network Computing, is one of the oldest ways to remotely control a computer. Basically, a server app on the computer takes a screenshot, and then sends that to the remote viewer where you can interact with it. Clicks and other commands are relayed back to the remote machine, and the screen gets updated. This process tends to be slow, and depending on image quality and screen sizes, it can be hard to see your files and apps. On the other hand, VNC is pretty universal, and because you’re viewing the screen only, you can use VNC to handle non-standard user interfaces in games or custom apps.
RDP, or Remote Desktop Protocol, takes a more streamlined approach. Instead of sending an entire desktop image, it simply indicates what’s being shown on the screen: for instance, communicating the information about a grey button instead of sending an actual image of a grey button. This makes RDP significantly faster than VNC, though a little less flexible. In another advantage, all “Pro” versions of Windows since XP have RDP support already built in. So you don’t need an extra server app. Some remote control apps will support one protocol or the other, and some support both, while others use their own proprietary systems.
The VPN, or Virtual Private Network, belongs in a different category entirely. Essentially, a VPN is a regular local computer network, except it’s one that’s carried over the Internet through encrypted connections. This allows some of the benefits of a “safe” home or office network (like getting access to locally shared files) while extending out to connected mobile devices. VPNs tend to require a lot of technical knowledge to set up and maintain. This makes them difficult to use if you don’t have IT people to help. Fortunately, many of these remote desktop apps that we’ll discuss below include support for encrypted connections, giving you at least some of the same privacy benefits of a VPN.
LogMein Ignition, by LogMein Inc.
Also popular as a desktop service, LogMeIn Ignition brings access from Android and iOS with its mobile apps.
It’s more than noteworthy, though, that Ignition is also by far the most expensive of the available solutions. The basic service is free for use on up to 10 computers, but the app is priced at $29.99 for Android and a whopping $129.99 for iOS. To be fair, LogMeIn Ignition does do some things that the others don’t.
One of the most prominent of these features is support for multiple monitors. Although there are ways to make VNC and RDP apps work with multiple monitors, neither platform handles them particularly well. LogMein is specifically designed to do a better job on that score.
LogMein Ignition is also particularly attractive to IT departments, where its logging and data analysis features can be quite useful.
This is a genuine remote administration app. Yet for mobile users who just need to get at their files or desktop apps — and who don’t care about multiple monitor support — it’s a bit of overkill.
Wyse PocketCloud Remote Desktop, by Wyse Technology
One of the few remote desktop apps that lets you try before you buy, Wyse is distinctly different from a lot of the others. For starters, it offeris a free version with a paid upgrade that offers more features.
The free app fully supports both VNC and RDP connections, as well as providing full tablet support. However, it’s limited to only connecting to one computer, so this will be problematic if you need to access both work and home machines.
If you upgrade to the Pro version, at a price of $15, the one-computer limitation is dropped, and you also get added features; 256-bit encryption on RDP (128-bit on VNC), more resolution options for RDP, and some really specialized stuff like VMware support.
All in all, Wyse offers a pretty good deal for access on the go. It supports the major platforms, and adds a lot of useful little features. Also, the Wyse support team is extremely responsive to user issues. Maybe best of all, unlike most of the other entries here, you don’t have to blindly spend money up front before you’re even sure that the app works for you.
For anyone on a budget — who can’t pay for three or four relatively expensive apps before finding the right one — that is a big plus. Just be aware, too, that the free version doesn’t have encryption support, so if you’re going to use it for anything serious or secure, you’ll definitely want the upgrade.
Splashtop Remote Desktop, by Splashtop
One of those apps which uses its own proprietary system, Splashtop requires its own desktop server to work, rather than a built-in RDP or add-on VNC server. This has both positives and negatives.
For instance, since Splashtop controls both ends of the code, Splashtop can tighten up efficiency without having to worry about staying compatible with other apps. But it also means that unlike with an RDP or VNC app, you can’t log in from another desktop/laptop if need be, or switch apps without completely starting over from scratch.
No doubt, Splashtop does perform better than RDP when you’re doing things like streaming videos or games from the desktop. However, that’s not necessarily going to be a common use pattern, especially for on-the-go business users.
So while overall Splashtop supplies great speed, I’d be hesistant to choose it over Jump or Wyse, which are more flexible and more standards-oriented.
Pricing differs on the iOS and Android sides of the house. The two iOS versions are Splashtop Remote Desktop for iPhone & iPad ($6.99) and Splashtop 2 Remote Desktop – Personal ($4.99), an edition touted as “comptible with iPad.”
Splashtop offers three editions for Android. On that platform, Splashtop Remote Desktop is currently priced at $4.99, whereas Splashtop 2 Remote Desktop – Personal (billed as “optimized for newer hardware”) is free. Splashtop is charging $9.99 for its “HD” tablet version.
