Computer Remote Access Software: RDP, VNC, and…? in 2021

A long, long time ago I shuffled between computers, keyboards, and screens when I needed to access a different system. Then I was working at a University where they using Virtual Network Computing (VNC) and the world changed. Now I could access a computer as if I was local to it from several buildings away. Awesome.

The VNC experience was never what I’d call amazing. It was revolutionary but always a bit rough around the edges. Sometimes it just didn’t work and when it did work the graphical experience tended to be subpar. VNC was indiscriminately passing the entire GUI over the network.

Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) was, I found (I apologize for my heresy), a more enjoyable option – when it was available (e.g., mainly on servers back then). The experience felt much more seamless, the authentication was seamless using existing accounts, and it just seemed to work and work well more frequently.

The challenge with both VNC and RDP was remote access across the internet. On a local network everything was dandy but try and access your home computer from the office – things became much less pleasant. I used a number of options over the years – LogMeIn being the most intuitive and pleasant experience (also the most expensive). TeamViewer was a strong contender – though also not inexpensive. When in need of a low-cost solution Zoho Assist often fit the bill and Chrome Remote Desktop had (has) real potential but has not received the necessary attention to make it the tool I want to use (though the price is right).

In more recent years the over the internet issue has become less of a challenge. You can find virtual network layer applications that make any computer system feel as if it on the same local network. Hamachi was my first introduction to these sort of systems (until it was acquired by LogMeIn). More recently ZeroTier has offered a solution and now a Slack spin-off is providing yet another option (Defined Networking’s Nebula).

Personally, I prefer the network virtualization layer approach and still find Remote Desktop Protocol the most pleasant remoting experience. But I’ve recently switched to Ubuntu for my primary desktop environment and I’m wondering what my best options are.

I’ve used RDP on Ubuntu before and it is generally a pleasant experience. However, I’ve also munged up a few systems trying to get RDP working and this time around while the system isn’t munged I am getting the black screen that just sits there when attempting to remote in. I can troubleshoot it further, but I’m not getting warm and fuzzies thinking about doing so.

Last time I used VNC I still found it to be a less than satisfactory experience. So my question is – what options are out there? Is there something better in 2021? Maybe I’m just using the wrong VNC client? Server?

It also seems like there should have been some new protocols invented since RDP and VNC, both of which have been around for a billion tech years (similar to dog years). What are you using these days?

Let me share a few constraints that may limit the options a bit more:

  • Multi Monitor Support – I live and die by multiple monitors. If it doesn’t support multiple monitors, I don’t want it (limitations on this front are what kept me from Chrome Remote Desktop as a long-term solution).
  • Like Local Experience – I don’t want to wait a few seconds for the screen refresh to occur. Things need to be snappy 99.9% of the time. I’m using high speed connections, so assuming the network is solid the experience should be as well.
  • Secure – Whatever it is needs to take security seriously.

These aren’t dealbreakers but they are factors I take into consideration:

  • Closed Source – My preference is for open source software (I know, I know, RDP is proprietary…).
  • Licensing Model – I prefer software which is licensed on a free personal / small level with larger implementations costing $$. imho, this is a good business model. It allows tech guys (such as myself) grow comfortable with your software and when we need a solution at work, for a friend, etc. we are thinking of and using you.
  • Reasonably Priced – Honestly, I can get pretty good solutions for free. If you want me to spend more you need to really impress me. I don’t mind paying for services but LogMeIn’s $30/mo for two computers is too pricey for me.

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