Telecommuting made easy

Remote-host apps keep teleworkers up with the office

When I started telecommuting, I was surprised to find very little software geared to the average federal telecommuter.

All you really need to do basic office work at home is a computer, an Internet connection and an e-mail address. More advanced work such as accessing secure databases, for example, might require costly applications and arrangements outside the scope of this review.

But for the average teleworker who has forgotten to bring home the right files or needs to access others stored at the office, remote PC hosting software is essential.

I undertook this review from the viewpoint of a federal user who wants to start telecommuting with little or no IT support. Although that's not the case at every agency, I assumed that you're on your own for maintenance, upgrades and so on.

I tested three hosting applications on two notebook PCs: a Dell Latitude D600 running Windows XP Professional and a Toshiba Tecra 8100 running Win 2000.

Citrix Systems' GoToMyPC 4.0, acquired with last month's buy of Expertcity Inc., proved to be a robust Web service for accessing a host computer from any remote computer over the Internet.

The difference between the host and the remote computer is important to remember. The host is the machine with the information you want to access'ordinarily a server at your office. The remote computer is the one at which you are seeking the information'ordinarily your home computer.

No problem

The setup of GoToMyPC was one of the easiest I have encountered. All I had to do was go to the GoToMyPC Web site while I was at my host computer. I created an account and password on the site and downloaded 2M of code. It took less than five minutes.

Then, to access the host from a home computer, or any other Net-connected computer for that matter, I could simply point the browser to the GoToMyPc site and enter my e-mail address and password.

Up would come a window showing my host's screen layout. So long as that window remained highlighted, I could work with a mouse or keyboard at home just as if I were sitting in front of the host at the office.

Outside the host computer's window, I could use my remote computer normally. A nice touch was that the host window appeared in a different color to prevent confusing the host and remote environments.

The host computer remained fully functional in this setup. From the remote PC, I could use office e-mail, write a report in Microsoft Word or even play an MP3 file. But the music came only out of the speakers on the host. That scared the heck out of some co-workers who thought my notebook was possessed by spirits.

Smooth moves

The best function of GoToMyPC was easy transfer of files, folders and directories between computers. I could cut and paste between the host and remote windows, and even print documents to any printer wherever I happened to be'no need to install the application that created the document on the remote PC.

I did find a few caveats, however:
  • 8The host computer must be powered and on the Internet, either via an always-on connection or by asking a co-worker at the office to turn the computer on whenever you need to access it.

  • The host must be running Microsoft Windows, not Mac OS. But the remote computer can run any operating system with a Java-enabled browser.

  • The connection speed is only as fast as your home Internet connection.

  • The cost of the GoToMyPC service mounts up over time. It starts around $20 per month for a personal account and one PC. A year's subscription costs $180.

Overall, I really liked this program. Setup and interface were extremely intuitive and friendly. I didn't even need to download the user guide.

Another plus: The software was stable and secure. I had no problems running multiple programs from different vendors across the separate platforms. Best of all, government-approved Advanced Encryption Standard 128-bit encryption protected the connection.

The only extra I wished for was an instant-messenger application so I could communicate in real time with colleagues at the office. There was a chat-and-draw feature, but it worked only between the host and remote terminals.

One flaw: Colored images did not look as clear as text did, and picture quality on the remote end came out much lower than on the host.

Citrix touts GoToMyPC for remote meetings and presentations, but I suspect the picture quality problem would hinder its usefulness.

Another flaw: slow transfers. I clocked an average of 19 Kbps'sufficient for short text files, but a 4M test file took more than two minutes to transfer.

If you travel a lot and need the flexibility this program offers, the yearly price could be worth it. There's nothing better on the market.

Symantec's pcAnywhere 11.0 was an old friend that I relied on constantly when I worked as a systems administrator in the Senate. As a tool for remote PC troubleshooting, pcAnywhere is at the top of the market. But compared with GoToMyPC, it has only limited usefulness for telecommuting.

