You don't have to look hard or long to find an abundance of products that allow remote access to a second computer from a primary system. These solutions have many features in common, including onscreen collaboration (i.e., primary/remote chat and control), file transfer, and printing. They allow you to record a connected session and configure the remote system and its programs. These products are all fairly user-friendly and are designed so that installation and use is simple even for novices. So why would you select one product over another? For the three products I tested—Symantec's pcAnywhere 11.5, Citrix Online's GoToMyPC, and CrossTec's NetOp Remote Control 7.65—performance and intuitiveness were my bottom lines. The sidebar "A Money-Saving Option" describes Microsoft's free Remote Desktop tool.

Keep in mind that for any of these solutions, your connection can be a bottleneck. These are graphical applications, and the better the connection speed, the faster the information is displayed back and forth. It's important to note that all of these applications let the user scale back the visual interface to accommodate slower speeds. Each even claims to be "usable" with a modem connection. I don't even know anyone with a modem connection anymore, so I tested the applications on systems with a 256Kbps DSL or faster connection.

The Testing Environment
For my testing, I used two Dell 3GHz Pentium 4 systems with 512MB of RAM running Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 (SP2) and two HP 733MHz Pentium III laptops with 256MB of RAM. One of the laptops ran XP Pro, the other ran Windows 2000 Server. Both laptops and one of the PCs were on a 10Base-T LAN connected to the Internet through a Linksys hub, and the second PC functioned as a remote system and connected to the Internet through a cable broadband connection.

Symantec pcAnywhere 11.5
pcAnywhere is the "go-to" application among these products. It sometimes seems as if everyone has used a version of pcAnywhere, and most other products position themselves against it as well. I found the user experience to be somewhat underwhelming.

Installation on the W2K Server machine was difficult and tedious. Before I could begin, I had to upgrade Internet Explorer (IE) to the latest version and download several updates. In contrast, installation was deceptively simple on the XP Pro laptop. The installation appeared straightforward and successful, but the remote machines couldn't see the host. The problem was that during installation, I had selected a setup option for the security protocol for the remote machine that was different than the host machine's default option. I made a few minor tweaks in the preferences connection settings, and the connection proceeded without problem. It's troublesome, however, that a relatively simple mistake made during installation proved to be a problem when I tried to connect the machines. Less experienced users who use pcAnywhere could easily prove to be a headache for your support team.

After installation, controlling remote systems worked well on the LAN but was slow on the WAN. The default settings optimize screen colors and transfer rate, but the maximum transfer rate of 5Kbps to 8 Kbps was low compared to the other products.

pcAnywhere's security configuration is strong and includes pcAnywhere encoding and symmetric and public key encryption. You can remotely manage Windows and Linux machines with pcAnywhere, as well as manage remote sessions from a Microsoft PocketPC device. All the other products support a much longer list of compatible OSs.

How software feels is purely a matter of preference; nevertheless, pcAnywhere seems to double up in places, which gives the impression that the product has more features than it does. For example, there are "Option Sets," "Preferences," and "Properties" that take the user to different menus. A single "Options" menu would make the software feel less cumbersome and more user-friendly, especially for users who don't have time to explore all of a product's nuances.

The software's cost is reasonable, but every installation requires a separate license. If you use pcAnywhere to connect to only one machine from only one machine, pricing won't present a problem. However, if you need to connect from multiple computers (e.g., if you travel to multiple sites) and don't use a laptop, carrying around the installation disk and having to set up new remote machines will make using the software less cost-effective.

pcAnywhere 11.5
Contact: Symantec * 408-517-8000
Price: Starts at $192 per license for 10 to 24 licenses; $182.50 per license for 25 to 99 licenses
Pros: Strong security configuration
Cons: Installation can be problematic; supports limited number of OSs
Rating: 3 out of 5
Recommendation: Good for telecommuters who don't need to connect to a host from a variety of systems or locations.

