Microsoft has been a little more forthcoming with developing iOS apps and, although Office for iOS is still but a pipe dream, the folks at Redmond have been busy working on apps such as OneNote, Xbox SmartGlass and SkyDrive.
Their latest release is Microsoft Remote Desktop, providing access to your Windows PC remotely from the comfort of your iOS device. It certainly isn’t the first remote access or screen sharing app for iOS and, up to now, there’s been a rather busy market for apps such as this. Things are about to change as Microsoft’s offering is not only free, it’s very easy to use and provides a great way to access your Windows PC remotely.
Microsoft Remote Desktop provides remote access functionality from your iOS device to a compatible Windows PC, working with Windows XP right the way through to the most recent version, Windows 8.1.
Microsoft Remote Desktop isn’t so much a screen sharing app as it is a remote access tool. Screen sharing implies both you and the user currently logged in can access the PC. In fact, with Microsoft Remote Desktop, logging in with your username and password will log you out of the PC as Windows continues the user session remotely. This is something Windows has been able to do for some time and is used a lot by remote workers, though if you’re planning to provide any remote assistance then you might want to look elsewhere. This app is more for network administrators and remote users than casual screen sharing.
Like many of Microsoft’s other iOS apps, Microsoft Remote Desktop is actually rather well designed and seems right at home within iOS 7. The interface isn’t cluttered and is split between Remote Desktop connections and Configuration, the former listing any connections that you’ve saved.
Adding new connections is straightforward, simply providing a name for the connection, IP address for the Windows PC and some login credentials. Some additional settings are options and can be customised, depending on your requirements.
Microsoft Remote Desktop, rather brilliantly, lets you save these login credentials to use for other sessions. For administrators looking after a network of Windows PCs, they can simply add a session for each and, rather than have to enter a complicated password every single time, simply use one saved previously.
A search bar is displayed at the top of the connections list which lets you filter your connection list if you want to quickly search for a PC to connect to. It does not, as I mistakenly thought, let you simply enter a name and search for a computer over the network. Microsoft Remote Desktop offers no network discovery so if you’re wanting to browse your network for PCs to connect to, that isn’t possible here. Whether that is a limitation of the app or iOS is anyone’s guess, so it isn’t something I could hold against it.
Microsoft Remote Desktop is blazingly fast, taking only a second or two from tapping connect to being logged in and interacting with your desktop. I tested the app with Windows 7 and Windows 8, using both a local network and connecting externally via 3G and the speed difference was negligible. iOS users on the move will really appreciate this as it makes working remotely all that much easier.
Touches are recognised instantly and tap-and-hold works just the same as click-and-hold, allowing for easy dragging of windows. You can switch to mouse mode which will display a cursor for you to drag around the screen. For most, this is unnecessary but there are likely times when you will need the accuracy of a cursor, especially when you’re using smaller iOS devices.
A keyboard is available at all times, not just when you’re inputting text, and can easily be toggled from the icon at the top of the display. Microsoft Remote Desktop provides a full PC keyboard, combining both a traditional iOS keyboard with a secondary one that features a full Function row, cursor keys, Windows key and numeric keypad. Similar to Markdown writing apps that add an additional row of keys, Microsoft Remote Desktop does the same with continuous access to keys such as Windows, Control and Shift. This allows for keyboard shortcuts to be easily triggered.
For those needing to zoom in closer, a dedicated pan & zoom button lets you zoom in and pan around your Windows desktop, making it easier to see and enter text. Oddly, the pan button is placed off-centre, as though little thought was given when it was added. When using the app with Windows 8, I found it would often stick and remain constantly displayed, quite distracting when you’re wanting to get some work done.
For Windows XP and 7 users, there’s no multi-touch functionality whatsoever, meaning no pinch & zoom, no swipe to scroll nor two-finger tap. Later versions of Windows Server and Windows 8 support a feature called RemoteFX, providing multi-touch functionality within apps that use Microsoft’s new Windows 8 UI. It works quite well though there is sometimes a noticeable lag, especially on graphic’s heavy animations such as scrolling web pages or swiping through the Windows 8 home screen.
With Microsoft Remote Desktop, Microsoft has, again, proven that it’s capable of building good software for other platforms. The app may not have all the bells and whistles of more expensive remote access tools that are available no the App Store, but it is a capable and easy to use app for iOS users wanting to remotely access Windows PCs that is extremely quick, even over slower connections.
Unless you need anything more than a straightforward way to remotely access your home or work PC, Microsoft Remote Desktop should easily fulfil your needs.