Remotely Control another Mac
by M. Christopher Stevens


You know it happens...

You’re sitting at your computer, taking part in a lively chat discussion on the merits of mayonnaise versus those of Miracle Whip, when your child/parent/roommate/significant other’s voice floats down the hall, requesting your help in setting up a new printer or iChat account.

Sure, you could just walk down the hall to set them up and then return to the conversation. But then you’d miss the sight of TangyZip87 and M4y0rM4y0 putting aside their differences to soundly thrash the troll who came in wondering why you just don’t use dijon mustard on your turkey sandwich instead.

There has to be a way to just take care of it from your seat, so you don’t miss out on this condiment chat smackdown.

Of course there is... why else would I bring up such a hunger-inducing scenario?

Back to reality

While the above situation may be a little far-fetched, I’m sure you can think of an instance where it would just be easier to remotely control a computer, rather than get up and walk over there.

There are several methods to do this, all of which are pretty much the same. Using some “client” software, you are able to connect to and control a “host” machine.

Both Apple Remote Access and Timbuktu Pro are well-known commercial pieces of software that allow you to do such a thing. There’s only one problem with them: they cost several hundred dollars each.

For those who are as “frugally-minded” (read as: “Cheap”) as I am, there’s a much more acceptable alternative. Using the cross-platform VNC remote access protocol, you have a number of inexpensive options. One of the most popular is the free, though unfortunately-named, Chicken of the VNC, which is a lightweight VNC client, which you can use to view a remote computer.

But what about the software for your host machine? Amazingly enough, if you’re running OSX 10.2.8 or later, it’s already built into the OS, as part of the Remote Access controls.

Some things to keep in mind.

  • For this particular setup, the computers need to be on the same network, be it wirelessly via an AirPort network or wired via Ethernet. While it is possible to connect via the Internet, there are a number of steps involved in setting it up so that you can safely do so, with minimal risk of unauthorized access.
  • As the screen output has to be transmitted across the network, screen refresh can be quite slow. Keep this in mind if you’re doing things that need visual feedback (menu selection, drag & drop, scrolling, etc.)

Setting things up.

The first thing you want to do is make sure the host computer is set up to be controlled remotely. On the computer you want to control remotely, open up the “Sharing” preference pane and go to the “Services” tab.

Select “Apple Remote Desktop” from the list on the left, and click the “Access Privileges” button on the right.

In this new window, there will be a lot of options and check boxes, but there’s really only one you need to worry about. Check the box that says “VNC viewers may control the screen with password:” and put a password in the box to the right. Remember this password, as we’ll need it later. Click the “OK” button and it will return you to the previous screen. Ensure that Remote Desktop Control is on by making sure the check box next to “Apple Remote Desktop” is checked. Now, look at the Computer Name in the top field and make note of it - this is what the computer will be named by when we go looking for it.

Close up the Sharing preference panel and the computer is ready to be controlled remotely.

Connecting

Open up Chicken of the VNC on the computer you wish to connect with. You will be presented with a window with a list of local computers (if one does not appear, hitting Command-O will open this window).

Select the computer you’re trying to control from the list on the left, then enter your password in the appropriate field on the right. Everything else can generally be left alone. Click the “Connect” button, and, after a moment, the remote computer’s screen should appear in a new window.

Now, you can navigate around the remote machine, just as you would on your own machine. The only appreciable difference is that the mouse pointer will be replaced with a dot. Otherwise, everything should be as you would normally expect, though possibly a little slower due to screen refresh.

There are a lot of uses for this basic type of setup. I, personally have used it to:

  • troubleshoot a machine on the same network
  • access and monitor a “headless” computer I was using for Folding@Home.
  • control a digital Jukebox made out of an old iMac.
  • perform various pranks involving “randomly closing windows” and “auto-erasing text”. (Perform only at your own risk)

I’m sure that, with a little creative thinking, you can come up with a use for this free and useful setup.


Chicken of the VNC

Download at: http://sourceforge.net/projects/cotvnc/