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You’re in a client’s office or a friend’s house, and you have to get online. No problem: you just fire up your Mac, wait a couple of seconds while AirPort automatically finds any 802.11 networks within hailing distance, and, boom, you’re online, right? Not necessarily.

But fear not. Whether you need access to files or to your Mac’s desktop, you can probably get both—using tools built right into OS X. And if those aren’t enough, you’ve got a couple of good for-pay alternatives.

What You Need

To be accessed from afar, a remote Mac must meet a few basic requirements. First, it needs a full-time Internet connection. Second, it must be awake. You have many ways to arrange that: you can leave your system on and set it to stay awake the whole time you’re gone, you can have someone back home wake it up, or you can use OS X’s Energy Saver preference pane to set standard wake and sleep times each day. If you need more flexibility, try the free utility Wake550, which can wake your Mac remotely. (Note that this program may not work through firewalls and requires support for Wake-On-LAN in your home system—something many older models lack.)

The third prerequisite is that you know the remote machine’s public IP address. The easiest way to find out is to use an such as IP-checking Web site. Or you might want to register for a free dynamic domain name service through Dynamic Network Services’ site —instead of remembering an obscure IP address, you could then use a plain-English host name.

Finally, if your machine uses a firewall, you’ll need to make sure that certain ports are opened. That’s easy if you’re trying to access your machine at home, where you control the firewall. But if you’re trying to access a machine at work, where your company’s IT department sets the rules, it may be impossible. In that situation, you should check with your IT department to see whether it offers any official method of remote access, such as a virtual private network.

Access Your Files

With those conditions met, your next step depends on what kind of access you need and how concerned you are about security. OS X offers a number of ways to make your remote Mac’s files accessible—including personal file sharing, Windows sharing, FTP access, and remote login.

The starting point for all these solutions is the same: the Services tab of the Sharing preference pane. You’ll see a bunch of options for opening up your system to the outside world there; my preferred solution is Remote Login, because of its excellent security. The other options (Personal File Sharing, Windows Sharing, and FTP Access) all work fine but share one shortcoming: they don’t encrypt your data transmissions.

Enabling Remote Login is as simple as clicking on the Remote Login check box. If you use the OS X firewall, you should also click on the Firewall tab and select the Remote Login - SSH (22) option. If you use a third-party firewall, use its software to make sure that port 22 is open.

When you enable Remote Login, you’re actually enabling three tools built into OS X: a secure shell program (SSH) for logging in remotely via Terminal, a secure copy program (SCP) for copying files, and a secure FTP server (SFTP) that turns your remote Mac into a secure file server. The first two have their uses (particularly if you want to access remote systems from the command line), but most people need only SFTP.

Secure FTP is just like regular FTP, except everything’s encrypted. While you can use it from the command line—just type sftp username@ (where username is the short user name of someone on the remote Mac and is that Mac’s IP address), and then provide your password when asked—you don’t have to. Instead, you can use one of the GUI applications that support SFTP, including Interarchy ($39), Transmit ($25), Cyberduck (free), and Fugu (free). With one of these apps, Secure FTP is just as easy to use as standard FTP but not nearly as risky (see screenshot).

Control the GUI

But perhaps you actually need to use your home computer—for example, to run Quicken so you can see your current portfolio balance, or to send an e-mail from your home SMTP server. In this case, you need VNC (Virtual Network Computing) software that lets you control your computer remotely.

OS X 10.3 includes a free VNC client called Apple Remote Desktop Client (you can also download it here ). For this project to work, you must have version 2.1 of the client. You access Apple Remote Desktop through your System Preferences. If you want an application that you can run and quit as you wish, check out the freely available OSXvnc.

Assuming that you’re using Apple’s client, you can enable it by going back to the Services tab of the Sharing preference pane, selecting Apple Remote Desktop, and then clicking on Access Privileges. Enable the VNC Viewers May Control The Screen With Password option and create a password. Make sure that at least one user in the list at the top left of the dialog box has the On box selected, too—otherwise, you won’t be able to connect. If you use the OS X firewall, click on the Firewall tab and select the Apple Remote Desktop (5900, 3283) option. If you run your own firewall, open those same ports.

To connect to the machine you’ve just configured, you’ll need a VNC viewer on your traveling Mac. The main one these days is Chicken of the VNC (free). Launch Chicken of the VNC, enter your remote Mac’s IP address and the password you created in the Host and Password boxes, and click on Connect. If everything works, you should now see your remote desktop displayed on your local Mac (see “Remote Control”). Keep in mind that you’ll need a fast connection to make the most of this feature, since you’re moving large amounts of data back and forth across the Net.

These free remote-control clients can’t do everything. If you need to do more, you can look into Apple’s full Remote Desktop application and Netopia’s Timbuktu Pro ($180) (see Best Current Price ); both give you even more control over your homebound Mac. That control means sending and receiving files (both Remote Desktop and Timbuktu), creating QuickTime movies of the remote Mac’s screen (Timbuktu), and installing software on networked machines (Remote Desktop).

Staying in Touch

Whether you need full remote control or just remote file access, with file-transfer and remote-control apps, there’s no reason to worry about leaving important files behind. Plan ahead, and you can almost always find a way to get what you need, when you need it.

[ Contributing Editor Rob Griffiths is the author of Mac OS X Power Hound, Panther Edition (O’Reilly, 2004) and runs the Mac OS X Hints Web site. ]

Sidebar: Windows File Sharing

Going on the road but don’t want to bring along a laptop? You can still connect to your Mac at home from any convenient Mac, Linux, or Windows box—as long as you plan ahead. Again, it starts on the Services tab of the Sharing preference pane. There, you select the Windows Sharing option. You’ll also need to make sure that Windows Sharing is selected on the Firewall tab, or that you’ve opened port 139 on your personal firewall. Then you can connect from a remote Windows box using the server address format smb:// (where is your home Mac’s IP address). Note that you can connect only to your Home folder and that your data transmissions won’t be encrypted.

Using Transmit and OS X’s built-in secure FTP server, you can ensure that neither your password nor your data is intercepted by malicious hackers—all data is encrypted before transmission, ensuring that any prying eyes see only gibberish.Using Apple’s built-in remote-control server and a viewer program such as Chicken of the VNC, you can take full GUI control of a remote Mac.
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