Every time I remotely control a computer to help a relative or customer overcome a vexing computer issue, my thoughts harken back to the ominous intro from the 1960s’ TV series the Outer Limits: “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission….” In fact, I’ve actually quoted the monologue when a client starts messing with the mouse or typing while I’m trying to work my magic from afar.
The point is, what was once tongue-in-cheek sci-fi, is now reality, and has been for quite a while. The fascinating and incredibly useful remote-desktop software that allows you to operate another computer over a long distance as if it were your own is now two decades old. But while it’s not new, faster networking and broadband has rendered the remote desktop experience far speedier and more enjoyable. Under optimal conditions, it’s nearly as easy as being there in person.
In addition to allowing you to help a family member of business associate with their computer problems, it’s a handy way to access your own various work or home systems remotely. Since use cases and needs vary, our recommendations below will help lead you to the best remote-desktop software for your purposes.
Notice that a server is the software on the computer to be controlled, and a client is the program that does the controlling.
1. TeamViewer – Best free remote desktop for occasional use
Free for personal use
Easy to use, fast, and reliable
Available video-help facility
Supports desktop and mobile devices
Doesn’t require installation to use
TeamViewer is easy, free for personal/occasional use, and has all the remote-desktop software extras such as chat functionality, support for file transfers, and multiple-display support. Those features separate it from our other choice freebie—Chrome Remote Desktop. TeamViewer is also extremely friendly to new users/helpees with a “portable” mode that eliminates the need for installation. The only thing that keeps TeamViewer from being an unequivocal recommendation as a free option is that if you use it more than occasionally you will get pestered with messages essentially reminding you not to abuse the privilege. For the occasional use though, TeamViewer’s free option can’t be beat.
TeamViewer is laudable as a licensed business option for all the reasons mentioned above, as well as the additional support for Zoom meetings and video help; but in that regard, there are less pricey options.
Read our full TeamViewer review
2. Chrome Remote Desktop – Best free remote desktop for unlimited use
Fast and free, Chrome Remote Desktop is available on any operating system that supports the Chrome browser, including, of course, Chrome OS. Android and iOS are also taken care of so you can control computers using your phone. CRD supports both unattended access and one-off screen sharing sessions. It also supports file transfers, but lacks a chat function and support for multiple displays, so it’s not a great option for pros who are supporting a number of different users and need more flexibility.
Read our full Chrome Remote Desktop review
3. Microsoft Remote Desktop Connection – Best for businesses running Windows Pro
Free with Windows Pro or above
Clients for Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS
Not available with Windows Home
Firewall/network configuration may be required
Controls only Windows computers
Free with Windows Pro or Enterprise
When it comes to remote-desktop software for controlling a number of business PCs, you will most likely to have to pay for a license, save for this specific scenario: The computers you want to control are all running either the Pro or Enterprise versions of Windows. The device you are using to control those machines can be running any version of Windows, macOS, Android, or iOS. If that describes your needs, Windows Remote Desktop Connection is a worthy option.
It requires some technical chops to configure the router and firewall properly—something any IT pro should have no problem with. The results are speedy performance, thanks to its peer-to-peer connections, and a capable, if basic feature set. You don’t get chat, and can only transfer files Windows-to-Windows, but if saving money is your goal, this is a great way to remotely control Windows computers for free.
Read our full Microsoft Remote Desktop Connection review
4. VNC Connect – Best for businesses with mixed operating systems
Control Windows, macOS, Linux, and Pi computers
Clients for all, plus iOS and Android
Less than $4 per PC
Control, file transfer, and chat
Direct and web portal connections
$3.39 per month per computer (billed annually)
Though there are free remote-desktop programs that work quite well, the bells and whistles you get from VNC for a rather small per-computer fee ($3.39) can be worth it if your needs extend beyond the mundane. Indeed, it’s the relatively low fee that won it the top spot over the similarly powerful GoToMyPC. VNC is versatile in that you can use clients or a web browser to connect for remote control and it supports all major (and some minor) operating systems. It also supports file transfers, chat, screen recording, and end-to-end encryption. There’s also support available should you need help.
Read our full VNC Connect review
What to look for in remote desktop software
All remote desktop software works the same way. It captures input from your computer, transfers it to the target computer, which returns information about the results, including the state of the user interface—ie, you can see the remote desktop. The protocols involved include RDS/RDP for Windows, Chromoting for Chrome Remote Desktop, VNC/RFB for VNC, etc. The names vary, as do their origins, but the all work as described.
Which remote desktop program you choose generally comes down to which operating systems and devices you’re using, how much you’ll be using it, price, and features.
Operating system/device support: The remote desktop software you choose needs to have clients (for controlling) and servers (for being controlled) for all the computers or devices you want to employ. Eg, if you want to control a Windows PC from an iPhone, there needs to be a sever for the PC and a client for iOS.
Ease of installation and use: If you’re dealing with less-savvy users on the other end of the connection, never underestimate the value of intuitive and easy. If you haven’t already installed the software on the remote machine, it can be a daunting task for the helpee. Reviews or a hands-on test drive can let you know how trouble-free the process will be.
Price: Some solutions are free, some require a license fee. The latter tend to have more features and encompass a wider variety of platforms, though this is not an absolute. Tech support is generally only available if you pay for it, as well. We suggest that end users start off free, and if it’s not getting the job done, explore the pay options.
Features: Capabilities such as chat, file transfer, portal-based setup (avoiding router and network hassles), support for computers running multiple displays, etc. are obviously factors if you need them. Again, start off free and see how it goes, then spend the money according to the dictates of your needs.
How we test remote desktop software
We test all the software both over a local network and the internet. Virtual machines on both the local and remote computers are employed to test alternate operating systems such as Linux. If mobile clients are available, we test them on a Google Pixel 4 (Android) and an Apple iPad (iOS). We control the remote machine, transfer files, check out the chat function and any other features that are available.
A very important criteria is speed, ie, how nimble the remote operating system feels, and how fast files transfer. With the increased speed and bandwidth most users have access to today, remote internet performance isn’t the issue it was back in the days of dial-up, DSL, etc. That said, there can be noticeable differences.
Remote-desktop software such as TeamViewer will establish a connection using the company’s web portal, then gets out of the way to allow traffic to flow directly from machine to machine. Others such as GoToMyPC route all traffic through their portal. This has some advantages if you’re using a web browser to view the remote PC, but can slow things down otherwise—especially on local network connections. Windows Remote Desktop Connection and Apple Remote Desktop are peer-to-peer by nature. This allows good performance both locally and across the internet, but requires configuring firewalls and routers for the latter.
The other major consideration we evaluate is how intuitive and easy the software is to set up and use. In most cases, we use less tech-savvy family and friends as guinea pigs. Sorry folks!