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How to Access a Windows Desktop From Your Tablet or Phone

windows-desktop-on-tablet

iPads and Android tablets can’t run Windows apps locally, but they can access a Windows desktops remotely — even with a physical keyboard. In a pinch, the same tricks can be used to access a Windows desktop from a smartphone.

Microsoft recently launched their own official Remote Desktop app for iOS and Android devices. Microsoft’s official apps are primarily useful for businesses — if you’re a typical home user, you’ll want to use a different remote desktop solution.

Microsoft’s Remote Desktop App

Microsoft now offers official Remote Desktop apps for iPad and iPhone as well as Android tablets and smartphones. The apps use Microsoft’s RDP protocol to connect to remote Windows systems. They’re essentially just new clients for the Remote Desktop feature that has been included in Windows for more than a decade.

There are big problems with these apps if you’re an average home user. Microsoft’s Remote Desktop server is not available on standard or Home versions of Windows, only Professional and Enterprise editions. If you do have the appropriate edition of Windows, you’ll have to set up port-forwarding and a dynamic DNS service if you want to access your Windows desktop from outside your local network. You could also set up a VPN — either way you’ll need to do some footwork.

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This app is a gift to businesses who are already using Remote Desktop and enthusiasts who have the more expensive versions of Windows and don’t mind the configuration process. To set this up, follow our guide to setting up Remote Desktop for Internet access and connect using the Remote Desktop app instead of traditional Remote Desktop clients.

access-windows-desktop-from-tablet-with-microsoft-remote-desktop

TeamViewer

If you have the standard edition of Windows or you just don’t want to mess around with port-forwarding and dynamic DNS configuration, you’ll want to skip Remote Desktop and use something else.

We like TeamViewer for this. Just as it’s a great way to remotely troubleshoot your relatives’ computers, it’s also a great way to remotely access your own computer. It doesn’t have the same limitations Microsoft’s Remote Desktop system has — it’s completely free for personal use, runs on any edition of Windows, and is easy to set up. There’s no messing around with port-forwarding or dynamic DNS configuration.

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To get started, just download and run the TeamViewer program on your computer. You can get started with it immediately, but you’ll want to set up unattended access to connect remotely without using the codes displayed on your screen.

To connect, just install the TeamViewer mobile app and log in with the details the TeamViewer window displays. TeamViewer also offers software that runs on Mac and Linux, so you can remote-control other types of computers from your tablet.

windows-desktop-on-tablet-with-teamviewer

Other Options

Microsoft’s Remote Desktop app and TeamViewer aren’t the only options, of course. There are a variety of different apps and services built for this.

Splashtop is another fairly popular remote desktop solution that some people report as being faster. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely free — the iPad and iPhone app costs $20 at regular price. To use it over the Internet, you’ll have to purchase an additional “Anywhere Access Pack.” If you’re frustrated with TeamViewer’s speed and you don’t mind spending money, you may want to try Splashtop instead.

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As always, you could use any VNC server along with a VNC client app. VNC is the do-it-yourself solution — it’s an open protocol. Unlike Microsoft’s RDP protocol, you can install a VNC server of your own, configure it how you like, and use any mobile VNC client app. This is more flexible because you can install a VNC server on any edition of Windows or even non-Windows operating systems, but it otherwise has all the same issues — you have to worry about port-forwarding, setting up dynamic DNS, and securing your VNC server.

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Keep an eye on Chrome Remote Desktop. Chrome already offers a built-in remote desktop feature that allows you to remotely control your PC from another Windows, Mac, Linux, or Chrome OS device. Google is rumored to be building an Android app for Chrome Remote Desktop, which would allow you to easily access a computer running Chrome from Android tablets. Google’s solution is much more user-friendly for average people than Microsoft’s Remote Desktop solution, which is clearly geared towards businesses. Chrome Remote Desktop just requires signing in with a Google account.


Remote desktop solutions like Microsoft’s Remote Desktop app and TeamViewer are also available for Windows tablets. On Windows RT devices like the Surface RT and Surface 2, they allow you to use the full Windows desktop that’s unavailable on your tablet.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 10/24/13

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