I need to access various files and folders on my home PC using a separate computer located elsewhere. Ideally I'd like to do this without having my home PC switched on or connected to the Internet. I've got very little money to spend. What are my options?
There are many ways to get access to data on your PC while you're away from home. Most of these require your home computer to be switched on and all of them require access to the Internet. The most obvious method is to use Windows XP Professional Edition's built-in Remote Desktop feature. This lets you control your home PC via the Internet using a computer in another location.
You can enable this by right-clicking the My Computer icon in the Start menu, clicking Properties, then clicking the Remote tab at the top of the System Properties window. To initiate a connection from another PC, click Start, All Programs, Accessories, Communications, and the Remote Desktop Connection icon. You'll need to know the exact IP address of your home PC, which you can find by clicking the Start button in Windows XP, then clicking Run, and typing 'cmd' into the resulting dialogue box. Once the window with the scary black background appears, type 'ipconfig' and note down the IP Address. Once you're done, type 'exit' to return to Windows.
If you don't have the Professional Edition of Windows XP, you'll need to use an alternative remote access program such as GoToMyPC or LogMeIn Free Edition. These applications provide more features than Remote Desktop and many users will find them easier to use, as there's no need to remember pesky IP addresses -- you just use a standard password. What's more, you can even get access to your home PC via your PDA or smart phone.
If you don't want to leave your PC switched on indefinitely but still want access to files and folders, you should consider investing in a network-attached storage device such as Buffalo's TeraStation or LinkStation Pro. These devices are essentially external hard drives with added network gubbins -- they connect to your broadband router and let you access their files and folder over the Internet. Unfortunately these devices won't give you access to your Windows desktop, and you'll need to ensure the drives contain the files you require -- but they won't eat as much electricity as your computer. They can be pricey, though.