Best Remote Desktop software of 2020
Ranking the top remote desktop software out there...
Remote desktop software allows you to run programs on a computer that isn’t physically in front of you. Remoting into a computer has two major advantages: first, your IT team can fix problems by sharing desktops with users, without having to be right in front of the computer with the problem.
Second, you can securely run programs and access files from anywhere—even outside the office. Remote desktop software sees wide use among both small and large companies, especially if they have sensitive data, use specialized software, or have employees that travel or work from home.
Why use remote desktop software?
Remote desktop software can dramatically increase the productivity of your IT staff. Instead of manually performing software updates and bug fixes in person, they can use remote desktop software to remote in and update programs or address support tickets.
When products need to be updated on many computers at the same time, remote desktop software can even help by running a script on multiple computers, one after another.
Because many modern remote desktop software tools incorporate both text chat and video chat, your IT team can fix problems easily and efficiently, even for clients who aren’t physically in the office.
As long as you have the client’s device is compatible with your remote desktop software, you can access the computer and fix a problem with ease. The user with the problem can explain in detail the issue they are having, and your IT service member can post useful instructions or notes in the text chat.
Furthermore, the best remote desktop software programs offer the ability to record these video and chat sessions, both so you can document how a problem was fixed, and so you can go back and reference the discussion if you return to the problem later.
Fixing technical problems and updating software aren’t the only reason to use remote desktop software. Another major area of application is being able to remotely access data or programs without having to be physically in front of the computer.
Remote desktop sharing can allow employees to access powerful desktops and servers from inexpensive laptops, which is important for design work, 3D animation, rendering, and data science, to name just a few applications.
You can also let users access computers that have specialized software installed that is too expensive or too resource-intensive to be deployed on standard company laptops.
Remote desktop software is also essential if you have employees who travel or who telecommute and still need to access company software or company data. Relying on users storing company data on their personal devices is dangerous, and has been the source of several data breaches and cases of identity theft.
If your company works with healthcare data, financial data, or education data, the security of your data may even be legally mandated under laws like HIPAA and FERPA.
Using a remote desktop connection, company data stays stored safely on your secure servers, and any connection to the company’s database is severed when the remote desktop connection is closed—no company data ever gets stored locally on the user’s device.
If you have employees or clients who use many different kinds of devices (for example, Macbooks, iPads, Windows PCs, and Android tablets), installing and maintaining the same software on all of them can be a nightmare.
In some cases, it may not even be possible—many specialized software programs just aren’t available on all platforms. Using remote desktop software can allow a user with any device to use this specialized software, even when they’re out of the office.
For companies that do most of their work on a computer, remote desktop software is a huge boost to productivity, both in terms of speeding your IT team’s response to updates and technical issues, and in terms of giving your employees the ability to access powerful computers, specialized software, and secure company data from anywhere in the world, without compromising security.
Who uses remote desktop software?
At many companies, remote desktop software is so ubiquitous that virtually everyone whose job revolves mostly around computer work will likely end up using your remote desktop software at some point. Regardless, several job positions call for more frequent use of remote desktop software:
IT Administrator. Your information technology team will make heavy use of remote desktop software for installing software, updating computers, and fixing technical bugs.
Your administrator will focus mostly on performing large, high-level updates like company-wide installation of new software, updating operating systems, and connecting database servers to your broader company network.
Your IT administrator may also use remote desktop software to maintain any high performance computers or servers that your research or data science teams need for their work.
IT service member. Your IT service members will generally be the ones using remote desktop software to fix day to day bugs and support tickets that come up at your company.
They’ll rely more heavily on features like integrated video and text chat, and switching between multiple screens, multiple computers, or multiple users to address complex technical bugs and support issues with your company’s software.
Help desk technician. Your IT help desk is your front line for fixing minor problems and helping users with software features they might be unfamiliar with. Like the IT service team, your help desk technicians will be using video and text chat to quickly fix issues and train your employees on software features they might be unfamiliar with.
Your help desk technicians may not need some of the more sophisticated features used by your IT services team and your systems administrator, but they’ll use the basic functions every single day.
Data scientist. Your data science team, perhaps along with data analysts and business intelligence specialists, will rely on your remote desktop software to access company data and specialized data visualization and statistical analysis software, especially if they are working from home or are traveling.
