Friday, February 5, 2010

How to control your home computer from anywhere

The Virtual Network Computing (VNC) protocol remotely controls another computer over a network. Think of it as a window into your home computer's desktop from any other computer. Your key presses and mouse clicks get transferred over the network and happen on the remote computer in real time, and anyone at the remote computer can watch the action as it happens.

A few things you can do with a VNC server running at home:

  • Start a downloading a large file, like a movie, in the morning so it's there when you get home in the evening
  • Search your home computer's IM logs, address book or file system for important information
  • Help Mom figure out why Microsoft Word doesn't start without having to go to her house (even though Mom would like to see you more often)
  • Control a headless (monitor-less) machine like a media center or file server in another room in the house from the laptop on the couch

VNC requires two components for a successful connection: the server on your home computer, and the viewer on the remote computer. Let's set up each component to get going. Here's how.

Step 1. Install the VNC server.

Windows users: TightVNC is free Windows VNC server and client software. TightVNC is a nice choice because it also allows for file transfers and high compression levels for slow connections. Download TightVNC from here and run the installation on your home computer. Start the server, and set a password for incoming connections.

TightVNC can be set to run as a Windows service, which means your Windows usernames and passwords can be used to authenticate on the VNC server connection. Be sure all your Windows passwords are set and strong, and that any passwordless guest accounts are disabled.

Mac users: OSXvnc is a free Mac VNC server. Download, install, set up a password and start the server.

If your VNC server is connected directly to the Internet, it is now listening for Internet requests on port 5900, VNC's default port (which is also configurable). Visit WhatIsMyIP from your home computer to determine its IP address and write it down.

Step 2. Install the VNC client.

On the remote Windows computer, also download and install TightVNC, but this time, start the viewer, NOT the server. If you're on a Mac, download the free Chicken of the VNC Mac viewer to connect to your home PC. Enter your home computer's IP address and password to connect.

Here's a screengrab of a VNC connection to my Windows PC from my Mac. Click on the image to see a larger version.

And that's that! You're virtually sitting at your home desktop from anywhere in the world.

A few extra VNC tips to chew on:

  • For slower network connections, set the compression to "best." The window image quality will be lower, but the connection response will be snappier.
  • Bring a VNC viewer with you on a USB memory stick so you don't have to download and install on every computer you want to use to connect to your server.
  • Avoid having to install a server on Mom's computer; email her the 166K self-extractingSingleClick UltraVNC server for your next tech support phone session. More on SingleClick in an upcoming Lifehacker feature.

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