WinVNC review: WinVNC

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CNET Editors' Rating

2 stars Mediocre
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Free; works on more operating systems than any other remote control program; requires only a Web browser to connect to a host.

The Bad No support and poor documentation; weak security; only way to connect is through the Internet.

The Bottom Line If you're a power user who wants to control all kinds of computers for free, this is your ticket. Everyone else, stick with easier GoToMyPC.

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WinVNC may be free, but it isn't a free ride. Setting up and using this remote control app can be tougher than coaxing a cat from a tree. Sure, it's available in more OS flavors than any other remote control app we reviewed, but it's tough to use and the security is lax. The only time you should use WinVNC is if you absolutely must connect to a variety of operating systems and don't want to spend a single buck on remote control. Everyone else who needs the convenience of controlling a computer by browser--and especially anyone wary of do-it-yourself computer projects--should head for GoToMyPC instead. WinVNC may be free, but it isn't a free ride. Setting up and using this remote control app can be tougher than coaxing a cat from a tree. Sure, it's available in more OS flavors than any other remote control app we reviewed, but it's tough to use and the security is lax. The only time you should use WinVNC is if you absolutely must connect to a variety of operating systems and don't want to spend a single buck on remote control. Everyone else who needs the convenience of controlling a computer by browser--and especially anyone wary of do-it-yourself computer projects--should head for GoToMyPC instead.

Nothing is really free
WinVNC isn't especially complex, but AT&T hasn't bothered to publish any decent documentation along with it. There's no help file included with the program, and the downloadable documentation is just a grab bag of HTML files and GIF images. And forget phone or e-mail support. You'll have to rely on the online docs, which are obscure in some places and too technical in others. Here's a sample: "If Win95 is set to use a different set of Registry values for each user, then when a user logs in, the password will change from the per-machine VNC password to that user's VNC password." Huh?

Assuming that you can puzzle out installation and setup, you'll need to run the WinVNC Server software on the host and the Viewer on the remote to start controlling it. Neither the Server nor the Viewer software has an interface per se; each is little more than a small dialog box with a handful of scratch-your-head options such as Deconify On Bell. The most important setting is the password you assign to the host. (Don't bother typing in more than eight characters, by the way. WinVNC doesn't tell you this, but it ignores any more than eight.)

The amazing thing about WinVNC isn't that it works, but that it's free and works on so many different platforms. With editions for Windows (including Windows CE), Mac, Linux, and Solaris, VNC is the obvious choice for cross-OS remote control--for example, when you have to operate an office Windows machine from your Linux system at home.

Look Ma, no client
You really don't need to install any software on the remote machine, making WinVNC, like GoToMyPC, easy to use when you're connecting from a borrowed or public computer. How does it work? The WinVNC server software includes a miniature Web server, which controls the host computer using any Java-enabled browser, such as Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator, making VNC a must-have for bargain-minded road warriors. Just sniff out a Net-connected computer, and you can run your machine long distance.

No IP address, no dice
Despite the flexibility you get from cross-platform remote control, VNC offers just one way to connect: via the Internet. If the host isn't using an always-on connection such as DSL or cable (or jacked into a LAN that's linked to the Net), WinVNC won't do you much good. You can either launch the server on the host manually yourself or do it automatically when the machine boots. (WinVNC calls the latter Install WinVNC Service, just one example of the app's confusing jargon.)

Connecting to your base camp computer is not point-and-click easy. To connect from a remote machine via WinVNC, open the viewer, then enter the IP address of the host and press Enter. (If you're using the browser method, type http://the IP address:5800 into the URL field of the browser.) Don't know the difference between an IP address and a zip code? If someone is in front of the host's screen or the computer uses a static, or unchanging IP address, as do many DSL and cable connections, placing the mouse pointer atop the small icon in the host's system tray reveals that computer's IP address. However, if the host PC connects to the Internet using different IP addresses each time (called dynamically allocated IP addresses) and there's no one to tell you the IP address, you're stuck.

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