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What is Remote Desktop?

By David White
Updated May 16, 2024
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Remote desktop is an application that allows the user to control the desktop — and, indeed, the entire contents — of one computer from second machine. This application gives the "master" computer access to all of the contents on the remote computer, and often provides features like file transfer and text chat. One version of the application comes standard with all new Windows® computers, but other versions are available for that operating system (OS) as well as for Mac® and Linux® — as well as between systems, such as Linux® and Windows®.

How It Works

This application requires that the client, or "master," and remote, also called the "slave" or host, computers be connected to the same network. The remote desktop network can be wired or wireless. Wired networks can use direct connections or connections through routers, while wireless networks can be formed using routers or the Internet. It is quite common for an application to be used to control a host computer that is far from the client, connected only via the Internet.

Advanced security protocols are standard practice in remote desktop software, especially when the network is a wireless and/or Internet one. The nature of this application, allowing another computer to control the host machine, makes security extremely important. Anyone running the software, even if the connection is direct wired, should make sure that the connection is secure and password protected to reduce the possibility that an unauthorized user could access the remote computer. Certain safety features may be built into the software protocols so that the client computer is not able to delete or otherwise alter files without the remote user's permission.

Once the administrator has entered the correct password, the software enables him or her to access the remote computer. The person using the client computer can use any software on the remote machine, and access any files. Software maintenance is one of the most common uses of this type of program, allowing an administrator to shut down a malfunctioning software application or install a software upgrade. This saves the time that it would take to physically insert a CD or other storage device into the host computer or to do a manual software upgrade download.

In most cases, the host computer is still able to access all of its core functions; it may be possible to lock or disable the peripheral devices on the host computer, however, so that a user cannot interfere with the client actions. With some software, many of these functions, including the main clipboard, can also be shared between the remote computer and the client. This software may even allow the client administrator to run an audio or video application on a remote computer and have the sights and/or sounds redirected to the client machine.

Windows® Operating Systems

Most modern computers running a Windows® OS include Remote Desktop Protocol, which allows for remote connections. The remote tool is typically found in the computer properties settings; in order for a computer to be accessed remotely, this setting must be turned on. Not all versions of Windows® can be accessed using this tool, however; in most cases, the remote or host computer must be running a professional or business version of the operating system, although it is usually possible to connect from any OS version. In addition, it may not be possible to connect across operating systems; a computer running Windows Vista Home Basic®, for example, cannot connect to a Windows XP® machine.

In addition to the standard tools that come with Windows® computers, there are a number of third-party applications that will allow a person to connect computers remotely. These applications are often more robust than the standard version, and are usually designed to be more user friendly. In addition, they offer features like file transfer between the machines and text chat, which allows someone at the controlling computer to send a message to a person at the remote machine. Many of these software programs are available in free versions, although the more advanced features are usually exclusive to paying customers.

Apple Machitosh® Operating Systems

Apple offers downloadable software to facilitate remote desktop connections, although it is not standard with most machines. The application does permit the management of multiple computers, however, and includes a range of features, including remote upgrades and restarts. There are also third-party solutions available, and some software is designed for both Windows® and Mac®. iPad® and iPhone® apps are available that allow remote access to Mac® or PC computers as well.

Linux® and Other Operating Systems

Several open source tools are available that allow remote desktop connections between computers running Linux® or between Linux® and Windows®. Much of this same software also allows computers running a variety of operating systems to connect to or from UNIX® machines. There are also applications for mobile devices in addition to the iPad® — versions for Android™ and BlackBerry® devices are also available.

As with any remote desktop application, not every operating system can be either the client or the host in all situations, and many applications only work with certain operating systems. Before using any application, a user should make sure that all machines that will be accessed are compatible with the software.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Braintiller — On Mar 02, 2010

Thank you so much for the information. I would like to recommend a look at RHUB remote support appliance. It does not require any kind of downloads, and ensures guaranteed connection despite tight firewalls and lock down computers. Further, support agents can shift from support session to training mode instantly, which can be very useful during remote support.

By anon47016 — On Sep 30, 2009

SymRDP for S60 5th is brand new software. This software allows me to access most Windows based computers remotely while using Symbian based S60 5th edition phone like Nokia 5230, 5530 XM, 5800 XM, 5800 NE, Nokia N97, Samsung i8910 HD, Sony Ericsson Satio or other S60 5th edition phones. Works like a charm on my N97 and worth each penny spent. I am working as network admin for a few companies and this software is saving me at least 100 USD per month on gas money, plus saved time and convenience! This is the must have software for any network admin.

By anon32803 — On May 27, 2009

I want to recommend Proxy remote control software, or Logmein, it's depend of what OS you use, but both work great! Good luck.

By ubertechie — On Apr 14, 2009

There are a lot of these products on the market but I wanted to mention one that probably won't get talked about a lot. It's mostly for business applications - checking on your team from a business trip, etc. The reason I want to recommend this particular remote control software is that the security it offers is unmatched. Furthermore, you can have access to a large list of available features like checking the controlled user's software and hardware settings. Has anyone else tried this?

By shaj786786 — On May 18, 2008

thanks for the kind of service and hope a great of the same in future.

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