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Review: RemoteTap for iPhone

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At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder RemoteTap

ReadPixel’s RemoteTap lets you control to your local Mac from the iPhone or iPod touch (if you’re on a wireless network), much like Jaadu VNC and Mocha VNC. Unlike those others, however, RemoteTap requires installation of a System Preferences panel on each Mac before it will function.

This preferences panel takes the place of the built-in OS X VNC server that the other programs rely on. Why would you use a third-party server over the Apple-provided version? RemoteTap’s server scales the Mac’s screen using the Mac’s hardware, for one—so instead of sending a full-size screen image to your iPhone, a scaled down version can be sent instead, greatly reducing bandwidth and improving redraw speed. In addition, on nearly every Mac model, this scaling is done using OpenGL hardware acceleration, reducing the hit to the Mac’s CPU.

State Your Preference: RemoteTap’s Mac-side System Preferences panel takes the place of the built-in OS X VNC server that other remote management apps rely on.
The server software (click the image for a larger version) also includes remote wake and sleep features, so you can wake a sleeping Mac (and put it back to sleep when done), as well as auto-discovery of all Macs on your network running the RemoteTap server software.

The downside to relying on a third-party VNC server is that you’ll now have one more piece of software to monitor for security (and functionality) updates. The System Preferences panel does have a built-in updater, however, that makes this process relatively painless—you’ll see a button when there’s an update available, and you can update directly within the preference pane—there’s no need to manually download and reinstall the preference pane. If you’ve installed a newer version of RemoteTap on the iPhone, you may also see (depending on which features you try to use) a dialog on the iPhone asking you to upgrade the Mac’s RemoteTap System Preferences panel before using that feature.

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After installing and configuring the server software on your Mac, you set up a connection on the iPhone, which requires providing some basic information—provide a name for the connection, enter the IP address of the remote Mac, and then the password and port that you provided when you set up the Mac software. Unfortunately, after entering and saving the info for a server, you cannot edit it—although there’s an Edit button, it only lets you rearrange and delete existing entries. So if your Mac’s IP address changes, or you change your access password, you’ll need to set up a new connection.

As with the other remote access apps we’ve reviewed, RemoteTap isn’t secure—although your password will be encrypted, the actual data flowing back and forth is not. As such, this app is best used within the borders of your network’s firewall. If you’d like to use it outside the firewall, I would recommend setting up a VPN on the Mac you’d like to connect to. You can do this with a fair bit of effort in Terminal, or use iVPN to greatly simplify the process. Configuring a VPN is beyond the scope of this review, however, so I’ll focus on local usage.

Once you’ve set up your connections, a simple tap connects to the remote Mac, and you’ll soon see its screen on your iPhone. RemoteTap supports multiple monitors (you can choose to view just one via a preferences setting), and handled them well in my testing. Unlike Mocha VNC, it displayed every pixel on my 1,920-by-1,200 main monitor, as well as my 1,280-by-1,024 secondary monitor. RemoteTap works in both landscape and portrait mode, and switches automatically when you rotate the iPhone. I found screen redrawing to be snappy over wireless; it’s obviously slower when used on the 3G network, but was still quite good. (Yes, I tested from outside my local network, but not from anywhere that was likely to be infested with network-snooping hackers.)

The RemoteTap interface uses most of the iPhone’s screen to display the remote Mac’s monitor. Along the bottom of the screen are buttons that close the connection (and optionally sleep the remote Mac), toggle between screen movement and mouse interaction modes, display the keyboard, display a list of applications, and display the program’s useful help screens.

Jump Around: Tap the Apps button in RemoteTap and an app switcher overlay appears that lets you easily switch between programs on your Mac.
Of these buttons, the one that’s really innovative and useful is the Apps button. Generally, switching between programs on a remote Mac is a pain when using a VNC app on the iPhone. You either need to call up a keyboard to use Command-Tab, scroll down to the Dock, or drag the screen around to tap on the window of the program you’d like to activate—none of which are necessarily quick or easy. The Apps button changes all that. Tap it, and as seen in the image at right, a translucent overlay appears listing the Mac’s running programs.

By default, the list shows all your running applications, but you can choose to instead see everything in the Dock, or in the Applications folder. To switch to a program, just tap its entry in the list; tap the yellow button to minimize it, and the red button to quit the chosen program. Click Done after choosing the program you want to use, and you’ll find that program at the front of the RemoteTap screen. After using this app switcher only a few times, going back to any of the other methods really feels convoluted and kludgy—it works that well.

Moving around the virtual screen in RemoteTap is relatively easy; RemoteTap uses a mix of tap, tap-drag, and multi-tap-drag gestures to control scrolling, zooming, and moving about the screen. While I found it a bit less intuitive to use than I did Jaadu VNC, it works quite well once you get used to it. (The help screens are useful here, letting you easily see each of the defined actions.)

By using these various tap/drag features, you can effectively manage the Mac’s much-larger screen on the iPhone. My only real complaint about control is that the mouse cursor appears directly below your finger on the iPhone’s screen, which makes it very hard to tell exactly where you’re about to click. Jaadu VNC, by comparison, shows the mouse cursor offset to the side of your finger—while this takes a bit of getting used to, it lets you easily see exactly where the mouse cursor is on the virtual screen without obscuring what’s under said mouse.

Making Your Point: The presentation controller includes a ‘laser pointer’ and slide movement keys.
RemoteTap includes a special presentation mode keyboard that includes a simulated laser pointer, as seen in the image at right—the red dot shows up not only on your iPhone, but also on the remote Mac’s screen. In addition, arrow key buttons allow you to move through your slides. If you give a lot of presentations, these tools could come in handy, assuming you’ve set up a secure connection to your Mac!

The full-sized keyboard works well for typing, albeit with one big limitation: there’s no local (on the iPhone) preview of your typing. So if you want to see what you’re typing, you need to carefully position the remote Mac’s window behind the onscreen keyboard, such that you can see the text appear as you type it. Jaadu VNC, by comparison, displays a preview of the text you’re typing, so that you don’t need to see the actual input location while typing. I find this method much easier, and hope it gets adopted in a future RemoteTap update.

Overall, I found RemoteTap to be generally easy to use, its use of host-based processing does improve redraw speed, and the on-screen application switcher is a genius feature. There are some rough edges, but at only $7, it matches most of Jaadu VNC’s abilities at a fraction of the price.

RemoteTap is compatible with any iPhone or iPod touch running the iPhone 2.x software update.

[Senior editor Rob Griffiths edits Mac OS X Hints.]

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At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder RemoteTap

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