Many Options Available for Mac Remote Control [MacRx]



Remote control of your Macintosh allows you to access a distant computer across a network or the Internet. The screen of the remote Mac appears locally, and you use your mouse and keyboard to control the distant system.  This capability can be helpful for tech support, system administration, finding missing information or more informed parenting (to the chagrin of many offspring).

With the Mac’s increasing popularity there are now an increasing number of options available for Mac Remote Control, many of which are free.  Choices include Apple’s built in Screen Sharing and Remote Desktop software, web based services like LogMeIn and GoToMyPC, and old standards like VNC.

Screen Sharing

Beginning with Leopard Apple started including a built-in screen sharing service and viewer application called Screen Sharing (very original name). On your local network (wired or WiFi) shared systems will appear via Bonjour in the Finder sidebar.  Click on them, and you’ll see a Share Screen… button. Access is usually fast and elegant on a local network.

To enable Screen Sharing for a Mac, go to System Preferences –> Sharing and enable the Screen Sharing option. You will be asked to enter your password for this Mac when you connect from another system.

Quick and easy – you’re on a Mac!  But without some additional configuration this kind of screen sharing only works on your local network.  The real need is when you’re away from home or work.

iChat AV

Apple’s iChat AV includes both screen sharing and file transfer capabilities. Implementation is excellent and you don’t need to know any IP addresses or perform complex firewall configurations.  However, somebody needs to be present at the remote computer to help with the session; this isn’t an option for unattended operation.

You need separate iChat accounts on both the local and remote systems to establish communication.  An existing MobileMe or AIM account will work, or you can signup for an iChat account upon first launch. You must have Leopard or Snow Leopard on both systems, and iChat must be launched on both Macs before making the connection.

The remote system will show up in either your Buddy List, double-click to initiate a chat session.  Once connected go to Buddies –> Ask to Share to connect to the remote screen. Apple uses it’s graphics wizardry to show both the local and remote screens simultaneously; click on the smaller window in the bottom right corner to switch between local and remote screens.  This happens simultaneously to any text, audio or video chats you may have going (bandwidth permitting).  Slick.

For the guy or gal in the family who always has to support their parents’ and grandparents’ computers, iChat is a great solution.

LogMeIn, GoToMyPC

LogMeIn and GoToMyPC are web-based services that have long provided remote control for PCs, also without needing to know any address info or perform network configurations.  In the past few years both these services have become available on the Mac platform.

I’ve primarily used LogMeIn, they were first with a Mac version and have both free and paid options; GoToMyPC is paid only, with a free trial.  Both services work similarly.  Set up an account (with a strong password) on the host website, then download the installation software.  Run the installer on your Mac to be controlled, and when asked enter the account information you used when creating your LogMeIn or GoToMyPC accounts.

When you’re away you can access your remote computer using a web browser; go to the LogMeIn or GoToMyPC websites, login to your account, then connect to your remote Mac. Safari and Firefox are both supported and work equally well in my experience. You will see your distant friend in the browser window, scaled to fit your display.

The free software only provides screen sharing only (which is often sufficient), the paid versions add features like remote printing and file transfer capability.  Reliable and convenient, these are some of the most popular ways to control your Mac from afar.

Apple Remote Desktop

Apple’s professional remote control solution is called Remote Desktop.  ARD is very powerful but is a professional tool, both in required skills and cost.  The basic software is built-in to Mac OS X and provides the full gamut of remote system control: scalable screen sharing, two way file transfers, and remote software updating of individual machines or whole networks at a time.

Remote Desktop is enabled in System Preferences –> Sharing.  Control capabilities are split into separate Screen Sharing and Remote Management sections.  For basic remote control Screen Sharing is typically all that’s needed. Access from afar is initiated using the remote Mac’s account password.

Bonjour support is available to find systems on your local network, or you can add any Mac by IP address. Accessing ARD across the internet requires forwarding TCP and UDP ports 3283 through firewalls. Traffic can be routed across VPNs if one is available.