Data scientists in particular will be interested in using your remote desktop software to access more powerful computers to run analyses, create data visualizations, and access large datasets.
Remote worker. If you have employees that telecommute, travel often, or split their time between multiple offices, remote desktop software is a must. Using remote desktop software, your employees can access company data and company software anywhere in the world, without having to store data on their personal laptops or tablets.
Storing data on personal devices poses a serious security risk, because if the device is lost or stolen, a thief can access customer records or other private data. Many specialized software packages, like your company’s CRM software or data visualization software, come with a limited number of licenses.
Remote desktop software can help prevent you from having to pay for more—by remoting in to the same desktop they use at work, a telecommuting or traveling employee can work off the same software license that they use in the office.
Different remote desktop software offer different limits on the maximum number of users and machines supported by your remote desktop software. Often, companies will offer a free or very low-cost version of their remote desktop software that has many of the best features, but puts pretty sharp limits on how many different computers, and how many different users, can install and use the software.
As you move up in software quality and in payment tiers, the number of users and computers supported increases. Make sure you pay attention to both—some companies need to support many more users than computers, or vice versa.
For example, you may have many different users who want to remote into a workstation computer to run computationally intensive processes, or who need to use specialized design software. Paying attention to the number of users and the number of machines supported will ensure you get the right software for your company’s needs.
When remote desktop software is used for technical support, you will want software that supports unattended access. Several lower tier remote desktop software relies on an end user sitting in front of the computer, allowing permission for an IT technician or administrator to access the computer.
While this is fine for simple technical fixes, it’s a real pain if you are trying to update software or perform lengthy changes to a computer’s setup. Unattended access allows your IT team direct access to the computer even when the user isn’t on the other end.
If your company uses software with very intensive graphics, using remote desktop software that offers remote graphics support might be necessary. Usually, remote desktop software transmits keyboard and mouse input from your computer to the remote computer, and transmits back the raw display information.
This works fine for most applications, but for extremely graphics-intensive work, like 3D rendering, low-powered computers might not be able to handle the raw display information.
High-end remote desktop software may offer remote graphics capabilities, where the graphics are rendered remotely and the actual pixel displays are transmitted back to your computer, like a video stream. This can allow you to run graphics-intensive applications even on a low-powered laptop.
Using remote desktop software for IT support requires multiple simultaneous sessions and multiple monitor support. When you are using remote desktop software to fix computer problems and perform software updates, several complicating factors come into play.
For example, your research team may have a problem getting their data collection computer to connect to their data processing computer. Fixing this is going to require remote desktop software that supports multiple sessions—i.e. the IT technician being able to connect to multiple computers at once, and easily switching back and forth between the two.
You’ll also want to look into multiple monitor support, because some of the computers you’re fixing will very likely have more than one monitor.
Administrators and IT staff will want to be able to disable user input and hide screen output from the user. Sometimes, delicate technical fixes via remote desktop software can go off the rails if the user on the other end accidentally presses the wrong key or clicks the mouse when they shouldn’t.
Administrators may need to log in to sensitive accounts, or access private information that the end user shouldn’t see. In these cases, having the ability to temporarily block user input, and block the user’s ability to see what’s on the screen, can both be a huge help.
These features don’t have any uses outside of technical fixes, but they can be nice to have if your IT team does a lot of bug fixing.
Higher end remote desktop software will offer the ability to record your remote sessions on video. For long technical fixes, or for performing work for an external client, it can be very helpful to have a record of the work that was performed.
You can also go back and look at the client’s description of the problem, or reference the session in the future if the problem occurs again. Most software that offers this feature also offers some system to archive and catalogue these video recordings, which is nice—without such a system, it can be very difficult to organize such recordings.
Always check for a remote desktop software’s file transfer abilities, because it will be one of your most-used features. One of the biggest advantages of remote desktop software is the ability to access files and data remotely, and more importantly to transfer this data from one computer to another.
For example, if your data engineers need to drop a large dataset onto a workstation for analysis, they’ll need to do a file transfer.
While the speed of file transfer is limited by your internet speed, check to see the file size and any other limits on file transfers in your remote desktop software, especially if you often deal with very large files like database exports or high definition video.
You can save yourself a lot of time and a lot of headaches if you use a powerful remote desktop software tool to manage these large file transfers.
