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Remote desktop apps compared

By Chris Williams. Published: 11th Jan 2006, 23:40:05 | Permalink | Printable

Next in our series: RDP and VNC clients for users with second machines

Sitting in a meeting room in the Cambridge offices of Pace for the launch of the Select scheme, RISCOS Ltd. management remarked that many users had a second non-RISC OS powered computer and that this was one of the reasons why the company had chosen to improve networking and similar interoperability. A few fellow editors present visibly shuddered at the suggestion, but over the years it has become clear that people are turning to other operating systems to supplement their needs.

Together with sharing files over a network, being able to control another computer remotely is particularly appealing to users with their own networks - especially when printers, scanners and other gadgets are connected to the alien machine. Fortunately RISC OS has a number of applications to achieve this and while each are very similar, they have their own individual features that make them stand out in different ways. As with other articles in this series, what follows isn't intended to be an exhaustive review of each program, rather it's a guide as to what's available. Two remote desktop clients were chosen and they both communicate with a suitable Windows PC running Terminal Services to display a Microsoft engineered desktop on RISC OS. If you don't have a copy of Windows with Terminal Services installed, you can install a Windows VNC server and use one of the four reviewed VNC clients. For the purposes of this article, the VNC clients were tested with a server running on Apple's Mac OS X, although many servers are available for Linux and other operating systems. Consult the documentation for these to find out how to get these installed.

Each client worked well and they were stable enough to allow administrative tasks to be carried out. On a StrongARM RiscPC system they weren't able to provide a live desktop at full speed, but your mileage may vary; they were understandably too slow for normal work. Checking if a web page worked in a particular web browser or running maintenance application was easy enough. Typing on the keyboard was responsive so entering web addresses or chatting to people with an Instant Messenger was possible. All the RISC OS clients offered a range of resolutions and colour depths, as reducing the amount of data sent between the two computers will increase the software's responsiveness. Turning off backdrops and animated effects also affords a minor speed boost. Overall, it was a positive experience.

Click on a thumbnail to reveal the full size image.

Developers: James Peacock, website (VNC client)

Avalanche offers support of various versions of the VNC protocols and provides a user interface for configuring connections. The resolution is fixed to the size of the display in which the VNC server is running although the colour depth can be altered and more importantly, its display can be scaled up and down as the user desires. Avalanche also supports the global clipboard, allowing text to be copied and pasted between desktops. The connection between the local and remote machines is not encrypted. Dropping to displaying 256 colours makes a noticeable difference to speed. Playing music and audio remotely causes the remote computer to produce the audio - ideal if your PC or Apple Mac is connected to a hifi and you want to use it as a jukebox from your RISC OS computer.

Login window with password; the VNC viewer window; browsing the web with Safari; using MSN Messenger and Real video player; play tracks with iTunes

Ported by Peter Naulls, website (RDP client)

The front end to this port of the open source rdesktop client offers a range of resolutions and a full screen option, although if you're feeling confident, you can delve into the application to change the colour depth and other options. It doesn't appear to support sound output, although fiddling with the options allows the host Windows PC to output any audio, turning it into a jukebox. Dropping to a small resolution results in a usable Windows XP experience on your RISC OS desktop.

Setup window; Firefox in 256 colour mode; using Firefox on the desktop in 16bpp mode; running Adaware; using Microsoft Office

Ported by Andrew Sellors, website (RDP client)

Again using the freely available rdesktop engine, RDPClient supports multiple screen resolutions and colour depths, as well as working sound redirection. This means the user can run Real player on the PC and listen to, say, BBC News from the RISC OS computer. It also provides a clipboard between the two desktops and claims to have optimised screen updates by queuing and clustering redraw requests. RDPClient lacks a proper user interface, and instead you must add and edit options in an Obey script in order to configure its operation. It also provides an interesting statistics window, which is filled with information and details on the state of the current RDP connection.

To redirect audio output to the RISC OS client-side, RDPClient requires Shared Sound 1.07, as found on RISC OS Select and Adjust.

Running Adobe's PDF reader; the simple user interface showing the command line options; viewing a PDF; using Internet Explorer on the desktop; access devices connected to the PC

Maintained by Vincent Lefevre, website (VNC client)

Like Avalanche, ViNCe stands out because of its scale support. The other applications display the remote desktop in its full size, whereas with ViNCe, you can set a scale percentage so that it can fit neatly on the client desktop. This is useful if you want to do simple tasks such as queuing up music tracks or managing file and print servers. Another excellent feature is the ability to use the scroll wheel mouse connected to the RISC OS computer on the remote desktop, making it much easier to scroll through a browser window. Vince is configured by editing a text file of options, which is then loaded when the software starts. It's recommended that the user selects a 256 colour mode for the VNC display in order to make the connection mildly usable. It also has other features including 'fast copy' support that's recommended for Viewfinder users.

A 32bit version of the original VNC port, from which ViNCe is based, is available here.

Viewing the remote desktop with a 75% scale; larger scale, using the Mac OS X widgets; arranging windows in Mac OS X using Expose; 50% scale and snugly fitting on the RISC OS desktop

Developed by Simon Truss, website (VNC client)

VNC is a small and cheerful client that does what it says on the tin. It provides a 'performance' window to tweak the responsiveness of the application although it doesn't feel as fast as the other clients, and a menu to control sessions; other clients tend to close the connection immediately after the display window is closed, whereas VNC will keep the sesion active until you kill it from a menu or the side toolbar. The toolbar is a little annoying as it can get in the way of the display. The software also supports one way clipboard pasting from RISC OS to the remote operating system. It provides a list of colour depths which work with varying degrees of success. Although it has a user interface to create a new session, its global configuration options are stored in a text file inside the application.

