Windows Screen Sharing With Microsoft Remote Desktop

Despite being the world’s largest software company, Microsoft has somewhat of a bad reputation when it comes to software for the Mac. Ask anyone who has ever to endure using Microsoft Entourage for any length of time and they’ll likely tell you its the only software package in existence that violates almost every human rights act there is.

Microsoft has had a remote connection app for Mac users to remotely access Windows workstations for some time, though it was so old and infrequently updated that system requirements even stated it was not for use with Mac OS X Lion or later.

Thankfully, Microsoft have been taking the Mac and iOS platforms a little more seriously and their latest remote access tool, Microsoft Remote Desktop, is not only a complete reworking of its ageing predecessor, it’s actually really good.

Out With The Old…

Rather than update their previous Remote Desktop tool, Microsoft has, instead, created a new one that is available through the Mac App Sore. This isn’t just the same old app with a new design (I’m looking at you, Outlook 2011), this is a whole new app designed to be as lean as possible.

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.

Managing Connections

The app itself launches to a small panel that stores any saved connections. Adding connections is as simple as selecting New or importing any existing RDP profiles you may already have available.

Managing connections and importing or creating new ones is simple.

Managing connections and importing or creating new ones is simple.

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.

Unlike Apple’s own Remote Desktop for Mac OS X computers, Microsoft Remote Desktop has no discovery feature and can’t scan your local network for machines available to connect to. Again, the purpose of this app is more for remote access than remote support, but a discovery feature would have been a nice addition nonetheless, especially for system administrators dealing with multiple computers and servers within their corporate network.

There’s a fair amount of control over each session as well as colour depth and resolution, with both app-wide settings as well as per-connection settings, perfect for dealing with a remote computer on a slow internet connection.

You can specify a number of resolutions to use, even adding your own, just be careful when using lower ones with Windows 8.

You can specify a number of resolutions to use, even adding your own, just be careful when using lower ones with Windows 8.

Full-screen support is, however, rather confusing. Setting the option to use full-screen within each remote profile does so in a rather proprietary way and doesn’t use Mac OS X’s native full-screen function. But if you leave the option unchecked, however, you can then use Mac OS X’s full-screen function as it will appear within the window.

Assuming Control

Accessing a remote Windows computer or terminal session is super-quick.

Accessing a remote Windows computer or terminal session is super-quick.

If there’s one thing Microsoft has always been great at, it’s speedy remote access, and Microsoft Remote Desktop is no exception. The app is blazingly fast, taking only a second or two from connecting 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. Remote users who often find themselves at the mercy of hotel Wi-Fi will really appreciate this.

Try and use too low a resolution with Windows 8, for example, and almost nothing works.

Try and use too low a resolution with Windows 8, for example, and almost nothing works.

Rather frustratingly, Windows 8 requires a resolution of at least 768px in height or else most of the apps won’t even run. While this is fairly reasonable, there’s nothing to advise you of this within the settings.

Microsoft Remote Desktop does a good job of re-mapping keys so that the Apple key becomes the Windows key, allowing for all the Windows shortcuts you’re probably familiar with.

Remote users of Windows supporting RemoteFX (some flavours of Windows Server and Windows 8+) will be able to use multi-touch gestures using their Apple trackpad. Functions such as swipe and two-finger scroll all work surprisingly well and add an extra level of interaction.

File Sharing

Sharing files and documents via remote sessions is always a lesson in futility. Its always sporadically supported and, often, you end up relying upon services like Dropbox or SkyDrive to do the grunt work. This means waiting to upload the files and then having to download them remotely,

The Pièce de résistance of Microsoft Remote Desktop is its super-simple way of sharing files between your Mac and the remote Windows computer. The app has a rather understated feature called Redirection, allowing you to have continuous access to any folder on your Mac from the remote Windows computer. Simply add a folder to this list and it will appear as a mapped network drive within Windows as soon as you connect, allowing for two-way file transfer.

Microsoft Remote Desktop's Redirection function works an absolute treat.

Microsoft Remote Desktop’s Redirection function works an absolute treat.

This is a great feature and it works brilliantly, providing a genuinely useful feature for file transfers, and it shows that Microsoft really understands the needs of remote users.

Conclusion

Microsoft Remote Desktop is a surprising app because, honestly, I wasn’t expecting such a well-thought out app that is brand new, not just a rehash or sloppy update to an existing one. While Microsoft is more than capable of making some stellar software, their Mac apps are often ridiculed as being bloated, buggy and decrepit.

This app is, thankfully, none of those and it does everything you’d expect from a remote access tool, and more. For any Mac users who have a PC or Parallels virtual machine just so they can work on a remote Windows computer. Microsoft Remote Desktop is, finally, a great way to do this on a Mac.


Summary

A fundamental update to Microsoft's ageing remote access tool for Mac OS X goes above and beyond what we would have expected. A great way for remote users to access their Windows computers or terminals.

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