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What is a remote desktop?

technical support staff working at desks
(Image credit: Getty Images)

What is a remote desktop?

Remote desktop software can be used to view and control a computer that’s in a different physical location from your local machine. The best remote desktop software (opens in new tab) makes this a seamless experience, making it feel almost like you’re sitting in front of the remote computer.

What does remote desktop software do?

  • Offers access to a computer (also known as the server) from a remote device
  • Displays the desktop of the server as if the user were accessing it at their location
  • Allows you to run all the remote computer’s installed applications
  • Lets you access all the files on the server, even from a remote location
  • Provides access to all the server’s connected hardware, such as printers and hard drives
  • Offers a convenient way for administrators to troubleshoot issues and install patches

How departments can use remote desktop software

Team working on computers in an office

Customer support teams can use remote desktop solutions to help customers remotely (Image credit: Arlington Research on Unsplash)

IT operations

When new software, updates, and patches need to be installed on all the computers in the organization, IT operations can use remote desktop software to install them without having to physically go from machine to machine. This can make keeping up with security patches, virus scans, and new software rollouts much less time-consuming and costly. 

Internal technical support

Technical support teams can use remote desktop software to fix problems remotely. Remote desktop platforms are used extensively in technical support scenarios within a business or organization, because the support technician isn’t required to physically go to the computer with the technical issue. This works well in a large office environment, and remote desktop software is also increasingly used to support workforces performing their duties from home.

Customer support

For companies with software products that require customer support, remote desktop can be used to access customers’ computers to troubleshoot issues or to perform initial setup configuration. 

Many remote desktop solutions like VNC Connect (opens in new tab) and Zoho Assist (opens in new tab) have features that make it easy to support end-users. In these cases, the end-user runs a small remote desktop tool that customer support can use to temporarily connect to their computer. Nothing is installed permanently on the end user’s computer. After customer support has disconnected, the user is free to delete the downloaded tool.

Features and benefits of remote desktop software

You can use a remote computer as if you were sitting in front of it
While many other remote administration tools exist (e.g., SSH, FTP, RSAT), these are typically text-based solutions. Remote desktop tools instead show you a copy of the remote desktop screen. You use your mouse and keyboard to interact with the remote computer, and so it’s therefore extremely intuitive to use. As users already know how to use the interface of the operating system they’re connecting to, there’s no requirement for additional training.

Remote desktops offers access to both local and remote hardware at the same time
While connected to a remote device, you have access to all its connected hardware, such as printers, hard drives, graphics cards, and CPUs. You can also access all the networked resources the remote computer is connected to. Further, most remote solutions allow you to also use some of your locally-connected hardware resources at the same time. In this way, your local hardware devices like printers and hard drives are made available during your remote connection session. This can be useful, for example, when you’re using a remote computer to run an application but still want the option to print the output on your local printer.

Remote desktop tools can greatly reduce costs
Being able to remotely administer a computer drastically reduces the cost in manpower and time required to support many computers in an organization. Fewer IT support technicians are required, and the amount of time it takes to resolve issues or update computers is greatly reduced. In customer-facing scenarios, instead of sending a technician out on-site, remote desktop platforms can be used to administer systems remotely.

Remote desktop can be used between platforms
Need to run a Windows-only application, but you only have a Mac? By learning how to use remote desktop on Mac (opens in new tab), and by understanding how to remote desktop from Mac to Windows (opens in new tab), you can log into a Windows computer and run the application without having to get up from your Mac computer. Similarly, most remote desktop solutions offer clients for mobile devices like iOS and Android phones and tablets. It can be very useful to be able to access your main computer desktop from your phone, tablet, or laptop, wherever you are.

You can use remote desktop software to administer cloud-hosted services
When a company has cloud servers or uses cloud computing, remote desktop platforms can be used to access these remote computers at little to no cost. If you use cloud computing services (opens in new tab) or VPS web hosting (opens in new tab) (which typically run on Linux or another Unix operating system), remote desktop tools are a convenient way to change settings, install new services, and update software from any location, even if you’re using a Mac or Windows computer.

How much does using a remote desktop tool cost?

Screenshot of RemotePC pricing from the IDrive website

RemotePC by IDrive has five plans at competitive rates (Image credit: IDrive Inc.)

Free remote desktop solutions exist, like TightVNC (opens in new tab) and Chrome Remote Desktop (opens in new tab). You can download and use these at no cost, even for commercial applications.

In most cases, paid remote desktop solutions offer more features, a higher-quality image, and better security. They are usually easier to set up than free solutions, particularly when you have an atypical network setup, and they have better cross-platform support. Importantly, paid solutions usually have built-in encryption (opens in new tab) and better options for authenticating remote users, increasing security.

