VNC is the IT codeword for a technology that can really make life easier for computer experts and their less accomplished friends. The scenario is easy to imagine, even if you’ve never been there yet.
“I’m having problems with my PC,” pleads a friend or family member over the phone. Easy, you tell them, just go there, click on that icon, look under that menu, right click there and you’re done. “Oh thanks, I’ll try that. But what’s an icon?’
An extreme example perhaps, but this writer has been on the receiving end of just this conversation. And that’s where the ability to not just see their desktop, but take control from afar, is a heaven sent gift.
TeamViewer technically doesn’t use the original virtual network computing (VNC) protocol any more, but it follows exactly the same principle, to allow remote viewing and even complete control of a distant computer over a network. Including remote access over the internet.
Once a session has started, you’re presented with a graphical user interface, a window that shows the PC desktop just as if you were sat at your friend’s actual computer. Some of this tech is included in familiar programs these days. In Skype, for example, it’s relatively easy to view your partner’s screen, or vice-versa, but without any control.
On a Mac, the iChat VOIP and IM program provides straightforward remote control facilities, all included in the OS. But both parties do need either an AOL or MobileMe account to proceed.
TeamViewer offers pain-free screen sharing. It’s essentially platform neutral, able to work on a Mac, in Windows, even in Linux. And it really excels in its sheer simplicity. It doesn’t require an account to be created first. TeamView doesn’t so much as ask for your email address before you can start using it.
After downloading and opening the free app, you’re presented with a small window that shows your newly-assigned ID number and a password.
To let someone else connect and take control, you give these numbers to your friend who enters them in the Partner ID fields in their identical app. Alternatively, if you want control of someone’s PC, you input their personalised digits into your app’s fields.
To be clear, this is a cooperative system to let two parties share screen, as distinct from remote access systems such as LogMeIn or GoToMyPC. Those systems are designed to let you remote access your own computer when away, and typically don’t require any user input at the remote end.
Security is still paramount, with screensharing sessions secured by AES256 encryption.
The software adjusts screen quality to the connection speed, and in our tests, we often saw reduced (256 colour) bit depth and a plain, rather than the original patterned, desktop wallpaper. That’s a handy trick to improve refresh rates on slower links. You can easily override these auto settings, from a drop-down menu in the viewing window.
Also here, you can make file transfers in either direction, as well as find a text chat facility and presentation mode.
We did find keyboard shortcuts were not necessarily sent across to the remote machine, but when you’re dealing with inevitable Windows problems, there is a one click command that could prove useful: Ctrl-Alt-Del.
The cleverest work goes on behind the scenes, of course, to negotiate connections through firewalls and NAT routers. In our tests on several different home and office network types, using different computing platforms, we always got a connection.
For Windows users, it's possible to run the app without an Administrator's account or password. Mac users will need an Admin password, if only to open a port on the built-in firewall.
Occasionally, on closing a session, the app quit gracefully under Mac OS X, but since we’d already finished our work these issues were less troubling than random crashes while still in use.
More pleasing, the Mac version seems to be a native Mac app rather than a knock-off Java port, or worse, Adobe AIR abortion. Linux users have to swallow a Windows .exe, but ready-wrapped in the Wine emulation layer.
Our only other inconsequential niggle is the banner that appears at the end of a session, to announce “This was a free session sponsored by teamviewer.com. Please note that free sessions are available for NON-COMMERCIAL USE ONLY. Thank you for playing fair!”
This serves as a reminder that you can buy commercial versions for business use, with prices starting at £439 for a lifetime licence.
TeamViewer is a simple way to dial into a friend or family member’s computer; especially useful for remote help with PC problems. It’s free, doesn’t require any tedious form-filling or email harvesting first, and works as described with enough power functions to keep experienced tech-supporters cheerful too.