What are the limitations of current remote desktop applications?
April 15, 2007 11:34 PM   Subscribe

What are the limitations of current remote desktop applications?

Forgive the n00bness, but I'm curious precisely what the downside of remote desktop software is, particularly for Windows XP. In other words, I figure that you can access a remote computer either through the internet or a LAN, and run software, but I presume you couldn't run a gaming machine remotely and play graphics intensive games. But I don't have a good technical sense of the limitations here. For example, would it be possible to have a desktop workstation tucked away in my house on a wireless network without a monitor, but access it through a lightweight laptop I can wander around with while surfing the web, checking e-mail, running a word processor, and doing more routine day-to-day computer stuff?
posted by drpynchon to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
access it through a lightweight laptop I can wander around with while surfing the web, checking e-mail, running a word processor, and doing more routine day-to-day computer stuff?

Yes, you can do exactly all that.

I can't tell you much about the limitations, but I can say a few things. AFAIK, gaming applications are heavy on the graphics and cpu. The remote computer will be process all cpu type stuff and your local machine will have to deal with the graphics, and your local machine probably won't have the best graphics card. So that's probably why you wouldn't want to play serious games over the connection.

Also, you might want a monitor on the desktop workstation while you are setting it up, and for maintenance reasons. For example, I imagine it would be difficult to fix network issues while logged in through remote desktop.
posted by philomathoholic at 11:48 PM on April 15, 2007


One other thing, the remote desktop is an insecure protocol - it transmits usernames/passwords and data in the clear. Make sure you are using a ssh tunnel or something else similarly secure.
posted by philomathoholic at 11:53 PM on April 15, 2007


There are two major downsides to remote desktop software: security and responsiveness.

Security is important because you don't want someone else a) taking control of your computer or b) watching everything you do on the remote system. However, since you mention that you'll be connecting to another computer on the same local wireless network (i.e. no data ever leaves the network and floats across the internet) security is far less of an issue.

Performance is the other issue, but for surfing and e-mail you'll find most options are fairly decent. On a Windows host system you have two main options: a variant of VNC or Windows Remote Desktop Server, if you're running XP Pro (XP Home comes with Remote Desktop Client but not the server).

VNC works by grabbing the state of the server's current display and transmitting it to the client, then sending back to the server keyboard and mouse events. Think of it as sending JPGs every time the screen changes. That's part of the reason why games don't work very well; because response time is crucial and the entire screen changes, so the images that come down the pipe are bigger and thus updates are slower.

Windows Remote Desktop tends to be faster and more responsive because it hooks into various Windows services and determines the state of the system that way, thus bypassing the need to grab images from the frame buffer and transmit them. The client on the other end, instead of simply displaying screen images, takes the data sent from the server and renders the remote screen itself. Thus, for any given action, Remote Desktop tends to send less data to update the screen. Of course, the downside is that Remote Desktop Server only works on Windows, whereas VNC is cross-platform, but if your desktop's running XP Pro or an equivalent version of Vista (Business or higher, I believe) then Remote Desktop's probably the way to go.
posted by chrominance at 12:02 AM on April 16, 2007


For example, would it be possible to have a desktop workstation tucked away in my house on a wireless network without a monitor, but access it through a lightweight laptop I can wander around with while surfing the web, checking e-mail, running a word processor, and doing more routine day-to-day computer stuff?

I have exactly that setup. A windows XP Pro box tucked away that I access using Remote Desktop. Also, I access it on a Mac laptop - Microsoft makes a Remote Desktop Client for Mac!

As folks have mentioned above, I use it to access some Windows only apps - not games. As a side note, I also access the machine by SSHing to it - I have CygWin installed on it and so use Unix-ish commands for file management and stuff like that.
posted by vacapinta at 12:19 AM on April 16, 2007


Previous comments cover options such as VNC and Windows Remote Desktop (RDP), so I'll skip the repetition.

However, it is worth noting that VNC and RDP are typically blocked by corporate firewalls and some public routers. A second and very useful tool in your remote access toolkit would be Hamachi.

Hamachi will allow you to set-up a encrypted private network which you can connect your desktop and laptop to. Once you have done this, you can take the laptop on the road, connect to Hamachi and still use VNC/RDP without worrying about security/firewall issues. There are some utilities that will allow you to do file transfers using the Hamachi network as well.

Playing Games on a remote desktop will very likely be quite laggy - However, games with simple/slowly-changing graphics (TBS games such as Civ III come to mind) might still be feasible. YMMV.

On the other hand, if you would like to play LAN games such as Counter-Strike with a local client installed on your laptop and your workstation at home acting as the server, that is still workable - again, I am going to refer you back to Hamachi - check out the hamachi forums for how-to's for various games
posted by your mildly obsessive average geek at 12:42 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


I've been using RealVNC for this exact purpose for quite a while now and it's very convenient. There are plenty of cool features too, like encryption, a shared clipboard and even copy and paste of files between computers. One of my favorite features is the HTTP server which allows you to access your desktop securely from any web browser that has Java.

