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Issue #680: August 2-8, 2020

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Q: My father is in an assisted living facility and his (old) computer died recently. I’ll get him a new one (basic model for email, pix), but wondering if I could/should get some sort of remote access tool to help keep it up to date and help him if he has an issue. Do you know of a suitable tool? Also, if I use that type program/tool, does it open my home network to possible attack since I believe the facility he lives in doesn’t encrypt. Thanks for all your good work.

 – Curtis R.
Fort Walton Beach, Florida

A:  I applaud you for trying to take such good care of your father, Curtis.  When my mother-in-law was in a similar facility, Spouse Peripheral and I visited her multiple times a week, and made sure she had everything we could think of to give her the most possible quality of life.  We chose a pad device over a computer, because of its compact size, ease of use while lying in bed, and minimal maintenance requirements.  The nursing staff often commented that we visited far more often than the families of most of the residents, some of whom got visits only at Christmas, Mother’s Day, etc. if at all.

But, as they say, I digress.  Yes, there absolutely are tools that do exactly what you described.  In fact, you came mighty close to using their exact name in your question.  The function of accessing a PC from another device in the manner you described is called Remote Desktop.  In practice, this allows you to connect two devices over the Internet and both view and control the remote system from wherever you happen to be.  You see the screen, and control the mouse and keyboard input exactly as if you were sitting at the machine.  Of course, you cannot perform operations that require physical interaction with the remote computer, such as pressing the On/Off button, inserting a disk, or plugging in a thumb drive.  But careful planning makes needing those kind of operations a rarity.

There are many Remote Desktop options out there, and many are free.  In fact, Windows has one built right in, except it’s only available when you have the Pro version, where most non-business users have the Home Edition.  Not to worry though, there are plenty of non-Microsoft alternatives.

One of the most popular is TeamViewer.  I have extensive experience with this software, as I use it to help program and test the lights at the Geek Lights on the Corner (my annual Christmas light show).  In my case, I have a laptop in the house that controls all the lights, but I often need to turn things on and off while standing amid the lights in the front yard.  TeamViewer supports controlling a PC from non-PC devices, including iPhones and iPads.  So I walk around the yard with my iPad, turning things on and off, and passers-by are usually amazed, somehow thinking that my entire show is controlled wirelessly via an iPad (I wish!).  TeamViewer would be an ideal solution, and I would recommend it without reservation, as it is “Free for personal use”.  However, the company that publishes it has arbitrarily decided on multiple occasions and without warning that my use is commercial.  They then disable my account, leaving me without my Remote Desktop solution until I can convince them I’m not using it commercially. 

You can easily find alternative titles by Googling either “Free Remote Desktop Software” or even “TeamViewer Alternative”.  I’ve been strongly considering a switch to Google Remote Desktop because I can’t abide by the sudden loss of this capability during light show season.

The security about which you asked is a matter of debate, and probably varies between software options.  TeamViewer, for example, had a security breach a couple of years back that allowed strangers access to the remote PCs.  This has been fixed, but it proves that vulnerabilities exist.  I think, however, that your concern about your home network is unfounded.  Although the remote access app needs to be running on the remote system for you to access it on-demand, there’s no reason it needs to be running on your home system until you need it.  That would keep the door firmly closed against any attacks via this vector.

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