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Are you the go-to computer guru in your social circle, at work, or in your family? While troubleshooting in person is usually your best option, it’s not always necessary. Remote Desktop connections make it possible to work on another computer remotely. Whether you need to troubleshoot a sluggish computer or access a program on another computer, using a Remote Desktop connection could save you a trip and get the job done.

What is Remote Desktop?

Remote desktop technology is a type of screen-sharing technology that you can use to take control of another computer — once configured and permission granted. Several developers offer remote desktop software and apps including Microsoft, Symantec, and Citrix among others (check out this post where we look at the pros and cons of each). If you use a Windows PC, the operating system comes with its own remote desktop utility called Remote Desktop Connection, which is the one we’ll focus on in this guide.
Remote Desktop Connection comes preinstalled, and is turned on by default, on the Professional versions of Windows Vista, 7, 8, 8.1, and 10. It allows you to sit at one computer, such as your home computer, and control a second computer located elsewhere, such as your parent’s computer or your work computer.  This site can tell you what version of Windows you are using, if you aren’t sure.
If you’re new to using remote desktop software, you’ll need to understand a two terms:

  • Host — The host PC is the computer that you will be accessing and controlling remotely. It’s also referred to as the remote computer.
  • Client — The client PC is the computer that you will be using to access and control the remote computer. This is the one that you will be physically using.

In order to work properly, both computers will need to be:

  • Running Windows Vista or above with Remote Desktop Connection enabled
  • Configured to work together remotely with permission granted
  • Turned on
  • Connected to the Internet or a network connection (Note: You must have network access to the remote desktop.)

Advantages of Remote Desktop

One advantage of Remote Desktop is that it’s already installed on your Windows Vista or above computer. Assuming you have network access to the remote desktop, either via a local network or a VPN over the Internet, you’ll just need to enter a few setup details and then be ready to go.
Remote Desktop Connection is a convenient choice for accessing a second computer located elsewhere. For example, if your parents are struggling with a computer problem and need your help, you have several choices including:

  • Attempting to walk them through troubleshooting steps over the phone.
  • Driving to their home to troubleshoot the computer in person.
  • Using Remote Desktop to personally handle the issue right away without having to travel.

Once configured and connected, you can use the remote computer as if you were sitting in front of it. Your mouse movements control the remote computer’s cursor, and your keystrokes serve as input as if you were typing on the remote computer’s keyboard.
Some of the more common reasons you might want to use Remote Desktop include:

  • Troubleshooting a friend’s computer remotely
  • Accessing your work computer — and its programs and files — remotely
  • Accessing your personal computer from work or when traveling
  • Demonstrating how to use a program to a remote user
  • Performing computer maintenance remotely

Disadvantages of Remote Desktop

As useful as Remote Desktop is, there are a few disadvantages to be aware of. Disadvantages include:

  • Performance — Remote Desktop Connection transmits graphical data over your network connection. Once this data arrives, the remote computer’s screen must be rendered on your computer’s screen. Depending on your network connection, this process can be sluggish. Even with a fast network connection, expect a lag between your inputs and rendering.
  • Coordination — Unless you’ve set up the remote computer for remote access ahead of time (and the computer is still turned on and ready for you), you’ll need to coordinate your remote access session with someone who is physically able to turn on the remote PC.
  • Configuration — Though it’s not overly difficult, you will need to configure the Remote Desktop Connection software so that you can control the remote computer.
  • Complexity — By default, Remote Desktop Connection works over local networks. Getting it to work over the Internet is more complicated, requiring the use of a VPN or port forwarding (both of which are beyond the scope of this guide)

Setting Up Remote Desktop

First, you’ll need to set up the remote desktop to allow a connection with your client computer. Here’s how to do this:
Remote Desktop Control Panel

  1. Go to Start > Computer > Properties > Remote Settings
  2. Place a checkmark in the box that says “Allow Remote Assistance connections to this computer
  3. Click OK

Remote Desktop Allow Connections
Depending on which operating system you are using, you may have an option to select users, which is more secure than simply allowing remote desktop connections.
Next, you’ll need to find out the remote computer’s name on your network or domain.
Remote Desktop Find Computer

  1. Go to Start > Computer > Properties > Computer Name
  2. Make a note of the computer’s name, workgroup, and network ID (if available)

You’ll also want to ensure that the remote computer’s firewall doesn’t block the connection.
Remote Desktop Enable Connection

  1. Go to Start > Control Panel > System and Security
  2. Under Windows Firewall, click “Allow a program through Windows Firewall”
  3. Click Change Settings
  4. Check Remote Desktop
  5. Click OK

Make sure the computer is turned on and that sleep and hibernation are both disabled.

Connecting to a Remote Desktop

Now that the remote desktop is configured, you’ll need to use your client computer to connect to it remotely. Here’s how to connect:

  1. Click on Start
  2. Type “Remote Desktop Connection” into the Search box
  3. Click on Remote Desktop Connection to launch the utility
  4. Enter the computer name (or IP address) of the remote desktop
  5. Enter your user name (if you specified and assigned users)
  6. Click Connect

While there are numerous third-party remote desktop tools available, Windows has its own utility for remote desktop connections. If you need to connect with another Windows computer on your local network, start with what you have.