You have to install the 'server' application on the desktop machine and use the 'viewer' application (no installation) to connect to the server. The vnc 'server' application can be run as a windows service meaning it loads before you log in. This also means you never have to leave your desktop computer unlocked. And if you have Wake-On-Lan set up, you can power up your computer from anywhere, connect to the desktop with the viewer app, log into the desktop as if you were there in person, do what you need, and then power off the desktop so you're not wasting energy.

I've tried remote desktop and found VNC to be much less intensive on the 'viewer' machine since it doesn't have to do a lot of work besides showing a picture, as opposed to rendering the desktop environment.

A free (better?) alternative to RealVNC is UltraVNC. I would highly recommend checking it out.
posted by pants tent at 12:48 AM on April 16, 2007


And to answer your question (application-wise, I believe VNC and RDP have similar usability limitations):
anything that moves at more than a couple frames per second is out of the question.

Otherwise, remotely using office applications, chat, managing files, downloads, email, etc. is fine. The VNC viewers are also very light weight so it's easy to multitask between computers.
posted by pants tent at 1:21 AM on April 16, 2007


Performance is too poor to be useful as anything other than a temporary connection. Even on my office 100Mbit wired LAN, VNC is annoyingly laggy. It's little things like menus appearing a split-second later than they would normally, but it adds up and gets on your nerves. Video playback is impossible, ditto games. On a slower connection you'll be watching the screen redraw, a bit like running WinXP on a 386 computer.

Bear in mind that if you have a wireless connection, you'll need 802.11g wifi for this to be even remotely possible, and then you'll also need a 100% signal strength connection to avoid having the connection speed ramped down. Bear in mind too that if your wifi network has both g and older b network cards, then they'll ALL run at b speeds.

If you check around the Net, you'll see that remote desktop is only used in remote administration and diagnostic situations. Nobody uses it full time, unless they really can't avoid it.
posted by humblepigeon at 1:23 AM on April 16, 2007


Im going to disagree with humblepigeon No, not just disagree, but call BS. Remote desktop is not only used to remotely administer. A lot of people do all their work through remote sessions. And it is worlds better than VNC, usability-wise.

Remote desktop runs *very* well on broadband connections. It is pretty much seamless when u are running on a local LAN (wired or wireless).

I work from home 3 days a week, connecting to the corporate VPN and RDP'ing to my work machine. I do full time development and there is little to no lag, even with full screen GUI apps. I even RDP to other test machines within my RDP session with no problems. Testers at my office pretty much run 4-5 RDP sessions at once all day long.
posted by mphuie at 2:26 AM on April 16, 2007


VNC is a bit slow, even locally. LogMeIn, and their more RDP/VNC/PCAnywhere-like RemotelyAnywhere product are really good, and deal with far more network brokenness than any other remote access app I've seen. Even better than SSH.

FWIW, I did use Remote Desktop for awhile without too much irritation with 802.11b back when I had a laptop significantly slower than my desktop, but it's noticeably slow if you're, say, typing in a text box. There are lots of things it does well, but there are also lots of things it doesn't do so well.

BTW, I love LogMeIn. I have about 80 machines on my free account. It beats the everliving crap out of Remote Desktop and GoToMyPC. Also, do note that if you have it installed, you can connect to the machine over the local network without using the LogMeIn site in the same way as you would use RemotelyAnywhere, and it's all done through the web browser with an XPI, ActiveX control, Java applet or even the incredibly awful method of image maps, if that's all your browser can support. I've never thought to try to use it for gaming, though...
posted by wierdo at 3:10 AM on April 16, 2007


I use Remote Desktop to connect from a Linux machine to a Windows machine, and VNC to do the other direction. I use FDP regularly because it works so well, but avoid VNC because it doesn't. Even on a WAN connection, I find that RDP performs well enough for ordinary office application use, while VNC does not.

Also, while VNC is certainly insecure (passwords in plaintext, I believe), I do not know any serious attacks against RDP.
posted by grouse at 3:33 AM on April 16, 2007


However, it is worth noting that VNC and RDP are typically blocked by corporate firewalls and some public routers. A second and very useful tool in your remote access toolkit would be Hamachi.

Of course, you can change what ports are used by RDP and VNC clients, and set your router at home to use a non-standard port number to get around corporate firewall port blocking. My work blocks port 5900 (VNC's default), so I just changed my router at home to listen on a different port, and redirect to port 5900 on my machine (I could have changed it on my machine as well, but why bother?) and boom, fixed.