Installation was simple enough. I loaded the CD-ROM and followed the instructions. Both the host computer and the remote terminal had to have the software installed.

After loading, I next configured the program, which did require studying the 200-plus-page manual.

The great thing about pcAnywhere is its versatility. It lets you connect the host and remote systems with a physical cable, modem to modem, over the Internet, or via network protocols such as SPX and NetBIOS.

The problem is that the average user soon is drowning in alphabet soup. Don't neglect to write down your IP address, domain name or computer name.

I had to go back and forth between my systems three or four times to get everything set up properly. That wasn't too bad when they were 20 feet apart, but if I were working across town or across the country, I would have been very annoyed.

Complications

As a systems administrator, I always needed two people to set up pcAnywhere'one at the remote terminal, the other at the host PC.

The new pcAnywhere interface looked much better than the one I was used to, and it worked better throughout, but I felt it presented too many options to deal with at once. I would have preferred a simpler start screen with options leading to advanced functions.

This program is designed more for administrators than for teleworkers with average computer skills.

Once I got it set up, things ran very smoothly. PcAnywhere worked much like GoToMyPC. A host window appeared on the remote computer, and any work I did within that window was duplicated on the host, just as if I were sitting in front of the host.

File sharing worked just as in previous versions. I could simply drag and drop files to move them.

One new feature was the command queue, which lets the user select groups of files to transfer. Once chosen, pcAnywhere automatically sent them, one at a time and in background, so I could do other things on the host.

This would really save time for teleworkers who download multiple large files.

I'm not sure what was responsible for pcAnywhere's speedy file transfers, but they generally were much faster than with GoToMyPC. The same 4M test file took only 10 seconds to download with pcAnywhere compared with more than two minutes for GoToMyPC.

Another plus was good security via an encryption wizard. I didn't test the security protocols, but this is a Symantec product, so I will take Symantec's word for it.

I encountered two significant problems. The first was mouse compatibility within the host window. A mouse worked fine outside the host window, but when the mouse got into that area, things started to slow down. It seemed sluggish and at some points failed to respond. Eventually I got used to the delays, but they annoyed me.

The second glitch was host window sizing. When I opened RealPlayer One on the host, the RealPlayer window expanded past the window's size limits. I couldn't close the window because I couldn't reach the close button or the shortcut button at the bottom of the screen. The only thing I could do was end the hosting session and start a new one.

This occurred only once, however, and I'm willing to chalk it up to a compatibility problem with RealPlayer. I have seen both problems before with previous versions of pcAnywhere, however.
All in all, pcAnywhere worked very well except for its nonintuitive interface. The price, around $200, was a little more than a year's subscription for GoToMyPC.

I had intended to review Microsoft NetMeeting, but when I contacted Microsoft Corp., I learned the product has been dropped. It did 'not meet expectations in terms of customer satisfaction and functionality,' a representative told me.

After recently acquiring PlaceWare Inc., Microsoft has chosen to market Live Meeting instead.

Unexpected

That decision surprised me, because I liked NetMeeting. Even though it's for teleconferencing, I have often used it instead of pcAnywhere for remote PC troubleshooting because of its good interface and simplicity.

Microsoft Office Live Meeting is a Web conferencing service that lets multiple users interact online, sort of a cross between GoToMyPC and Microsoft PowerPoint. Like GoToMyPC, it is subscription-based.

Live Meeting is not really geared to the average telecommuter. It can access a PC remotely, but someone at the host PC must also log in to the service for the two computers to share information. This isn't something you can accomplish on your own.

In addition, Live Meeting is not cheap. Unless your work requires lots of interactive, information-based meetings, you don't need this much functionality. But if your work involves Web seminars, online learning or international gatherings, then you definitely should check out this new offering.

David Thang D. Luu, a second-year law student at the University of Maryland, previously was systems administrator for Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald (R-Ill.).

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