The login window; in 256 colour mode; editing a LaTeX document; the session menu

Developed by Leo White, website (VNC client)

With a smoother redraw than the other clients, VNCViewer works out of the box as a usable client. This client supports full screen and single tasking modes, a range of colour depths and various performance tweaks. It also provides a statistics window that displays how much network bandwidth is in use. Leo has also developed an interesting utility, VNCInput, which allows two computers, one running a VNC server and the other running a VNC client, to share the same mouse and keyboard over the network; an alternative KVM. By moving the mouse pointer to the side of the screen, control is passed over to the second computer. This utility is available from the same website as VNCViewer.

Set up window; using the Mac OS X desktop; the statistics window


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We are pretty well catered for with clients, I've used VinCE and RDPClient, and they work very well, easily able to work all normal desktop applications on PC. I intend to test the others featured too, but I don't think we need any more than the above now.

What I need is a good VNC *server* as I only have one monitor and it would be handy to control the other computer without continually switching over. Currently the only server, the original !VNCServe, is 26bit so wont work on the Iyonix, neither however has it worked on my Risc PC for a number of years, due to one or more of Kinetic/ViewFinder/Select. It was never particulary advanced either, not supporting compression so very slow, and doesn't have even password protection.

So if any programmer fancies writing a remote control application, please look in to writing the server side, not yet another client.

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 12/1/06 9:18AM
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Is there any reason why RComps Remote Desktop program is not included in this test? It would have been interesting to see how the commercial app fared against the freeware versions. Cheers!

 is a RISC OS Userfwibbler on 12/1/06 11:10AM
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I thought R-Comp's was just a repackaged version of one of the VNC clients, but I can only find their original csa.accounce release which mentions both VNC and RDP. Anyone know what they are using?

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 12/1/06 12:07PM
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IIRC, R-Comp used Simon Truss' VNC and a slightly enhanced version of eQ R&D's RDP client.

 is a RISC OS Userhubersn on 12/1/06 12:10PM
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You may be interested to know that Henrik Bjerregaard Pedersen's VNC server will recompile successfully for the Iyonix and in tests on a LAN seems to work very well. You can get a quite useable Iyonix desktop with it. I'd suggest that if people want to work on something, it would make a very good starting point.

I've not yet had a chance to make the 32-bit version available (it was only done over the weekend and my home Internet connection is down), but will do so as soon as I can.

The 26-bit version is available here: [link]

 is a RISC OS Userflypig on 12/1/06 12:39PM
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We developed the Simon Truss VNC client onwards, so its generally a little faster, easier to use, and includes various extra facilities such as support for UniPrint's URL launching (very useful for web browsing!), 32bit safe and so on. I forget the full details now, but there was extra coding put into it. Certainly at the time we found it to give the "best" overall VNC performance of the available VNC clients, although that's a matter of opinion. I haven't tried the newer VNC clients (eg. Avalanche) so they may well be better. The main objective of the exercise was to make VNC really easy to do, provide full support, and produce Iyonix safe version quickly after the Iyonix shipped.

 is a RISC OS Userarawnsley on 12/1/06 5:25PM
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I know this isn't the place for announcements, but I'm sure it is relevent to the article.

A (perhaps hacky) Iyonix version plus source of HBP's VNC *server* is now available (this may turn out to be a temporary home for it): [link]

 is a RISC OS Userflypig on 13/1/06 12:03PM
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I'm thinking of developing a new VNC client for RISC OS. Can anyone suggest some resources that would help me make a start? -- Spriteman ;)

 is a RISC OS UserSpriteman on 13/1/06 12:24PM
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Spriteman: With respect, does RISC OS really need another one? This article would seem to suggest we're got plenty of choice in the VNC/RDP department. Maybe there's something else you could more profitably spend your time on? (Java for RISC OS perhaps? - hint, hint ;-))

 is a RISC OS Userhutchies on 13/1/06 5:49PM
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Hutchies: quite so. As to VNC, druck suggested above that a VNC /server/ would be useful.

 is a RISC OS Userbucksboy on 13/1/06 6:51PM
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I tried using Henrik's VNC server last year with a poor network connection (i.e. through VRPC Adjust on a wireless network).

I had to make a few modifications to stop the server seizing up, which may be of interest to anyone adopting the VNC server.

I've put the modified files up on my first website: [link]

 is a RISC OS Usercdaniels on 14/1/06 1:02AM
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The VNC source at xat ([link]) is a 32bit VNC server. It works not very well.

 is a RISC OS UserJaco on 14/1/06 12:11PM
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No one spotted my sarcastic humour then? ;)

As for a VNC server: my experiences of them was that I kept having to run upstairs to cancel error boxes or rmkill/load the server. Oh the swearing when I accidentally clicked on the floppy drive icon! :) Has the situation improved (as the above comments suggest)? If so, how? I remember the only partial fix I had was to run noerror and reconnect when the client disconnected after the server paused. -- Spriteman

 is a RISC OS UserSpriteman on 15/1/06 7:20PM
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It seems that the situation *has* improved compared to what you describe. HBP's VNC server runs continuously as a module using irqs, so it works even when a single tasking application is running. Thankfully it's not phased by such things as error boxes ;)

As far as I can tell, its major drawback is that you can't change screen mode while it's running, but I seem to recall having similar problems under Windows, so maybe it's a VNC thing?

 is a RISC OS Userflypig on 15/1/06 8:21PM
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Spriteman: ahh - sorry, I'm a bit slow in the sarcasm-getting department. My apologies ;-)

 is a RISC OS Userhutchies on 17/1/06 3:26PM
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