Have you ever wished you could access any computer you need from the comfort of your iPad on the couch, or from your iPhone in a park, all with the same simplicity of using a native iOS app? iPads and iPhones are powerful on their own, but you still can’t do everything from them. Whether you’re needing to change network settings on your work computer or start a movie download on your home computer, your iOS device just can’t do it on its own.
Since the early 2000′s, VNC (Virtual Network Computing) technology has been widely available for most mainstream operating systems to let you remotely login to your computer and use your programs and data without being in front of it. The latest wave of powerful smartphones and mobile devices have sparked an increasing interest in using your computer remotely, and the App Store currently contains many VNC apps for iPhone and iPad.
There’s only one problem. Most VNC apps make you drag the remote mouse cursor around, treating your iPad as a giant laptop touchpad. That’s where Screens comes in. This new VNC app from Endovia aims to bring the best of the iOS touch interface and VNC together to make your desktop feel like a native iOS app. Best of all, it’s a universal app so you can use the same app on your iPad and iPhone. Let’s take a look and see if this is the app that can make remote computing easier for you.
Get More Screens on Your iOS Device
Screens brings the iWork feel to a VNC app. When you first launch the app you’ll get a quick overview of how it works, and then can quickly add your VNC accounts. Each appears as a screen on a wood background, much like documents and presentations do in the iWork apps.
One of the most refreshing things about Screens is that it’s a universal app that really works the same on all iOS devices. Many apps work differently on iPad than iPhone even when they’re universal apps, but Screens feels the exact same on either device. The only difference with using it on an iPhone or iPod Touch is that the screen is much smaller! The iPad’s screen size makes using VNC much more enjoyable, but Screens does a good job making it usable on a smaller screen, too.
If your computers aren’t already setup for VNC connections, you’ll find detailed instructions in the Help menu for setting them up in Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. For OS X and Linux computers, you’ll simply need to enable Screen Sharing or Remote Desktop, respectively, from their system preferences. On Windows computers, you’ll need to install a VNC program on your PC such as the recommended free TightVNC app.
Once you’re ready to start adding computers to Screens, tap the New Screen button in the top left corner of the app. Screens will automatically detect nearby Linux and Mac computers, so you can add their info with two taps. Alternately, enter your computer’s name and address manually.
Now, whether you automatically added a computer or entered it manually, you’ll need to enter the computer’s VNC password and select the operating system manually below. If you don’t select an operating system, your keyboard and special key settings may end up messed up. Finally, if you’re using SSL tunneling for extra protection, you can enter those settings below.
Now you can login to your computer by just tapping the screen image. You’ll see a status indicator as your iPhone or iPad connects, then seconds later you should see your computer’s desktop. If not, tap the edit button in the bottom left corner of Screens to edit your settings. Or, if you want to remove a connection and start over, tap the trash can in the right corner.
You can get right to work as soon as you see your desktop. Just tap on buttons and links on your remote computer as you would in an iOS app, and the virtual cursor will automatically move to the spot you tapped. Pinch to zoom in or out of your screen, scroll in apps with two fingers as you would on a laptop touchpad, right click by tapping with a second finger after clicking with the first, and press and hold to move a window or select text.
You can even access common system shortcuts from the handy buttons on the bottom that automatically customize to your OS. Screens includes a Windows key for Windows VNC connections, and a CMD key for OS X connections.
Need to type in your computer? Press the keyboard icon on the top left of Screens to open the full normal iOS keyboard. Alternately, press the button beside it to open a keypad with special buttons for accessing system functions. You can copy and paste text between your iOS device and your remote computer, minimize a program, open the Task Manager in Windows or Spotlight search in a Mac, and more.
You can even use a wide variety of multitouch gestures to access standard Windows and Mac features. Swipe up or down with 4 fingers on a Mac VNC with to activate Expose, or swipe left or right on a Windows or Mac VNC to open the app switcher (Alt-tab) interface. Screens also lets you customize your three finger swipes to enable a wide variety of functions.
Once you’re finished, swipe the green screen button on the top right of Screens to end a VNC connection. Screens will now show the way your desktop looked when you logged out in the screen icon for that system. You can now choose another connection, add a new VNC computer settings, or get back to whatever else you need to do. Screens makes it quick to login, do anything on your PC, Mac, or Linux computer, and get on with your life.
Login From Anywhere
If you’re using a Mac and have a router that supports UPnP, you can use the free Screens Connect app to login to your Mac no matter where you are without messing with tricky router configurations. Simply download the free program from their site, and you’ll find a new Screens option in your system preferences. You can then enable the service and add a unique name for your computer and login to it from Screens wherever you are.
After using Screens with Windows 7, Mac OS X Snow Leopard, and Ubuntu 10.10 machines, we were overall very impressed at its performance. Windows 7 did run noticeably slower than the others over VNC, though switching to the Windows Classic color scheme instead of the default Aero glass did improve performance.
With all OSes, though, the experience was fluid enough to do common tasks directly from an iPhone/iPod Touch, or iPad. One thing that didn’t work, though: painting or drawing in Photoshop, Paint, or similar apps. Since Screens tries to make the experience as touch friendly as possible, there’s no “mouse” to drag in a painting application, so if you’re wanting to turn your iPad into a Wacom + Photoshop mashup, it just won’t work (try Air Display instead).
We did experience a couple problems as well. The app did crash while testing a couple times, and some of the special tricks such as taskbar/dock expose by dragging the screen down didn’t always work correctly. Also, we had some odd behavior when multitasking with other apps. For the most part, it works best to not multitask while in the middle of a VNC session. Everything seemed to work best when we logged out of VNC, then used another app, then logged back in. You can multitask with it, but it did seem more likely to have quirks when you come back. Overall, though, these were minor problems, and Screens works great for almost everything we tried it with.
Screens does a great job merging the simplicity of your multitouch iOS devices with the power of your laptops and desktops. Rather than having to think about where your remote mouse cursor is on the screen, you can just tap, pinch, and scroll just as you would on most iOS apps. It’s an especially great tool on an iPad, as the larger screen lets you do even more with your VNC-connected computer.
However, since it’s a universal app, the great thing is that you can use it on any iOS device you want. Whether you need to remotely login to your work computer from your couch at home, assist a client while you’re walking through the store, or just want to check something on your Mac in your room, Screens is a handy and useful app that’s a great companion to any sysadmin’s toolkit.