T-rev's Blog

30 2008-08-21 08:04 Remote Desktop Hints

Here's something I've been meaning to mention for quite a while. It's a bit behind the times, but still probably useful news to a lot of people who have a home network of more than one computer running Microsoft Windows. Windows XP and Vista have a built-in remote control program that lets you sit at one computer and login to another computer. It's aptly named "Remote Desktop Connection", but henceforth I'll refer to it as Remote Desktop or just RD.

Note: the computer to be remotely accessed is the "host"; the computer you're sitting at is the "client". The host computer must be running XP Professional or Vista at least Business edition. XP Home and Vista Home and Starter editions cannot host Remote Desktop. But the client software is built into XP or Vista, and client software can be installed on older versions of Windows or even other operating systems.

Another option, which I won't detail, allows you to set up the host to be accessed from any computer via Internet Explorer, without client software. Furthermore, you can use Remote Desktop over the internet, though I won't go into the details of that either. Mostly I have some tips for how to use it after it's connected. By the way, I use Windows XP, and I'm not sure all the details are exactly the same for Vista.

Note that there are other programs that allow similar remote access, but Remote Desktop is already included with Windows.

Getting Connected

As for the basics of getting connected, first you have to set up the host computer. Go to System Properties (either Winkey-Break or Winkey-Pause, depending on your keyboard, or just right click My Computer and select Properties), go to the "Remote" tab, and check "Allow users to connect remotely to this computer". Note the "Full computer name", which you'll need later.

Now click the "Select Remote Users" button. You will have to login using a username and password of a user on the host computer. Here is where you select which users will have remote access. By default, all Administrator accounts automatically have access so you probably don't have to do anything. If you want to give access to any non-administrator accounts, click the "Add" button, then the "Advanced" button, then the "Find Now" button, then select the user from the list and hit, OK, OK, OK.

If you have a firewall on the host computer, you'll have to make sure it's set to allow connections from the client computer you'll be using. (That would probably mean creating a range of privileged local IP addresses.)

Now you're ready to connect. Go to the client computer. Remote Desktop Connection should by default be in your Start menu under, I think, All Programs, Accessories, Communications. Alternately, if you can't find the shortcut, you can just hit Winkey-R (for Run program), then type "mstsc" (for MicroSoft Terminal ServiCes) and hit Enter.

Type the (NetBIOS host) "full computer name" from above or the IP address of the host Computer and click connect. Log in with the appropriate username and password. You'll now be controlling the remote host computer from your local monitor, keyboard and mouse.

Note: before connecting, you can change other options if you choose. One thing you can do is save configurations so you can quickly replicate them again later, to connect to a particular user account on a particular computer with particular settings for sound and graphics. You could even put shortcuts to these .rdp files in your start menu.


By default, Remote Desktop will be full-screen. You won't see the Start button and taskbar for your local computer session, just the ones for the remote host computer. Most of the familiar keyboard shortcuts will now be sent to the host computer. For example, Alt-Tab will switch between programs on the host. Alt-F4 will close a window on the host.

It's so much like sitting at the other computer that if you're not careful, you could forget that you're in a Remote Desktop session and things could get confusing. That's why there's a Remote Desktop "tab" at the top center of the screen with the name of the host computer. At the right side of that tab are familiar-looking minimize, restore, and close buttons, all of which do what you'd expect. If you are done working on the remote computer, click that close button, which will just disconnect your remote session, leaving all your programs running until the next time you login. Or you can minimize or restore down the Remote Desktop window so that you can switch between controlling the local and remote computers.

Also, at the left side of the RD tab, there's a thumbtack button which lets you "unpin" the RD tab from the screen, in which case it will "auto-hide", i.e. it will be visible only if you put your mouse pointer up there (thus making it even more likely you'll forget that you're in a RD window). The RD tab is pretty unobtrusive, so there's usually no reason to unpin it. You'd need to if you really had to see or click on something in that small area that's otherwise hidden by the RD tab. (Or, if you open a RD session B from within a RD session A and need a way to escape back to RD session A without escaping all the way back to your local console session, but that's beyond the scope of this post...)

