Windows Vista/XP Remote Desktop Review

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  • Pros

    • XP, Vista & Mac OS X support
    • No latency in basic functions
    • Intuitive, simple interface
  • Cons

    • Requires third-party VPN
    • Can't share remote session
    • Streaming media unusable

By: Greg Ross

Microsoft Windows XP and Vista both come with built-in remote access capabilities. Are these feature really adequate replacements for third-party remote desktop applications, or are they just more Windows bloatware? Read the full review to find out!

INSTALLATION & SETUP

Both Windows XP and Vista come with the Remote Desktop Protocol pre-installed, so there is no explicit installation involved with this utility. However, since Microsoft enjoys product differentiation a bit too much, it matters which version of Windows is installed on your computer. Any version of XP or Vista has the ability to connect to a host computer, but the target computer must have Windows XP Professional, Vista Business, Vista Enterprise, or Vista Ultimate installed. Surprisingly, users can even use Apple OS X and Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Connection Client for Mac 2 to connect to target computers.

Today we will be testing Vista’s Remote Desktop Protocol using a desktop with Vista Ultimate x64 and Vista Business x64. For all intents and purposes, RDP functions identically between these two versions.

Unlike the web-browser based competitors, Vista’s RDP requires the user to either know the exact IP address of the target computer (in our experience, this never works well), or run some kind of VPN (Virtual Private Network) between the target computer and the local computer. Selecting a reliable and trustworthy VPN service is outside of the scope of this article, but we will at least mention that we’ve used LogMeIn Hamachi Free’s VPN service for our needs in the past.

Be sure to check that the target computer has been configured to accept incoming RDP requests. Depending on the firewall and network configuration, some additional configurations may be needed. (Shameless plug: Our forum is visited by thousands of users that will be able to help should you have any questions!)

In order to enable remote access connections, right click on My Computer and go to the Properties screen. From there, select the Remote link (or the Remote tab in XP’s case) and select the option to allow RDP connections.

INTERFACE & EASE OF USE

In order to open up Vista’s Remote Desktop program, open up the Start Menu and click on the Accessories folder. From within XP you will need to open up the Start Menu, click All Programs, and then enter the Accessories folder to find the program link.

Windows Vista/XP Remote Desktop connection screen

Remote Desktop Connection pops up to ask for the computer’s network address or name. Either enter the IP address or name of the computer here; assuming the VPN or network is configured properly, this information should be all that is needed to connect. (Again, users are invited to post in our forums if there are any questions about this step.)

Windows Vista/XP Remote Desktop target computer selection

The target computer’s user account information can also be entered into this window, but it is not required. Remote Desktop Connection will ask for the information when it is needed if you do not enter it in now.

Windows Vista/XP Remote Desktop display configuration

Additional connection options are found in the tabs in the main window. Users can select the resolution for the remote session window (we prefer full-screen) as well as the color quality used during the session. The lower the settings used, the slower the network can be without an adverse viewing experience.

The guest computer’s audio, keyboard, printer, clipboard, and drives can be shared with the target computer during the remote session. Audio sharing allows users to play media files on the target computer or hear system prompts, print on a printer nearby, copy and paste text and files between computers, and share hard drives during the session.

Windows Vista/XP Remote Desktop experience tab

Additional settings are available that would affect the quality of the remote session. Generally speaking, each option offers more and more visual quality but requires more network bandwidth.

Windows Vista/XP Remote Desktop topside session bar

Once the remote session starts, a very minimalistic remote session window pops up. If the remote session is configured to use the full screen, a small pop up bar at the top of the screen provides the same functionally as the windowed session’s top bar.

PERFORMANCE

During the evaluation period, the target computer was connected to the internet via a 6Mbit DSL connection. The computer used to access the target was connected to the same DSL connection for a high speed test, and then later connected to the internet using a public WiFi hotspot in the same city. We also connected the two computers using a gigabit Ethernet connection in a full-blown no-holds-barred performance test.

Just like the rest of the competition thus far, Remote Desktop had no impact on the target system’s performance. Computational and memory usages were low, virtually unnoticeable.

Overall performance was quite impressive. Vista’s Remote Desktop showed very little latency with the DSL or WiFi interfaces. So little, in fact, that minimizing or maximizing windows did not produce significant latencies at all. Moving windows around the screen did produce a little latency, but well within our expectations. Audio transmissions worked with few hitches as long as there was no bandwidth-hogging streaming video applications open on screen. Streaming video did produce stuttering images, much like the competition, but the interface did lock up once in a while when the streaming video overwhelmed the connection. Usually reconnection would fix the issue and in all honesty no user should expect streaming video to work well with any remote access product.

Accessing programs, email, applications, and files on the target computer worked almost as if we had been sitting at the target computer, rather than the local PC. We could do anything remotely that we could have done at the desk. File transmissions were as easy as copying the data from one computer and pasting it into another (drag and drop did not work however), and transfers worked both ways without any issues. While the program does not support multiple monitor use, Remote Desktop takes pains to prevent a host of errors from plaguing a two-monitor setup.

In our no-holds-barred gigabit Ethernet test, streaming video was better but still not workable — suggesting that the program is performance-limited to save on computer resources.

Remote Desktop also allows the user to remotely access any number of computers, provided the right network infrastructure is available. As expected though, the target computer can only have one active connection running at any time.

CONCLUSION

Windows Vista/XP’s Remote Desktop utility gives the user an excellent remote session experience. There are no limitations to the number of computers a user can connect to, and there is little to no latency. Using Remote Desktop really did feel like we were working at the target computer’s desk. Since this tool is not controlled by a web browser, the connection was definitely a bit faster than some of the competition, though third-party VPN software is a must in order to use Remote Desktop outside of a home network. The only real drawback to Remote Desktop is that the host computer needs to run a one of the latest (more expensive) versions of Windows, but given how well this program works it just might be worth it.

Pros

  • XP, Vista & Mac OS X support
  • No latency in basic functions
  • Intuitive, simple interface

Cons

  • Requires third-party VPN
  • Can’t share remote session
  • Streaming media unusable


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