How, you ask? Let’s start with catch-all remote desktop solutions before following up with more specific remote control and access tools for gaming, productivity, and more.
Remote desktop software lets you access your computer and all its applications over the Internet using another device, essentially by streaming a feed of your desktop. This works from a tablet or phone, even over a cellular data network.
To do this, you’ll need to set up a remote desktop server on the PC you want to connect to. We recommend TeamViewer for this: It’s easy to use, completely free for non-commercial use, runs on almost everything, and doesn’t require any port-forwarding or complex setup. (Be sure to set up TeamViewer for unattended access!)
Parallels Access is another good, polished alternative. It really shines when accessing your desktop from a smartphone or tablet, providing a more touch-optimized interface. Unlike TeamViewer, however, Parallels Access requires a $20 yearly fee even for personal use.
You could also skip the polished, all-in-one solutions entirely. For example, you could enable the Remote Desktop feature in professional editions of Windows and use any RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) client to connect to your PC remotely. Microsoft even offers Remote Desktop apps for Android, iPhone, and iPad. You could set up a VNC (Virtual Network Computing) server on your PC to access it in a similar way, even if you aren’t using a professional edition of Windows.
These DIY services aren’t as easy to use, however. You’ll have to set up port-forwarding and dynamic DNS on your own to access them remotely. They’ll also be harder to secure, as any bot scanning your IP address from the Internet will see the services running on those ports and can attempt to break into them and compromise your PC. This isn’t a risk with services like TeamViewer or Parallels Access, which handle the authentication bits on their own central servers.
Remote file access
You can access your PC’s files on the go, too. To avoid mucking through a remote desktop session, your best bet is an easy-to-use remote control solution with an integrated file-transfer option.
In TeamViewer, just select “file transfer” while connecting to a remote computer with TeamViewer, and you’ll be able to access all the files on your PC’s hard drive or upload files to your remote PC from your current device. The Android, iPad, and iPhone apps also have file-transfer support, so you can download files from your PC to your smartphone or tablet. (Parallels Access doesn’t support direct file transfers.Keep remote file access simple with Dropbox or another cloud storage service.
The average PC user will probably want to stick with a cloud storage service instead of a remote file access solution. Place your files into a service like Dropbox, OneDrive, or Google Drive and they’ll sync online. You can then access them from anywhere via your web browser, the service’s mobile app, or its syncing client.
The upside is that your remote PC doesn’t have to be powered on. The downside is that you’re limited by the amount of storage the service provides. If you’re worried about storing sensitive files online, you can always encrypt files before storing them in the cloud.
Using documents in the cloud
Microsoft Office users can save documents to Microsoft’s free OneDrive cloud storage service, then access the Office Online website in a web browser to view and even edit the documents from wherever you are. Office Online is completely free. OneDrive is integrated into Windows 8.1 and is available as a free download for previous versions of Windows.
The Office Mobile applications for iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone also allow you to view and edit Office documents stored in your OneDrive account for free. Office for iPad provides a more powerful editing experience on the iPad, but note that all the mobile apps require an Office 365 subscription for editing (viewing is free).
Microsoft Office isn’t the only game in town. Google Docs is completely free, runs in a web browser on your PC, and allows you to edit your Google Docs or Microsoft Office documents from anywhere via a web browser or mobile apps.
Wake your computer remotely
PCs have long supported a feature known as Wake-on-LAN. When Wake-on-LAN is enabled on a PC, the PC’s network interface listens for a specially formed packet, even while the computer is powered off, hibernating, or in sleep mode. When the computer receives the packet, it powers on.
You could take advantage of Wake-on-LAN to turn on your PC over the Internet. This would allow you to leave your PC off except when you want to access its desktop or files remotely.
This can be done in two separate ways. You could forward the appropriate ports from your home router to the computer running on your local network, and then use a specialized software program to send the “Wake-on-LAN” packet to your home IP address.
Or, you could use a special software application that sits inside your local network. When it receives the signal, it sends the Wake-on-LAN packet to a computer on the same local network. TeamViewer (once again) offers this feature, allowing you to send Wake-on-LAN packets to other computers on your local network if one PC with TeamViewer enabled is powered on. TeamViewer has a complete guide to setting up Wake-on-LAN, from configuring the BIOS and network adapter to Windows and your home router. Much of the process is similar even if you’re not using TeamViewer, although you’ll need a mobile or desktop application that can send the Wake-on-LAN packets for you if you’re opting not to use TeamViewer. The latest version of Parallels Access offers this feature, too.
When you’re done being productive, you can also use your computer’s graphics card’s power to play games when you’re away from it. Steam’s killer in-home streaming feature allows you to stream games running on your gaming PC to other Windows, Linux, or Mac computers on your home network. You could try to stream games when you’re out of the house by connecting your PC to a VPN server running on your home network… but even if you tricked Steam into streaming over the Internet that way, performance wouldn’t be great.
Nvidia also offers its own GameStream feature, which only works with recent Nvidia graphics cards. Unlike Steam’s streaming feature, Nvidia does allow you to access your home PC and stream games from it over the Internet, although this feature is in beta. The problem here is that this feature can stream games only to an Nvidia Shield handheld console or the Shield tablet. You can connect your Shield to a television and stream to a larger screen, but you need the Shield hardware to act as a receiver.
The mobile revolution may be marching on, but the PC is still important to many users’ lives. Remote control is one area where the right tools let PCs, smartphones, and tablets be more powerful by working together