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5 Free Remote Access Tools for Connecting to a PC or Mac

A woman working on a laptop with a child sitting next to her drawing.
Ilona Titova/Shutterstock

Sometimes, when you’re working from home, you might need to access a computer at your office or another location. Remote-access tools allow you to use a computer that’s located elsewhere as if you were sitting in front of it.

Most remote desktop solutions only take a few minutes to set up. Plus, as long as the remote computer remains online, the connection should work indefinitely.

Setting Up Remote Access

Remote access requires that you install an “agent” on the machine you want to control. You have to do this bit in person, so you’ll have to set this up before you leave the office or wherever the machine to which you want to remotely connect is located.

If you want to install software so you can remotely access your work computer, make sure you ask your boss or supervisor first. Your employer might have policies that prohibit you from installing remote-access software yourself. However, the IT department might provide you with secure software, instead.

After the agent is installed, you can use a remote-access client to connect to the remote machine. These are usually small, lightweight applications. Depending on the service you choose, you might use a desktop app, a web browser, or a mobile app to connect.

The TeamViewer "Remote Control" menu on a Mac.

Unlike tech support solutions, which rely on the host inviting or granting access to support personnel in person, remote access tools are designed with unattended access in mind.

This is why it’s important to protect your remote access credentials and never share them with anyone else. If someone else has access to your machine, they can easily use it without your knowledge. Scam artists posing as tech support heavily target remote-access tools; however, as long as you take adequate precautions, there’s little to worry about.

All the services listed below are free, but some have restrictions based on how often you use them. If you’ll be relying on remote access tools heavily in the coming months, it might be worth it to pay for premium access. However, these free tools should suffice for light use.

Chrome Remote Desktop

The "Remote Access" menu on Chrome Remote Desktop.

One of the simplest ways to access a remote computer is Google’s Chrome Remote Desktop. For this to work, you have to use the Chrome browser on both computers and be logged in to a Google account. You’ll also need to set up the Remote Access extension on any computers you want to access.

On the machine you want to access, download Chrome and log in to your Google Account. Head over to remotedesktop.google.com/access, click “Remote Access,” and then follow the instructions to add the extension to your browser. Just choose a name and six-digit PIN, and you’re good to go.

You can then access that computer remotely from any Chrome browser, provided you’re logged in to the same Google Account. To access your remote machine, head over to remotedesktop.google.com/access, and then click the machine in question.

You can use Chrome for unattended access, and it supports multiple monitors, too. Unfortunately, features like file transfer, remote printing, and chat (if you’re using it for remote support) aren’t available. However, you can use a cloud storage service, like Google Drive, to transfer files.

TeamViewer

TeamViewer is a premium remote-access tool with a generous free option. While many remote-access services charge for unattended access, TeamViewer does not. It’s also particularly easy to use and requires little setup.

To get started, download the TeamViewer app on the computer you want to access. For ease of use, it’s best to set up a TeamViewer account and log in. In the main client window, click “Set up unattended access,” and then follow the steps to finalize it. You might want to check the “Start TeamViewer with System” box just in case your machine restarts.

To access your remote machine, download the TeamViewer app on your home computer, and then log in. Under the “Computers and Contacts” tab, you should see a list of computers to which you can connect; double-click the one you want and wait for the connection to complete.

TeamViewer will sometimes show you advertisements while you use the free version. While many features are limited to paying customers, you can access features like file-sharing, copy-and-paste, and remote printing.

Some people have noted that TeamViewer restricts access if they use it heavily, as the service is intended to be free for personal use only.

DWService

The DWService Remote Access menu.

DWService is a completely free, open-source remote access tool that allows you to access a remote computer via a web browser. The service requires that you install a small agent on the remote machine. Versions are available for most major operating systems.

After you install the agent, you can log in to the web interface and remotely connect to that machine. There isn’t a client you download to connect, which means there aren’t any dedicated mobile apps, either. You have to access the service via a browser, which might make it less attractive if you need to use it a lot.

DWService includes some nice extras you might not expect from an open-source solution. These include a simple file-transfer interface and command-line access for remote machines.

While this option lacks the polish and user-friendliness of Chrome or TeamViewer, it’s a solid solution for anyone who doesn’t mind being restricted to a browser.

AnyDesk

AnyDesk is a standalone remote-access solution that’s a great alternative to TeamViewer. It works in virtually the same way: you sign up for an account, download the AnyDesk app on the machine you want to access remotely, sign in, and then enable unattended access in the app’s preferences and set a password.

You can then use the same app on another machine to access your computer remotely. The main reason to choose AnyDesk over TeamViewer is its focus on slower connections. The app uses a proprietary codec that AnyDesk promises “ensures low lag, even at high screen resolutions or bandwidths of just 100 kB/s.”

The app itself is tiny (around 3 MB), so it consumes very little in the way of resources. The service includes file transfer and clipboard integration, plus mobile apps for iOS and Android.

TigerVNC

The TigerVNC Viewer menu on a Mac.

Virtual network computing (VNC) is another method you can use to access a remote computer, but it’s definitely not the most user-friendly option. Unlike TeamViewer or Chrome, VNC requires a fair amount of setup. You have to configure ports, set up a static IP or use dynamic DNS, and deal with the security implications of not using encryption.

To use a VNC, you must first install a VNC server. TigerVNC includes both a server and VNC viewer, except for Macs (macOS has a built-in VNC server). Since TigerVNC isn’t encrypted by default, you’ll have to install an SSH server, such as OpenSSH, if you want to connect securely.

TigerVNC prioritizes performance over features. It doesn’t offer file transfer or remote printing, but latency is low. VNC solutions are also platform agnostic, which means you can use just about any combination of VNC viewer and server, with any combination of operating systems.

If you’re a power user and not afraid to get your hands dirty, TigerVNC could reward you with a fast, high-performing remote access solution. If you’re looking for a set-it-and-forget-it solution, though, choose a different remote access tool.

Set Up Remote Access Now

Taking the time to set up unattended remote access on your computer is a great idea. You can then access documents, fix issues when you’re away from the office, and have the peace of mind of knowing you can access anything you might need in a pinch.

If you unexpectedly find yourself working from home, you can also use a variety of free video conferencing apps to stay in touch with your colleagues.

RELATED: The 6 Best Free Video Conferencing Apps

Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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