A funny thing happened on the way to Boston: the CNET office disappeared. Our Cambridge office is moving to a new location, so when I arrived on the East Coast for a short stay, I found myself without a cube to call home. More importantly, I couldn't work from a computer already inside the CNET firewall, which left me with two choices: use a VPN client, or use a remote access program.
I haven't encountered a single VPN client review without some degree of legitimate complaint, and my own experience with them has left much to be desired. I dislike how, by their nature, they affect every program that connects to the Internet. Last year, I tested out LogMeIn Free for Windows and Mac, and figured an extended, multiweek test now couldn't be any worse than suffering through a VPN.
LogMeIn Free functions so well it makes an excellent case for ditching the VPN entirely. I installed the program on my work computer before I left San Francisco, created an account at the LogMeIn Web site and then logged out, leaving the machine on but in standby mode. The next step was installing the LogMeIn client on my laptop. Once I arrived in Massachusetts, I hit a coffee shop with a reliable Internet connection, and fired up Firefox. The LogMeIn client runs at start-up, an essential feature for the computer you want to use remotely. It also uses 256-bit SSL encryption, dual authentication for the application and the remote computer, and RSA SecureID, which assuaged my security concerns.
From there, I went back to LogMeIn.com and signed in. My account details popped up, along with the name of my work computers that had the client installed and their status--in use, in standby, or offline. Clicking on one put me through the LogMeIn log-in for that computer, followed by the computer's own log-in. All of this takes place in a Web browser, so I was expecting halting responsiveness. Instead, it ran smoothly. There was a slight lag, but I'd peg it at about one second or less.
Essentially, I was using my work computer through a secure, encrypted connection, but without any of the obnoxious failures and hassles that come with running a VPN that affects my entire system. One big plus was having access to my local email archives, as well as those still living on CNET's Microsoft Exchange server.
System crashes, especially when constantly installing and uninstalling programs, are to be expected. I was worried about one until it occurred. When my laptop's browser crashed, I was able to re-establish the remote connection as effortlessly as I was able to create it in the first place: I merely logged back in to LogMeIn.com. When the San Francisco computer was having memory leak problems, I was able to reboot it from within the remote access window. Once it reached the Windows log in screen, I could control it as I had before.
The clipboard can be configured to cross between the two machines, so a program name that I copy on my work machine can be pasted into a document here on my laptop. The ALT-Tab hot key combination works with the remote machine. There's a chat program, too, for when you need to remotely control a computer with another person. You can also lock the keyboard of the remote machine so somebody walking by can't create any input.
The problems I've encountered have been minor. There's the lag, and the fact that file transfers are only available for users who upgrade. The only other drawback to LogMeIn is if the host computer suffers a fatal crash and won't restart. Unless a friend will go push the power button, you won't be able to get in and you'll have to resort to a VPN connection, which won't give you access to files on a local drive.
Throw in that big bagel of a price, and LogMeIn Free has become my first option for work-specific remote access.