Remote desktop software allows you to access your computer from another room or halfway around the world. You can also share your desktop with someone temporarily — ideal for remote tech support.

Setting up remote desktop access isn’t hard, but you’ll need to know the right software to use and how it works. The software built into Windows isn’t ideal for home users.

Why You Might Want To

RELATED: How to Remotely Access Your Computer from Your Phone

Remote desktop software allows you to use a computer as if you were sitting in front of it. Basically, your computer will send a video of its desktop to the device you’re connecting to. You can click and type as if you were sitting in front of the computer and use the computer normally — with a bit of delay, of course.

You can use remote desktop software on a Mac, Chromebook, iPad, or Android tablet, accessing Windows software on a non-Windows device. Remote desktop software also allows you to use local applications and files stored on your home or work computer from anywhere you are.

Things to Keep in Mind

Your computer needs to be on so you can access it. This isn’t a problem if you’re in the other room, but it can be a problem if you’re travelling far away. You’ll need to leave your computer running the whole time unless you want to attempt to set up Wake-on-LAN.

You’ll also encounter a bit of a delay. When accessing a computer over the Internet or even the remote network, actions you perform on your computer’s desktop won’t register immediately. If you attempt to watch a video on your remote computer, you’ll definitely notice delays and dropped frames — you won’t just see a smooth video. Remote desktop software is ideal for accessing desktop applications, not watching videos or playing games.

If you opt to set up your own remote desktop server software, you’ll need to set up dynamic DNS so you can always access your computer and set up port forwarding so you can connect to your computer from the Internet. This is why we recommend using a service that handles the login bits for your rather than setting up your own server — we’ll cover that in the next section.

Security is also a concern. Simply exposing a remote desktop server to the Internet can put your computer at risk, as people can log in if you have a weak password or insecure, outdated server software. That’s another reason we recommend using a service rather than setting up your own server and exposing it to the wild Internet.

Choose a Program

You’ll want to choose a remote desktop program so you can get started. Here’s a quick rundown of the main options:

  • Windows Remote Desktop: The Windows Remote Desktop server is only available in Professional versions of Windows. It requires you run your own server, set up port forwarding, configure dynamic DNS, and manage security on your own. Microsoft does provide Remote Desktop applications for Android and iOS devices, but this solution is ideal for businesses with Remote Desktop servers. Exposing a remote desktop server to the Internet can put you at risk — we don’t recommend you use this option.
  • A VNC Server: VNC is an open standard for remote desktop access. VNC server software is the remote desktop solution of choice on on Mac OS X and Linux, and you can also install and set up a VNC server on Windows. This option has the same problems as Windows Remote Desktop, so we don’t recommend it unless you know what you’re doing.
  • TeamViewer: TeamViewer offers an easy-to-use, easy-to-set-up option. This program can be used to grant one-time access to your PC or set up as a persistent server so you can connect remotely even when no one is sitting at your PC. TeamViewer doesn’t require any port-forwarding or messing with server settings — all you need is an ID and password to connect. This program’s simplicity and ease-of-use makes it the ideal solution for remote tech support, too.
  • Chrome Remote Desktop: Google has created a remote desktop server and client that works in Chrome. Install it and you’ll be able to set up an always-listening remote desktop server or grant on-demand access to your PC. You’ll log into your PC remotely with your Google account and a password, so this is a much more convenient and secure option than setting up a server and exposing its port to the Internet. Chrome Remote Desktop can now be accessed from Android devices, too.
  • LogMeIn: LogMeIn was once a competitor to TeamViewer, but they recently shut down their free remote desktop service. LogMeIn is no longer an option, but you’ll still find it recommended in many older guides.

We recommend you use an easy-to-use and easy-to-secure option like TeamViewer or Chrome Remote Desktop rather than attempting to configure Windows Remote Desktop or a VNC server. TeamViewer and Chrome Remote Desktop also have applications and mobile apps for many operating systems. Microsoft used to offer their own easy remote desktop solution for normal users before they shut down Windows Live Mesh, but they no longer offer an easy option here.

RELATED: The Best Tools to Easily Perform Remote Tech Support

Set Up Remote Desktop Access

We’ll assume you want to actually use TeamViewer or Chrome Remote Desktop here. We have guides for setting up Windows Remote Desktop and installing a VNC server, but we recommend against that unless you know what you’re doing.

Install TeamViewer or Chrome Remote Desktop and launch it. You’ll be able to immediately allow access to your PC by giving someone the ID and password that appear under Allow Remote Control in TeamViewer.

If you’re using Chrome Remote Desktop, click Share and provide the person with the code so they can connect.

If you want to access your own PC remotely, you’ll need to set up your remote desktop software as a persistent server that runs in the background and waits for you to connect.

On TeamViewer, click the Connection menu and select Setup Unattended Access. Use the wizard to set up TeamViewer so you can connect to your PC even when you’re away.

On Chrome Remote Desktop, click Enable Remote Connections and provide a PIN. You’ll then need to log in with your Google account details and provide the PIN to access the computer’s desktop remotely.

Download the software — TeamViewer or Chrome Remote Desktop — on another computer or mobile device and enter the authentication details to access your desktop over the Internet.

Be sure to leave your computer on with the server software running if you’d like to access it remotely. Turning on a computer remotely is impossible unless you’ve specially configured Wake-on-LAN.

Image Credit: Jonty on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
Read Full Bio »