TeamViewer (opens in new tab) is one of our top choices, and costs around $102.90 a month for 15 users. More competitively-priced, RemotePC (opens in new tab) by IDrive (opens in new tab) will set you back $29.62 a year for a single-user license with support for two computers.

Remote desktop software FAQs

What is Remote Desktop?

Remote desktop is an overarching term that includes all the different software solutions available. Microsoft’s own remote desktop software solution is simply called Remote Desktop

This tool is built into most editions of Microsoft Windows (Windows Starter and Windows Home editions are the notable exceptions, as you can’t use Remote Desktop to access these editions remotely). 

This can cause some confusion when you’re researching the topic online, as some articles discuss remote desktop solutions in general, while others focus on the Microsoft Remote Desktop tool in particular.

Is using a remote desktop secure?

Remote desktop solutions vary greatly on their levels of security. When researching remote desktop solutions for your business, it’s important to check the security, privacy, and user authentication features that each platform and protocol provides. 

For instance, many older remote desktop software tools use VNC (opens in new tab) (virtual network computing) as their basis, but this doesn’t have any encryption by default. Microsoft’s Remote Desktop, utilizing the RDP (opens in new tab) protocol, does include encryption, but it’s also had many major security flaws. 

It was the single biggest attack vector for hackers during the pandemic, for example, as they took advantage of customers who had set it up insecurely when rushing to roll out a remote desktop solution for their workforce.

Another option is to choose a remote desktop solution with its own proprietary transfer protocol (e.g., AnyDesk (opens in new tab) or GoTo (opens in new tab)). On one hand, these protocols aren’t such obvious targets for hackers. On the other hand, because their code isn’t public, you must take the word of the developers that their systems are safe and secure.

Does remote desktop software have latency?

Remote desktop tools do have latency. Depending on your network setup, how far you are from the remote computer, and the protocols used, latency will occur. When latency is high, the desktop experience feels sluggish, as it takes a second or two for remote screen changes to be updated on your local screen.

Older remote desktop protocols like VNC perform noticeably worse when the remote screen is constantly updating, such as when playing a video. Newer remote desktop protocols are more efficient, so by choosing the right solution you can have a remote desktop experience that closely mirrors the experience you’d have if you were sitting in front of the machine.

Should I use remote desktop or a cloud desktop solution?

Remote desktop platforms and protocols like XRDP (opens in new tab) can be used to share resources between multiple people. For example, you can use TightVNC to share different parts of a remote screen with different people. This can reduce costs, as you can connect to a single powerful server from several low-cost computers.

But cloud computing now offers a more elegant solution. With desktop as a service (opens in new tab) (DaaS) services like Azure Virtual Desktop (opens in new tab) and Amazon WorkSpaces (opens in new tab), you can offer every employee their own virtual desktop environment that’s running on the cloud. It’s cheaper, much more scalable, and easier to deploy than a bespoke remote desktop setup.

Main takeaways

  • Remote desktop software is a highly convenient way to use a computer remotely
  • Most remote desktop solutions require the installation of server software on the computer you are connecting to, and client/viewer software on the device you are connecting from
  • When connected with remote desktop, you can access the server computer as if you were standing in front of it, including transferring files, using and updating software, using local connected hardware, and more
  • Remote desktop solutions can be great for remote employees, IT departments delivering internal help to employees, and customer service
  • Many free remote desktop solutions exist, but paid solutions can add additional quality-of-life features like cloud connectivity
  • Using remote desktop software can feel slow if network conditions are poor; older protocols are affected more

Further reading on remote desktops

If you’re interested in using the remote desktop solution built into most editions of Microsoft Windows, we’ve put together a guide to using Microsoft Remote Desktop Connection (opens in new tab) and how to use remote desktop on Windows 10 (opens in new tab). If you've got a Chromebook or use Google products, we've outlined how to set up Chrome Remote Desktop (opens in new tab). Finally, if you're a Linux user, find out how to remote desktop into Ubuntu (opens in new tab) via the best remote desktop for Linux (opens in new tab).

Find the top platforms for your business with our guide to the best remote desktop software (opens in new tab); if you're on a tight budget, take a look at the best free remote desktop software (opens in new tab) platforms. We've also discussed what AnyDesk is (opens in new tab), what TeamViewer is (opens in new tab), and what the top TeamViewer alternatives (opens in new tab) are, if you're interested in the platform but want to see what else is available.

Richard brings over 20 years of website development, SEO, and marketing to the table. A graduate in Computer Science, Richard has lectured in Java programming, and has built software for companies including Samsung and ASDA. Now, he writes for TechRadar, Tom's Guide, PC Gamer, and Creative Bloq.