If instead of minimizing you restore the RD window, it will show up as a window on your local computer session. You won't be able to see the whole desktop of the remote computer without scrolling (unless you changed the window size in the options before connecting).

Keyboard Shortcuts

While full screen, most Windows keyboard shortcuts will be sent to the remote computer. While the RD window is NOT full screened, Windows keyboard shortcuts go to the local computer. There are some special Remote Desktop keyboard shortcuts.

When RD window is not full screen:

Whether or not RD is full screen:

Shutting Down

One other difference between a local session and a remote session is the Logoff and Shutdown options. For some reason, they made it hard to figure out how to Turn Off the computer remotely (presumably to help you avoid doing it accidentally, especially since you may not be able to turn it back on if it really is "remote") and even harder to hibernate. In the Start Menu of a RD session, you don't even have a "Turn Off" option. What if you want to power down the host computer remotely? One way is to use the Ctrl-Alt-End shortcut to open Task Manager and then use its "Shut Down" menu.

That will let you Turn Off the computer, but the Hibernate option is inexplicably grayed out. If you want to hibernate, select the "Desktop" (I just hit Winkey-D for Desktop. Winkey-M for Minimize All does the same thing.) and press Alt-F4. This brings up the same menu as when you click Start and then "Turn Off" in a non-remote session. To hibernate, just hit the letter H. (The hibernate option is always hidden; to use it with a mouse you have to hold down Shift, which makes the Stand By option change to Hibernate.) Again, to hibernate it's Winkey-D, Alt-F4, H.

Waking Up

Of course, even more handy, and making Remote Desktop much more usable and useful, is the ability to wake up the host computer remotely. If it's connected by an ethernet cable, this is probably possible using Wake On LAN (WOL for short. LAN stands for Local Area Network.) Not all ethernet adapters and motherboards support WOL, but nowadays most do.

To enable Wake On LAN, open System Properties again (Winkey-Pause or Winkey-Break), go to the Hardware tab, and click the Device Manger button. Expand Network Adapters in the tree, select your Ethernet adapter, and hit Alt-Enter (for properties. This works throughout Windows and is the keyboard equivalent of Right-Click -> Properties). Go to the Power Management tab and check both "Allow this device to bring the computer out of standby" and "Only allow management stations to bring the computer out of standby". This tells Windows to enable WOL from this adapter.

You may also need to go to the hardware-specific settings in the Advanced tab and enable options that sound appropriate. (On my laptop I have a Realtek adapter with "Wake-On-Lan After Shutdown" and "WakeUp on ARP/PING" both enabled. I have "WakeUp on Link Change" and "WakeUp using APM Mode" disabled.)

Finally, you need a way to send the wake-up call. Some routers will do this, one advantage of which is that you could do it from outside your local network, via the internet, even if no computers on your LAN were turned on. If you use DD-WRT firmware, it's under Administration -> WOL.

Otherwise, you can use this free program. Put in the hardware MAC address (six two-digit hexadecimal numbers, something like 00-35-E2-CA-5E-23) of the ethernet adapter on the computer you want to wake up, and type "" for both Internet Address and Subnet Mask. (It'll actually broadcast the "magic packet" wake-up call to, which goes to every device on the network.) Then click the "Wake Me Up" button and the remote computer should boot up. (The port number doesn't matter for WOL within a LAN.)

Simultaneous Sessions

One thing about Remote Desktop is that if someone is already logged into the host computer (locally or via RD), they will be disconnected and sent back to the "Welcome" login screen when you connect. And if they log back in (or if anybody logs in) while you're connected, you'll get disconnected. Here's where the best tip of all comes in.

The funny thing is that Windows has built-in the ability to handle multiple users simultaneously logged in. Apparently someone changed their mind at some point and decided to disable the feature, but it can be re-enabled with this fix. Say your wife is using the desktop computer and you've got the laptop but you need access to a file or program on the desktop. With multiple concurrent sessions, you can just log in to the desktop (using a different user account than your wife is using) via Remote Desktop. You don't have to wait or interrupt the wife. Note you can't log in using the same username and password as the wife without disconnecting her. Only one session per user account is allowed, so you'll need to have multiple user accounts set up.


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