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Finding free alternatives for remote desktop apps and services

Our expert takes a look at free software and infrastructure alternatives for Windows Remote Desktop for remote desktop access.

Are there any free remote desktop access applications?

Remote Desktop is only available in certain versions of Microsoft Windows, so many people attempt to compensate by using a third-party application or service. There's no shortage of them to go around, but the specifications and implementations vary enormously.

One common set of replacements for Windows Remote Desktop is a protocol called VNC, or Virtual Network Computing. VNC was originally developed as a platform-independent solution, and it runs on Windows as well as Mac OS X, Linux and Solaris. VNC also comes in multiple incarnations for Windows. Two of the most useful are RealVNC and UltraVNC.

  • RealVNC exists in both free and commercial versions. The free version is for individual private use and has a small subset of the available functionality. The commercial version is licensed for business use and has many advanced features, such as file transfers and printing support.
  • UltraVNC is another variety of VNC that has chat and file-transfer abilities baked in. It's also free for both personal and corporate use. An optional mirror driver, installed on the system you're accessing, can be used to accelerate access.

Note that while these programs provide you with a mechanism for linking two Windows computers without using Remote Desktop, they don't provide the network infrastructure to do so. That's left up to you.

One way to get both the mechanism and the infrastructure is to use a third-party service, such as LogMeIn. Install the server application on the PC you want to reach, and it will use LogMeIn's central servers to allow you to access your desktop from any other PC in the world. No client program is needed, just a Web browser that can run Flash and Java. The free version of the service includes basic connectivity; the for-pay version adds utilities like file-transfer functions.

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