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From a Distance: Using RealVNC to Control Your PC from Far Away (for Free)

With virtual network computing (VNC) you can view and interact with your computer remotely via the Internet. In this article, Kulvir Bhogal will introduce you to RealVNC, an implementation of VNC available for free under the GNU General Public License. After reading this article, you'll be set up to use VNC to control your computer from afar.
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You are sitting miles away from your home or office, and you need a way to access your computer from another computer over the internet, just as if you were sitting in front of it. In this article, I'll show you how to use RealVNC to control your PC from afar. There are a lot of plusses for this capability. For example, you might use such a setup to access your home computer while you're at work or to help out a not-so-computer savvy friend/family member by holding their hand (or rather, controlling their mouse and keyboard) in order to show them the ropes more easily. Yes, you can act as tech support!

The acronym VNC stands for Virtual Network Computing. A VNC setup consists of two pieces, a server component and a viewer component. An interesting aspect of VNC is its capability to be run as a server and client on many different operating systems, including Unix-based systems, Windows, and Mac. VNC clients are even available for devices such as Palm Pilots and Windows mobile devices. In this article I'll focus on running the server and client on the Windows platform. I'll also show you how to access a VNC server through a Java-capable internet browser. You can download RealVNC for free under the GNU General Public License. At the time of this article's writing, RealVNC was in version 4.1.1.

Setting Up Your VNC Server

To start out, go ahead and download the RealVNC Free Edition from http://www.realvnc.com/download.html. Look for the option that reads "Installer including both Server and Viewer option," as shown in Figure 1:

Figure 01

Figure 1 Downloading the VNC Free Edition for Windows (Server and Viewer) from the RealVNC web site <img src=serverandviewer.gif>

Though RealVNC has versions for Windows, Linux and Solaris, we'll only be looking at the Windows version. The download is available as both an executable or a zip file. For the purposes of demonstration in this article, I chose the executable.

After launching the installer, click Next on the Welcome screen (shown in Figure 2).

Figure 02

Figure 2 The VNC Setup Wizard Welcome Screen

Next, go ahead and read through the license agreement and, if you agree, indicate that by checking the box and click Next, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 03

Figure 3 The Real VNC License Agreement

Next, you'll be asked where you want to install RealVNC. Go ahead and choose a location on your hard drive, as shown in Figure 4:

Figure 04

Figure 4 Selecting a Destination Directory

For the server side, you can opt for a custom installation, as shown in Figure 5. You can choose the VNC server option, or, alternatively, you can also choose the VNC viewer option if want your server machine to act as a viewer as well.

Figure 05

Figure 5 Selecting the VNC Server Component in a Custom Installation

Next, the installer will place VNC's shortcuts in the RealVNC group as shown in Figure 5. As soon as this is finished, go ahead and click Next, as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 06

Figure 6 Choosing a Program Group for VNC

By default, the VNC server listens on port 5900. Accordingly, if the computer you are trying to connect to is behind a hardware router, you will need to forward port 5900 to the IP address of the machine you are trying to connect to.

In the subsequent screen, you are given the option to register RealVNC as a Windows Service that can be started when Windows starts. If you keep the "Start the VNC Server in Service-Mode" (see Figure 7) option checked, then the VNC Server will run whenever Windows starts up. If this is not what you want, go ahead and uncheck the option.

Figure 07

Figure 7 Opting to Install the VNC Service and Having it Run Automatically on Windows Startup

Next, you are given a chance to review your setup options as shown in Figure 8. After reviewing the installation options, click Install.

Figure 08

Figure 8 Reviewing Installation Options

After the installation finishes up, you will be shown the VNC Properties. In the Authentication tab, click the Configure button next to the VNC Password Authentication Option, as shown in Figure 9.

Figure 09

Figure 9 Configuring VNC Authentication

Next, specify a password for your VNC server and click OK. This password will be used by VNC clients to connect to your VNC server. See Figure 10 for an example of this screen.

Figure 10

Figure 10 Choosing a VNC Server Password <img src=password.gif>

To increase performance, you can also click on the Desktop tab and then check the "Remove wallpaper," "Remove background pattern," and "Disable user interface effects" options, as shown in Figure 11:

Figure 11

Figure 11 Choosing options to Increase VNC Performance

Checking these options cuts down the amount of data that is transferred across the wire as your clients interact with the VNC server.

Next, go ahead and click Apply. Believe it or not, you are now finished setting up your VNC server. Note that you should see a VNC icon in your Windows taskbar, as shown in Figure 12. If you like, you can double-click on the icon to launch the properties screen for subsequent modification of your VNC server's properties.

Figure 12

Figure 12 The VNC Icon in the Taskbar

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