Make sure your remote desktop software supports all of the operating systems in use at your company. Pretty much any remote desktop software will work on both Windows and Mac OS, but you may have some computers or company devices that use other operating systems, like Unix and Linux variants, that aren’t supported on some remote desktop software applications.
iPads and Android tablets are another type of device where you may need to verify support: employees who travel are increasingly turning to tablets instead of desktops, and not all remote desktop software tools are supported on these mobile devices.
Your company may also have some computers running different versions of the same operating system, so make sure you make a full catalogue of the operating systems and devices you need support for before choosing a remote desktop software.
Q: Do small businesses and mid-sized businesses need remote desktop software?
A: While remote desktop software is often associated with large enterprise applications (read: big companies), small and mid-sized businesses can still make good use of remote desktop software.
Accessing company data and software while traveling or while working from home is a huge benefit of using remote desktop software, and smaller businesses can even save money by using remote desktop software: by allowing employees to remote into their office computers, you can save yourself the time and license fees of installing specialized software on their laptops.
This also helps ensure the security of your company’s data, by preventing employees from having to make personal copies of your data to work remotely.
Q: Does remote desktop software work on Windows and on Mac?
A: Yes, virtually all remote desktop software works both on Windows and on Mac. These operating systems are both widely used, so they enjoy wide support among remote desktop software applications.
You may have to look a bit harder to find remote desktop software that supports less common or more specialized operating systems, like Android (found on tablets and smartphones) and Unix or Linux (mainly used for servers and workstations).
Even so, good remote desktop software to support these operating systems is available, so operating system compatibility is not usually a limiting factor when it comes to finding remote desktop software.
Q: Are there any free remote desktop software packages?
A: Many major remote desktop software applications, like ConnectWise, Chrome Remote Desktop, and AnyDesk offer free versions of their remote desktop software, often with most or all of the features of the paid versions.
The catch is that you have a limited number of users and a limited number of computers that can be accessed with the free version of the software. If you want to upgrade, you’ll have to pay up.
If you only have a few computers or a few employees, though, you can save a lot of money by going with one of these free options, at least until your company grows enough to justify upgrading to the paid version.
Q: What is unattended access in remote desktop software?
A: Unattended access allows a remote user to log in to a desktop without a user at that computer having to approve of it. Unattended access is mostly relevant for IT services, because they’re the ones who may be remoting into many different computers to fix technical bugs or install software.
If you rely on remote desktop software for IT support, you should definitely make sure it supports unattended access. Using remote desktop software for telecommunity or remote work virtually always requires unattended access, since the entire idea is to remote into your own computer, even when you don’t have physical access to it.
Q: What is desktop sharing?
A: Desktop sharing is a broad category of software applications that includes, but is not limited to, remote desktop software. Remote desktop software is strictly focused on getting a user to remotely log in to a specific computer (or multiple computers at once).
Desktop sharing also includes real-time collaborative work, where multiple users share access to the same computer. Usually this is used for conferencing, sketching out ideas, or for virtual whiteboard sessions—it’s hard to do practical work when multiple users are on a single desktop simultaneously.
Q: How secure is remote desktop software?
A: Modern remote desktop software is very secure against most forms of external attack. By far the weakest link in the security of remote desktop software is the end user—if your password gets stolen or compromised, someone else can log into the system and access your files.
You can combat this by using two-factor authentication, which requires a code sent to your cell phone to activate your remote desktop session. Even though remote desktop software is vulnerable to password theft, it’s still far more secure than having employees take company data with them on their personal devices.
At least with remote desktop software, as soon as the connection is severed, no data remains on your personal device.
Q: Does remote desktop software work on servers?
A: Yes, since a server is just another type of computer that runs an operating system, you can use remote desktop software to access servers too.
This strategy is popular with data scientists, who use remote sessions on powerful computer servers to run computationally intensive data analyses that would never be possible on a personal computer or laptop.
You may need to configure your remote desktop settings differently for a server, and you will need to check to see if your server’s operating system is supported by your remote desktop software, but in principle there is no reason you can’t use it on a server as well.
Remote desktop software is essential for efficiently performing IT support, and for allowing employees to securely access specialized computers, software, and data from anywhere in the world.
If your company relies on computer software for large aspects of conducting business, you need a high-quality remote desktop software system to support your ability to use, update, and support your software and data infrastructure.