ARD is a powerful tool, but power comes at a price. The Remote Desktop administrator software comes in two versions, a 10-client version for $299 or an unlimited version for $499. The limit dictates how many remote systems you can manage simultaneously.

VNC (Virtual Network Computing)

VNC is free, mature open source software that provides remote screen sharing capabilities. Simple and reliable, it has become my primary method of controlling remote Macs and PCs from other Macs (or PCs) when I know the IP address or DNS name for the remote system.  This is necessary to make the connection, you need to know how to find your computer on the internet without using an intermediate server or service.

Starting with Mac OS X 10.4 VNC has been included in the built-in Remote Desktop software; go to System Preferences –> Sharing –> Screen Sharing, click the Computer Settings… button and select VNC viewers may control screen with password: Be sure to use a strong password.

On pre-Tiger Macs – or as an alternative for all Macs-  you can use the free Vine VNC Server.  This package has many configuration options and in my experience is more stable than Apple’s built-in server.  I use Vine on many of the business systems I support.

VNC provides screen sharing capability only.  Accessing VNC across the internet requires forwarding TCP port 5900 through any firewalls to the machine to be controlled, similar to ARD.

A VNC viewer is required to access your remote Mac. Apple’s Screen Sharing app will work for this on Macs running Leopard or Snow Leopard.  To use Screen Sharing to access systems not on your local network, in the Finder choose Go –> Connect To Server… and enter a URL of the form:  vnc:// or  vnc://

Older Macs can use Chicken of the VNC (free) or the Vine VNC Viewer ($35), which is faster and offers remote screen size scaling; this is invaluable when controlling a big screen from a small laptop.

When you can use it, VNC is reliable and the price is right.

Back to My Mac

Another service for remote control is Apple’s Back to My Mac. You need to have a current MobileMe account and all systems must be running Leopard or Snow Leopard.  Login to the same MobileMe account on each system, then enable Back to My Mac in the MobileMe Preference Pane. On the Mac to be controlled, also enable Screen Sharing and File Sharing (if desired) from the Sharing Preference Pane.

When you’re away from your home or office, the remote Mac should show up in the Finder sidebar, just like on a local network. From there you can choose to share the remote screen or mount a drive.

When it is available Back to My Mac works very efficiently, but “when available” is key.  Both the local and remote network routers must support passthrough of UPnP services. Some routers do this by default, some can be configured appropriately, others are incompatible.  All modern Airport routers support Back to My Mac, and Apple publishes a list of known compatible third party hardware, but in practice this situation is often out of your control.

In my experience Back to my Mac looks good on paper, but fails to deliver most of the time.

General Considerations

With any remote desktop method, access to the remote system is slower than when you are sitting in front of that computer. The method used, network bandwidth available, and type of traffic will determine the sluggishness factor.

The remote computer needs to be left turned on and configured to not go to sleep, otherwise it won’t respond to requests for control; letting the screen only sleep and the hard drive spin down is OK.  (Thanks to sharp CoM reader “lizardliquer” for reminding me of this in the comments.)

Minimizing the amount of data you need to transmit for screen sharing will make the process run more quickly. Closing unnecessary windows on the remote system and using a flat single-color desktop instead of a complicated picture or pattern will speed up response. Patience is a must, but it’s still faster than traveling there!

Needs and realities will dictate your options. Some remote control methods work across different versions of Mac OS X (or cross-platform), while others require specific OS versions on both machines. Some methods require you to know the IP address of your remote system and may have specific firewall configurations, while others will usually work without any special settings or knowledge.

The above items are not an exhaustive list.  It’s often helpful to use two remote control methods simultaneously, especially when you’re running a server. Programs crash, network and Internet conditions vary, and you may find yourself locked out at a critical time. Sometimes method B works when method A doesn’t, then you can fix method A or reboot the machine from afar.

Have other suggestions or your own experiences to share?  Let us know in the comments.


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