One of my jobs as a web developer involves managing a rack of Linux, Mac, and Windows servers. Over the years, I’ve used various remote access programs, such as Microsoft Remote Desktop, Timbuktu, and VNC, to control the Macs and Windows machines, but I’ve recently switched to a product called LogMeIn—a hosted service that gives you the ability to remotely control Windows and Macintosh computers via a web browser. (The company has been around for quite a while and provides a free basic remote access service as well as a couple of subscription-based pro-level services.)
I’ve come to prefer LogMeIn over the other solutions because it’s easy to setup, it provides secure console-level access, and it doesn’t require any firewall configuration, which is one less thing for me to manage. To get started, you simply create an account with LogMeIn, then install a lightweight background app on each machine that you want to control, and you’re done. Of course, not everyone reading this is a network admin, but if any of you have the need to connect to remote computers at home or work, then LogMeIn works just great for that too.
As I’ve said, LogMeIn’s browser-based remote access works great for me, but, according to Murphy’s Law, the time I most need to access a server is going to be the time when I’m not near a computer. So the geek in me was very happy when LogMeIn released LogMeIn Ignition for iPhone and iPod touch, an app that lets you access any number of Windows or Macintosh computers using your mobile device.
LogMeIn Ignition is super simple to setup. If you haven’t already created a LogMeIn account and installed the client app on your remote computers, you will want to do that first. Then, in the Ignition app, just log in with your e-mail address and password, and you immediately have access to all the machines connected to your LogMeIn account. You can have the app remember your login info or, if you’re extremely security-conscious, you can enter it each time you connect. Once you make the connection to a machine and log in (you can have it remember this login info as well), that computer’s desktop appears on on your device’s screen.
Controlling a computer with the desktop version of LogMeIn feels almost like you’re actually sitting in front of that machine. However, as you might imagine, the experience on the iPhone and iPod touch is not quite the same due to the smaller screen and touch interface. My biggest challenge was getting accustomed to the mouse movement, or lack thereof. Rather than moving the mouse pointer across the screen, LogMeIn Ignition’s default setting keeps the mouse fixed in the center of the screen while you move the desktop underneath it. So, to open an icon on the remote computer’s desktop, for example, you pan the desktop so that the icon is positioned under the mouse pointer, then double-tap on the screen, which sends a double-click to the computer. If you don’t like this behavior, you can go to the preferences screen change it to normal mouse movement. As awkward as the default setting may sound, though, I quickly got used to it; I actually find it much easier than the “normal” method.
If you want to get a closer view of the remote computer’s screen, you can use the familiar iPhone pinch technique to zoom in and out, or you can tap on the Magnify icon on the bottom row of buttons in order to zoom in and out by a set amount. Rotating the screen causes the remote desktop to rotate as well, which provides more area to zoom in.
Other multitouch gestures produce standard mouse actions. For example, a two-finger tap performs a right-click, and you can scroll within a window using a two-finger swipe—a technique familiar to most MacBookPro users. A help screen listing all these techniques appears each time you make a remote connection. (You can turn this off and on via the preferences.)
Since you’re controlling a remote computer, LogMeIn Ignition adds the standard keyboard function keys—such as Ctrl, Alt, arrow keys, and so on—to the iPhone’s virtual keyboard. It squeezes them into such a small space by organizing them by function, then putting the most commonly used ones in bar at the top of the screen and tucking the remainder away via sliding panels. I’ve found that response time for entering text and commands is quite acceptable under most conditions, although I wouldn’t want to rely on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard for any intensive keyboard work. (I’m hoping that some enterprising developer comes up with a portable bluetooth keyboard for the iPhone. That would make a very nice addition to this app.)
LogMeIn Ignition for the iPhone provides quite a few options to help maximize your connection speed. For instance, you can limit the remote computer’s screen size, resolution and color quality to save some bandwidth (or you can choose better quality if you have bandwidth to spare). You can specify the type of network you’re on (LAN or Internet connection, for example), or you can let LogMeIn’s “auto” setting figure it out for you. Honestly, I operate with the default settings and the app performs quite well, even over an EDGE connection. Other settings are geared more toward security, such as storing login credentials, locking the remote computer’s screen and keyboard after a period of inactivity, and so on.
On the downside, LogMeIn Ignition for iPhone is not cheap. At $30, it’s by far the most expensive app on my iPhone, and probably not an impulse purchase for most iPhone and iPod touch owners. (You can see the app in action at LogMeIn’s Website if you’d like to view a demo before you buy.)
Still, if you depend on having reliable remote access capabilities no matter where you are without lugging around a notebook computer, then you’ll probably find the cost easier to justify. For me, LogMeIn Ignition is, hands down, one of the most useful apps on my iPhone.
[Brian Beam is a partner with BOLD Internet Solutions and co-owner of ReValence Networks, living somewhere near Kansas City.]