Citrix Online GoToMyPC Corporate Edition
GoToMyPC isn't software but rather a remote connection service. You enact a short one-time setup process on the host system and a small client download on the client (remote) system. You can quickly initiate the client download on almost any machine at any time, as long as you have administrator authority. After the initial host setup, you can access the host machine from a client machine with an Internet connection as long as the host is running and connected to the Internet. Essentially, you can access the host computer from anywhere, including that Internet café in Mazatlan.

Administrators can use GoToMyPC Corporate Edition to remotely manage multiple systems. The administrator provides users with a password. Each user connects to the GoToMyPC Web site, logs in with the password, and the Web site connects the client machine (i.e., the user's machine) to the host machine. Administrators can manage and configure preferences for the client machine before the remote user logs on. Being able to manage a remote connection before it's initiated can definitely make IT support teams happy.

After initial setup, using GoToMyPC is straightforward. This is a Java-based application, so problems could potentially occur on systems without Java enabled or on older systems. I didn't experience any problems with remote setups in my testing. The transfer rates I experienced were good, especially considering that the connections were tunneled through the GoToMyPC Web site.

GoToMyPC supports multiple OSs. The list includes Windows Server 2003, XP, Win2K, and 9x; Windows CE; Linux; Mac OS X; and OS/2.

Contact: Citrix Online * 805-690-5750 or 888-259-3826
Price: Starts at $19.95 for a one-system monthly plan; $29.95 for a two-system monthly plan; $269.40 for a two-system annual plan
Pros: Easy for novice users to use
Cons: The ICA client installation necessary for remote connections can be problematic if the user doesn't have administrator permission
Rating: 4 out of 5
Recommendation: For companies with a lot of remote users, this application is simple to use.

CrossTec NetOp Remote Control 7.65
(Note: CrossTec released NetOp Remote Control 8.0 after this review was completed.)

NetOp Remote Control 7.65 was the easiest of this group of products to install. I performed the setup from disk, although there is an option to download the software. Setup proceeded without a hitch, and I didn't need to change any of the default settings to begin running the software.

I like this software for several reasons, the primary one being its transfer speeds. Through the WAN, I consistently reached transfer speeds in the 20Kbps to 25Kbps range. The guest desktop refresh feature is smooth and provides the highest image quality of all the systems. The software is intuitive: A single floating menu bar contains all submenus.

NetOp Remote Control can provide a history that lets you quickly see a list of previous sessions. Additional features include audio chat capability, a scripting utility, and several control features that let the host computer provide Help desk functions for the guest. NetOp Remote Control supports Windows 2003, XP, Win2K, and 9x; Windows CE; Sun Solaris; Linux; Mac OS X; Symbian; and OS/2.

NetOp Remote Control offers a USB installation option that lets you store the guest machine software on a USB drive. If you carry the USB drive along with you, you'll have everything you need to access your host machine from any other system. For heightened security, the guest software runs from the USB drive, and settings are not saved on the guest machine. With six different data stream encryption options, the software ensures that you'll find the best security fit.

NetOp Remote Control 7.65
Contact: CrossTec * 561-391-6560 or 800-675-0729
Price: Starts at $189 for one guest/host license
Pros: Provides the most host control and support to guest connections
Cons: Some option boxes don't close down or react properly
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Recommendation: A good choice for traveling telecommuters; offers valuable configuration and security options for administrators.

My Verdict
Among these products, I recommend both GoToMyPC and NetOp Remote Control. GoToMyPC is easy to use and administer. When you need to connect to the host system, all you have to remember is the GoToMyPC Web address and your password. NetOp Remote Control gets an extra push from the USB guest option. However, the version I reviewed wasn't perfect—small annoyances, such as Close buttons that didn't close a submenu properly—make the product feel somewhat like a final beta version. Nevertheless, pluses such as the security and administration options and the ability to conveniently carry the guest software on a USB drive make NetOp Remote Control the best choice among the products in this review.

See associated table