Having said that, I'm considering upgrading to XP Pro (I only have Home) strictly for remote desktop. VNC is painful if you don't have a ton of bandwidth available.
posted by antifuse at 4:31 AM on April 16, 2007


I work from home 5 days a week using Remote Desktop over a VPN using a broadband connection. Most of the time it feels pretty much like working on my local machine, but every so often I'll get a slight lag in response. It's fine for most purposes, but I wouldn't try using it to play games.
posted by tdismukes at 5:59 AM on April 16, 2007


One tip: Remote Desktop has a number of useful option settings (reducing color depth, turning off "expensive" UI operations, not displaying background images, etc.) that can be used to fix most lag problems. There is also an "Experience" tab that will make reasonable choices based on the connection speed you specify. These settings are often overlooked, but they can make a big difference in usability -- I run all my sessions, even on a LAN, in 56kbps mode, and I have no lag issues.
posted by backupjesus at 6:43 AM on April 16, 2007


I also spent a few months working via remote desktop (to a computer in another country), and it was nearly indistinguishable from working on the actual machine. Sometimes if my connection wasn't great I would have to drop the bitdepth (number of colors displayed) to 256, and disable animations and stuff on the machine, but otherwise, it was great.

Just remember you'll have to forgo anything that is bandwidth intensive (sound, video, etc).
posted by blue_beetle at 7:58 AM on April 16, 2007


If you check around the Net, you'll see that remote desktop is only used in remote administration and diagnostic situations. Nobody uses it full time, unless they really can't avoid it.

I'm living proof that this response is full of crap. I use RDC 24/7 to link up between my home in Wisconsin (where I live and work 99% of the time) and my office back in Connecticut (where I work the other 1% of the time). I code, use office applications, chat, and do everything else necessary for work through multiple connections at the same time.

My office has a partial T1 and I've got a 10MB/1MB cable connection at home, and the responsiveness is just as if I were right in front of the computer in the office.
posted by thanotopsis at 8:10 AM on April 16, 2007


When I set up Remote Desktop on my computer that had no keyboard or mouse, I remember it would no let me shut down/restart the computer from the remote connection. I solved this by writing 3 batch files;

shutdown -s -t 5 ...to shut down the computer (5 sec delay)
shutdown -r -t 5 ..to restart the computer (5 sec delay)
shutdown -a ...to abort shutting down if i clicked it by accident

Another problem I had, when I logged into an RDP session, I would be logged out of the computer locally, and vice-versa.

I switched to VNC to solve that. VNC is slower, but does the job.
posted by Sonic_Molson at 8:58 AM on April 16, 2007


VNC is certainly insecure (passwords in plaintext, I believe)

The password to connect to your VNC session is encrypted, but anything you enter while connected (logging into websites, email, yadda yadda) will be sent unencrypted. The poster is keeping it all within his local network, though, so it shouldn't be a big deal.
posted by chrisamiller at 9:24 AM on April 16, 2007


Another problem I had, when I logged into an RDP session, I would be logged out of the computer locally, and vice-versa.

There's a command line option (/console) that logs you in to the console session, to prevent exactly this from happening. This prevents you from logging out the currently logged in user.
posted by antifuse at 1:35 PM on April 16, 2007


I use and like UltraVNC, even better than Remote Desktop. I run it over SSH, from a computer at work to check on torrents, check email, start backups, that kind of thing. Works great.

Here's a barebones tutorial that has the gist of the setup. I use OpenSSH and UltraVNC.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 4:41 PM on April 16, 2007


I forgot to add that the SSH is very nice for these type of things because you really only need to open that port (generally 22) on your firewall to access all sorts of stuff on your LAN. But if you aren't worried too much about security, you could run it fine without SSH.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 4:43 PM on April 16, 2007


antifuse wrote:
There's a command line option (/console) that logs you in to the console session

Whoah! That looks very useful!

I have been using the Sala Source Terminal Server Patch to login to a remote desktop session on a computer at work without "bumping" the active local session. The patch will allow a Win XP Pro SP2 PC to have one local and two remote sessions concurrently. This lets me use an underutilized PC remotely without disrupting the local user. (Disclaimer: I am doing this with the knowledge and consent of the machine's owner).

Will the /console option let the host PC support two remote and one local session concurrently? Will it let more sessions run?
posted by DanYHKim at 2:02 AM on April 18, 2007


I had a family member that installed VNC on my father's computer. This was a huge mistake -- even though it was passworded, someone (well, probably more than one person) figured out a way to get in and implanted an IRC bot, viruii, etc. I'm not sure if they guessed the password (probably not hard, since I'm sure many per second could be tried without VNC doing anything about it) or if they used an exploit (like a buffer overflow).

If you go the VNC route on a machine exposed to the internet, make sure you pick a STRONG password and keep up on VNC security releases.
posted by catkins at 8:57 AM on April 18, 2007


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