Langa Letter: XP Professional's "Remote Control" Option - InformationWeek
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Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Langa Letter: XP Professional's "Remote Control" Option

Fred Langa explains how this little-known feature of Windows can be a life-saver if used cautiously.

It's one of XP Pro's hidden gems: A simple way to control your PC from afar. It lets you do everything from basic file and data access up to fully taking over the keyboard and mouse of a distant PC, just as if you were sitting in front of it. What's more, XP extends this remote-control ability to any and all versions of Windows back to Win95, including Windows CE palm-top systems.

Here's an example of how it can work: Imagine you're away from the office, perhaps at home or on a business trip, and need a file you left on your PC at work. With XP running on your office PC, you can connect to that PC from afar and (with proper permissions) either transfer the file to yourself, or otherwise use your office PC just as if you were physically present at it.

Or, imagine that a distant co-worker or friend asks you for advice in solving some problem on his or her PC. Instead of having to try to talk them through a fix by phone, you can connect your PCs (via the Internet) so you can see exactly what they're doing wrong. You can then offer live guidance to them via a built-in text chat, or if that's still not enough, you can (with proper permissions) actually take over their PC and fix their problem for them.

While both those examples involve remote control at considerable distances, I find it handy even in closer surroundings. For example, I'll use my laptop to remotely control my desktop PC even if I'm just going to another part of the building: Instead of having to synch all my files and get everything onto the laptop before I change locations, I can just fire up the remote-control software, and use the laptop to access everything, live, on my main PC, just as if I'd never left my chair. When I return to my PC, nothing has to be transferred back from the laptop--I just pick up from where I left off. It's a real time-saver.

Three Flavors
XP's remote control has three major faces: Remote Desktop, Remote Desktop Web Connection, and Remote Assistance. They're all variations on the Windows Terminal Server that originally shipped in Windows 2000.

Remote Desktop is primarily meant to let a user at one PC access a Windows XP session running on another PC. Both the host and client software are built into XP Professional--any XP Pro setup can function as either a remote-control host or client with no additional software needed. But Win95, Win98, WinME, NT, Win2K, and WinCE all can function as client systems: All that's needed to access an XP host is proper permission and a small piece of software--the Remote Desktop client tool. This software is on the XP setup CD, and may be freely shared with other Windows systems. It's also available for free download from Microsoft .

The Remote Desktop Web Connection functions in a similar way, but doesn't require any client software to be preinstalled. Instead, it relies on an ActiveX control inside a Web page. When that special Web page is accessed by a computer running Internet Explorer (or, theoretically, any browser that supports ActiveX controls), a user with proper permissions can then access the host computer. The Remote Desktop client software isn't needed.

The third variation, Remote Assistance, also works in a similar way, except that it's meant for two people--one local, one remote--to view the same desktop simultaneously. For example, imagine there are two users; a beginner and an expert. The beginner sends a message to the expert by E-mail or by Messenger, requesting Remote Assistance. The expert than views the beginner's computer in much the same way as with Remote Desktop, except that the expert can communicate in real-time with the beginner via a Messenger text chat box. If the expert can't guide the beginner through the problem, the expert can then take over the connection, in normal Remote Desktop fashion, and work the beginner's PC from afar.

Clearly, this is powerful stuff with an enormous range of positive uses. But there are also clear downsides and dangers.

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