I would probably recommend Splashtop as a first choice for Windows Home users who don’t have RDP built in, but who do want better performance than VNC clients can offer. Yet if you have Windows Pro or OS X, look at one of the other options first.
GoToMyPC, by Citrix Online
30-day free trial/$10 per month thereafter
Unlike unlike many of its competitors, GoToMyPC is “software as a service”; instead of charging for the app, Citrix Online charges a monthly fee for service. Obviously, this approach costs more in the long term — since every month is as expensive as one of the other basic apps’ one-time cost — but it carries advantages, too.
You get remote access anywhere, not just from your mobile device. If, for instance, you need to type something into your home computer, and your smartphone Touchscreen just isn’t cutting it, you can log in from any nearby desktop thanks to the web-based interface.
By and large, though, GoToMyPC is aimed much more at small to medium-sized businesses than to the individual mobile worker. Features like being able to invite other users to view your machine are a custom fit for IT departments but not so important if you’re looking at your own system. Individual users have cheaper and more effective options available to them.
TeamViewer for Remote Control, by TeamViewer
Like Splashtop, TeamViewer uses its own proprietary protocol for providing better performance, but its business model is significantly different, emphasizing the ability to share a screen with the user,
TeamViewer is primarily geared towards remote tech support use. You can get connected spontaneously to any one of a herd of different computers associated with your TeamViewer account. TeamViewer also offers the all too rare free option for you to try it out. That option is very, very narrow, though; specifically, you’re only allowed to use TeamViewer on and for non-business-related computers and purposes. While that’s fine for private users, it’s obviously a non-starter for mobile workers.
Also, for business users, the price tag puts this app well out of reach of anything but well equipped offices with serious needs for remote access. Unless “personal use only” works for you, you’re better off looking elsewhere.
Just released at the end of October, Microsoft Remote Desktop is a completely free client from the same people who built the RDP protocol in the first place. So it should be great, right?
Well, for first-public-release software, it’s actually pretty good. It’s lacking a few features — such as pinch-to-zoom — and there are times when the interface is a little inelegant.
The interface could be improved by better documentation, I think. Without this, it’s easy to miss that a right-click is accomplished via tap-and-hold, for example. Also, there’s going to be some inherent inelegance in trying to control a keyboard-and-mouse interface from a touchscreen-based device.
Otherwise, for a first version, this is a very credible option for RDP users. It would be a really nice choice for people who just need occasional access to their computers when they’re on the go — not enough to justify a paid app.
A dual-platform VNC/RDP app, Jump Desktop is a pretty solid piece of software in both its interface and feature set. Besides supporting both major standards, it also offers automatically encrypted connections, full screen support, pinch to zoom, and the option to have your computer and mobile devices “discover” each other using your Google account, to make setup simpler.
In fact, this would probably be the top pick out of this lot, if only it provided any kind of free trial. When you’re talking about remote desktop use, where small features or technical glitches can make or break a user’s experience, being able to try before you buy is even more important than it is when handling other software.
The app is priced at almost $10 for Android devices and practically $15 for iOS. Still, if you’re not worried about taking a double-digit leap of faith, Jump is one of the sleeker and better designed apps.
VNC Viewer, by RealVNC Limited
A single-purpose VNC app, RealVNC is very well suited to its niche — i.e., it’s the ideal VNC app, and that’s just about it.
For certain users and situations, VNC can be a necessity. For instance, some platforms or operating systems like Linux might not have the right software for a proprietary app. (VNC is available for pretty much every platform that people use, and then some.) Alternatively, you might have a need to use a desktop application whose interface only works with VNC. That’s where RealVNC steps in, offering a strong VNC implementation. But as mentioned, that’s pretty much all it does.
Unlike Jump and Wyse, which are comparably priced, it doesn’t offer the option of RDP support. It doesn’t support other standards, either, making it less flexible than the competition.
If you’re in the position of needing to use VNC for technical reasons, RealVNC should definitely be at the top of your list, but those looking to set up a remote desktop option from scratch might want a more balanced app with more features.
And the Winners Are?
Overall, there’s a strong case to be made for Wyse PocketCloud as the “best in show” out of all of of our options. The app is well made and full featured, and Wyse offers a fantastic customer support system to help you get it functioning. Also, with a free version to try out, you’re not forced to shell out anywhere from $5 to $130 before you even know if the app works for you.
Jump Desktop comes in a reasonably close second, with an equivalent feature set and nice design. However, there’s no free version of Jump, and the company’s technical help program isn’t as aggressive. Still, either one would be a solid choice for users who need to be able to get access to their computers while they’re on the go, whether they’re just walking around the office or logging in for business from across the country.
Want to find out more about how cloud computing can help to ease your work life? Check out the “Working in the Cloud” series to learn more.
Jacqueline Emigh, software editor for TechTarget’s TechnologyGuide Media Group, contributed additional reporting to this article.