Thursday, June 25, 2009

Remote Access is Easy (sometimes)

The New York Times just posted an answer to a question regarding remote access for helping someone troubleshoot their computer. I have to admit that a few years ago I tried using Windows Remote Desktop and VNC. I never had good results with these solutions. The setup is too difficult, even for someone reasonably tech savvy. The worst part was getting everything configured properly on the remote computer, then having the settings change by the time I wanted to use it. I do not log into my mother's computer regularly, only when she is having an issue and I am not visiting soon.

But recently I found a better solution, and it was almost by accident. One function I do use regularly is automatic syncing for backup in the background. I was very impressed with what Microsoft Live Sync did and it actually worked on Mac OSX Tiger before they broke it. However, when it left Beta and stopped working on Tiger, I heard about Microsoft Live Mesh. I do not think anybody understands why Live Sync and Live Mesh are separate products, but the point is that Live Mesh accomplishes the same syncing features plus some more. I switched over to Mesh in order to take advantage of the Online Backup feature. Up to 2 gigs can be sync'ed between computers AND a copy is stored on the web. Very useful! And you cannot beat the price (that would be zero dollars and zero cents!)

However, Live Mesh also has a Device Connect feature that is absolutely worth trying. What it does is basically take away all of the setup hassles. If the computer is turned on and connected to the internet, you click the Connect button and wait while it makes sure nobody is actively working on the computer at the moment. Next thing you know you are looking at the screen as though you were sitting in front of that computer. That in itself would be enough to make this worthwhile. However, Microsoft added a few nice touches that I have not seen elsewhere (though I am not an expert, this might be standard in remote utilities today). First, you can hide the display on the local computer. This is great because I used this feature to log into a computer for the purpose of updating billing records. Even when I feel pretty confident that nobody is standing at the location looking at the screen, this is still a perfect check. Second, you can literally copy a file on the remote computer, switch to a local window and paste and the file copies over the internet. Obviously programs have offered FTP like interfaces for copying files, but removing all of the overhead by making it look like a standard copy paste is brilliant.

What is the catch? Well, it only works if the remote computer is a Windows PC, no love for Macs at this point. Second, it only works when the browser used to connect is Internet Explorer (because it uses ActiveX to do the magic). So basically, it only works from a Windows machine to a Windows machine. However, it works between versions of Windows. So my XP machine can connect to a Vista and vice-versa. Although I would love to bring my MacMini back into this party, there is still enough to like that I use it despite that restriction.

So in closing, I tend to be reluctant to give Microsoft much praise, but here is a place where they are doing great work. Now we just have to get the word out, because New York Times recommending people use programs with heavy configuration needed instead is creating work.