Your friends, family, or coworkers are asking you for Mac help. They’re snowbound and you’re sipping a mai tai in Miami Beach, so you can’t just swing by their home or office. Worse, they don’t know an application menu from a folder, so you’re not going to get far with verbal explanations. It’s not long before you wish you could get your hands on their keyboard and mouse and see the screen.
Netopia’s Timbuktu Pro solves this very problem. Whether over a TCP/IP network or via a direct modem connection, you can assist a befuddled user or administer a remote Mac or PC server as though you were sitting in front of it. A mainstay of Mac tech support since 1988, Timbuktu now faces competition from Apple Remote Desktop and the free, open-source VNC. Timbuktu Pro 7.0 eschews aggressive enhancements, however, and stays the course with Panther compatibility and a handful of new features.
Access Options Aplenty
The Observe (formerly Look) and Control features are Timbuktu’s heart and soul. Respectively, they let you see and control a remote computer’s screen. You can change the bit depth of the remote display, expand its image to fill your screen, or shrink it to fit within the screen-sharing window. Copying the Clipboard contents between computers is an easy click, as is capturing screen shots or QuickTime movies of the remote display. Timbuktu now observes user permissions during Panther’s Fast User Switching, by disconnecting remote sessions when you switch users. Version 7.0 also adds support for mice with scroll wheels and multiple buttons, along with more choices for display resolutions.
The new Profile service is wonderfully simple and a boon to tech support. It runs System Profiler on the remote computer and saves the text report to your local hard drive. It’s just that simple.
Timbuktu’s Exchange enables file transfers between computers. It now uses the standard Mac OS X shortcuts for the Applications, Home, Desktop, and Favorites folders. Exchange is otherwise unchanged. Disappointingly, it still uses a two-column interface, and it isn’t threaded for simultaneous transfers. (A transfer must be complete before you can browse and begin another transfer.)
With the long-standing Invite feature, you can invite another person to connect to your computer. An instructor can use Invite to let students use the Observe service and view a presentation on his or her screen, for example.
Notify (formerly Knock) is an old friend that reports keyboard and mouse activity on a remote machine. If the help-desk staffers don’t respond to your Invite, Notify alerts you when they get back from lunch, the water cooler, or wherever they wandered off to.
The Send service is similar to e-mail, letting you send text notes and file attachments to the remote machine. The Chat and Intercom services seem redundant in the world of iChat AV, as they enable text chat and audio conversations, respectively. Since Timbuktu’s services all run on the same network port, however, these stalwart features remain useful if a machine is behind a firewall or otherwise unavailable for e-mail or iChat.
Speaking of Security
Fear not — Timbuktu Pro doesn’t roll out a welcome mat for miscreants who want to invade your computer. After installation, you must explicitly activate each of the TCP/IP and Dial Direct methods for allowing access to your Mac. By default, the anonymous Guest user can use only the Notify and Send services. As you add Trusted User accounts, you can grant or remove access to each service. Alas, while Timbuktu for Windows can find users in LDAP directories and authenticate them via Active Directory, the Mac version of Timbuktu remains blind to these repositories. We’d like to see Mac OS X’s Directory Services adopted as an available source for Timbuktu accounts and privileges.
The Only Accept Incoming Connections When Application Is Open preference should not be overlooked. When you select this option, the logged-in Mac OS X user owns the Timbuktu Host process (which monitors incoming connections) and inherits that user’s permissions. If you don’t select the preference, the Unix root account owns Timbuktu Host; remote connections are possible in the login window, but beware their unfettered access to the file system.
You can easily change Timbuktu’s TCP contact port for coexistence with corporate firewalls. This feature makes it easy to configure a Timbuktu computer for a network’s DMZ, with an obscure port open to the outside world, while retaining normal contact with the internal network. Other options include proxy server support and advertising a public IP number in a Network Address Translation (NAT) environment. Timbuktu doesn’t use proper encryption but it does dynamically scramble keystrokes on a per-session basis.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
With relatively few new features, this release feels more like a 6.5 than a 7.0. Profile is a welcome addition, but this version banks on Panther compatibility for its appeal. If you don’t need Panther compatibility, you probably don’t need the upgrade.
Timbuktu has always been remarkably good at what it does, and it’s a model of AppleScript support, but it should further embrace Mac OS X’s capabilities. That said, Timbuktu remains the indispensable, cross-platform support tool it has always been.