How To: Use Your Computer From Anywhere

Nathan Edwards

We’ll set the stage. You’re at work, toiling away on yet another spreadsheet for the Man, when you suddenly have a flash of inspiration. You’ve installed Peggle Deluxe at home, and surely a round of puzzle-ball action would make the day pass faster! But how are you ever going to access your computer and fire up your saved game?

It’s easy to move files from your home computer to any location you want: That’s what portable hard drives are for. But why use your legs when a simple program will let you manipulate any faraway computer using the mouse and keyboard sitting in front of you. Double-click folders. Create pretty Photoshop pictures. Transfer files. Private networks are the ultimate way to manage your computer from afar.

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What You Need

1. Create a Virtual Network

If you’re planning to connect to a remote computer, you first need to know where it is—and “in my house” isn’t the answer you’re looking for. In technological terms, you need the host machine’s IP address. It’s the unique identifier that’s bestowed on Internet-attached computers by an Internet service provider. At least, that’s the simple version. If you’re running behind a router, the IP situation gets a little more complicated. And if you’re trying to remote-control a machine at your workplace… well, things could get interesting. Unless you use Hamachi, that is.

Rather than fiddling with a bunch of complex settings, forwarding options, and other technological thaumaturgy, install the Hamachi client on each machine you want in the connection loop. This one-stop solution to network configuration creates a virtual private network (VPN) on top of your current configuration. Think of it as the difference between following a series of directions to get somewhere versus taking a teleporter that deposits you exactly where you want to go.

Installing the client itself is simple. Once you’ve finished running the executable, follow the onscreen directions to create your first (password-protected!) private network. Set Hamachi to run when Windows starts. This will save you the head-slapping you’d surely inflict on yourself the first time you try to remotely access your desktop only to find that you forgot to start Hamachi before heading out.

Make sure you give your computers descriptive names as well. If you’re planning to include multiple rigs on the network, you’ll definitely want better differentiators than “dave-desktop” and “dave-desktop2.”

You can label computers via IP address if you’re a real network nerd. We prefer an IP address followed by a label such as “PC in Lab,” which tells us exactly what we need to know.

2. Install UltraVNC

Once you’ve got Hamachi up and running, you need to install UltraVNC, which actually handles all the remote interface fun. Installing it is as easy as clicking a mouse button a few times. If you want the program to run when Windows starts, select the option to register UltraVNC as a system service—unless you’re using Vista; Microsoft’s latest OS frowns when you try to do that. Vista users will want to copy the shortcut to UltraVNC from the program’s Start Menu folder into the Startup folder. You’ll get UltraVNC when you log in to Vista, and better still, you won’t see any error messages.

You’ll see an icon in the lower-right corner of your taskbar when UltraVNC’s running. Right-click it and select UltraVNC’s Administrative Properties. Most of the options can be left at their defaults, but a few offer handy upgrades to UltraVNC’s network operations. If you’re accessing a computer located in a public location, you can prevent local users from disabling an UltraVNC connection. You can also turn off a local user’s ability to type, move the mouse, or even edit UltraVNC settings. Most importantly, this is the screen where you set UltraVNC’s password—without one, all someone needs is your IP address to take over your machine.

Next: Get Connected!

3. Get Connected

To connect your UltraVNC Server computers you also need the UltraVNC Viewer included in the initial installation. But before you run this program on the computer that’s doing the connecting, you’ll want to double-click the Hamachi icon in the Windows toolbar and connect to your private network. You’ll now see why installing Hamachi is a good idea: Look at the window and copy the IP address of the machine you’re connecting to into the UltraVNC Viewer window.

And that’s it! It’s the easiest way to figure out a machine’s IP address without physically being at that machine or establishing a static IP.

You can quick-set your connection-specific encoding and coloration options on the tiny viewer, but the Options menu offers you far more control over your network session.

4. Tweak Your Connection's Settings

Now that you’ve connected to your faraway machine, you might very well be staring at an image of your desktop with scroll bars attached to the sides of the window. It’s an annoying way to manipulate your host machine, so here’s how to change it—and a raft of other options.

The specific encoding techniques are complicated. Your best bet is to run through the list to see which gives you the best performance on your connection.

At the top of the UltraVNC Viewer window is a series of icons. Select the one that looks like Earth with a gear over it; it should be third from the left. Clicking the icon pulls up the options for the UltraVNC Viewer client. The program is initially set to replicate a 100-percent duplicate of your desktop, which can lead to the scroll bars on your window. Crank this value down by selecting a different percentage for Viewer Scale and you’ll be able to fit your remote desktop on your current display.

UltraVNC is set to automatically select the remote image’s encoding settings, but you can manually adjust the options for greater control and speed. If your mouse response time is slow, select the option for the remote server to deal with the mouse cursor or disable the cursor image entirely.

If your connection is pokey, first try selecting different compression algorithms to find one that best fits your needs for quality and speed. To maximize the latter, nix the colors—pull up your remote computer in grayscale if you have to, as it’ll reduce the amount of bandwidth required to transfer the desktop image from your remote box to you.

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