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.
No transfer, either
When you connect, a new window opens showing the host's screen. That's it--no menus, no buttons to click, no cute icons. (When you connect via a browser, a couple of buttons do show up at the top of the window, letting you disconnect or set options.) Otherwise, WinVNC offers the standard remote control options. Once you connect, you can use the mouse and keyboard to run anything on the host from the remote. You can open files, print documents to the host's printer, and run software. But don't look for extras, such as LapLink's text and voice chat or GoToMyPC's Guest feature. There isn't even a way to transfer files between the host and remote computers.
Because WinVNC doesn't include built-in compression (as LapLink, for instance, does), slow connections mean slow response times between your remote and host PCs. We got impatient waiting for screens to draw (in the worst case, as long as 60 seconds over a 28.8Kbps link). In other words, turn to WinVNC only when both the host and remote computers connect via cable, DSL, or another broadband link to the Net.
Worse, WinVNC's security is pathetic. There's no integrated encryption to encode/decode the information that passes between the host and remote machines--the only thing that's keeping hackers out is the host's password. Here's the technical breakdown: A WinVNC host "listens" on two ports--one in the 58xx range for Web-based connections, the other in the 59xx range for viewer-initiated links, which leaves those two ports exposed. We installed Norton Internet Security and used Port Detective and Port Checker to sniff out open ports. The computer remained invisible.
We'll pay, thanks
WinVNC's claim to fame is twofold: it's free, and it supports multiple OSs. For those who absolutely need either of these things, WinVNC is the only game in town. But, frankly, we'll gladly pay $10 per month for GoToMyPC rather than suffer the slings and arrows of this hard-to-use freebie.