Parallels Access is hands down the best iOS remote desktop interface for Mac and Windows apps

Recently, Parallels released a new remote access app called Access, which is available through the iOS app store. It's designed to give consumers remote access to their Mac and Windows devices from their iPad, and it has generated a lot of buzz because of its innovative interface.

Recently, Parallels released a new remote access app called Access, which is available through the iOS app store. It’s designed to give consumers remote access to their Mac and Windows devices from their iPad, and it has generated a lot of buzz because of its innovative interface. If you’re looking to try it yourself, you’ll need to download it from the App Store, then follow the instructions to create an account. You’ll be able to use it for free for a limited time, after which you’ll have to make an in-app purchase to continue using it.

Before we go on, it’s worth noting that it only works on iPads. In part, this is because you have to start somewhere, but primarily it’s because Android is so fragmented across devices and OS versions that it’s hard to focus on it this early in the product’s life. Parallels is considering other client OSes, but for now you’ll just have to go get a shiny new iPad to use it. 

Access uses a home grown protocol that was purpose built not only to work well in low bandwidth environments but also because they needed to add features to overlay the iOS interface on to Mac and Windows applications. For instance, the client is aware when you tap in a text box, so it automatically brings up the keyboard. There’s also a magnifying glass and text selection feature that mimic those of iOS. These and other features mean that you can interact with your desktop apps the same way you would with your iOS apps.

There is a launcher that gives you access to the applications, and they start full screen on the iPad. You can switch between with a few taps, and even see which windows are open. On the desktop side, it adjusts the screen resolution to be that of the iPad’s. In my case this was 1024x768, since I have an iPad 2 but the same holds true for retina displays. When you disconnect from Access, it resets your desktop screen back to the state it was in before you connected (so your icons and windows go back to where they were).

Protocol performance is really, really good over 4G connections. There is a build-to-lossless look to it when the connection slows, but even playing back Flash video via Youtube was impeccable, including audio sync, as long as the connection remained stable. I even tested it on my old standby, all Flash, hell-on-mobile-remote-protocols website, pollypocket.com (it’s a long story), and was able to use it quite well. I’m not sure what you do on that site, but I think I made 6 burgers in one minute for a princess picnic or something.

Thankfully, I don’t have to wait long in the spot where I live for 4G conditions to get flaky. When conditions started to wane, the entire experience started to decline (audio, video, keystrokes, etc…). It does try to adapt by losing video fidelity, but the video I was watching became unwatchable. It’s possible that if I didn’t have so many pixel updates and audio coming across the wire, it would have been better. This isn’t a knock on Access’ protocol so much as an acknowledgement that there’s no magic here. It’s subject to the same limitations as every other remote protocol (except maybe Framehawk’s). 


(Also, if Verizon reads this, a tower on my
side of the power lines would be great)

Version 1 is designed for consumers–enterprises, watch your back

This app is aimed for consumers because that’s the a largest base of users that identifies with Parallels. Parallels claims they have a 90% retail market share for Mac hypervisors, though VMware sells most of their copies of Fusion via vmware.com and to enterprises directly, so who knows what the actual market share is. From my own experience, though, it seems that consumers know the brand "Parallels" more than “VMware,” and this is what Parallels is trying to leverage.

Since it’s aimed at consumers, there are some security concerns for companies. If you’re company gives users admin rights, that means they can install this. If users install this and take remote access into their own hands, I wouldn’t blame them (especially if a suitable remote access solution doesn’t already exist), but the challenges to IT of that situation speak for themselves. The default security config for the application is wide open, meaning that if a user loses their unlocked iPad, a thief could get unfettered access to their work computer. Of course, you can turn on the security settings to lock the computer and require a username and password, but that’s up to the user to implement. IT can’t do anything to enforce that setting.

So, while Access v1 is a breath of fresh air from an interface perspective, we still need centralized management for this to be a big hit in the enterprise. That management capability should also be assume control of existing installations of Access, because it just takes one unaware user to put a company at major risk.

From the experience standpoint, there’s not a lot of work to be done. I had some issues using Access with Mavericks, but that’s understandable on a day-old OS. Those issues didn’t exist with my other Mac, which is running Lion, so I’m sure they will be remedied soon. I’d like to see some prioritization in the protocol so that things like audio and keystrokes take precedent over video in low-bandwidth situations. Parallels says that it is optimized for keystrokes, so the functionality is there for the tweaking. When watching a video, audio should always be prioritized so that you can still keep up with dialog even if the video is laggy. These are small nitpicks, though, especially for a v1.

Of course, there are solutions out there that do this already, like Citrix Remote PC. To get that, though, you need to purchase XenDesktop, which costs much more than the $50 price tag for Parallels Access. Yes, you get more potential functionality, but if you’re just trying to get access to remote desktops, why would you buy into the entire stack? Oh, and RemotePC only works on Windows, whereas Access works on both (technically, Windows support is in beta, but it will be released in full soon enough).

As awesome as it is, the only thing keeping this from being a real thorn in the side of IT is the fact that until now it has cost $80/yr per machine, which end users are probably hesitant to pay. Parallels recently put the product on sale for $50, which will make it more attractive when compared to solutions like LogMeIn. While LogMeIn is free for 10 computers, the iOS client is $35, and the better experience with Access is well worth the extra $15 if you only need to access one system. If users catch on to this and take matters into their own hands, this could be on many of the Macs in your organization in short order.

You have to see Access to believe it, so check out the eval by downloading from the iOS app store. Then, start telling Parallels what you need Access to do in your organization. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they add to v2.

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After about 2.5 years of RSN, NoMachine finally released NX4 a couple of weeks ago.  If you weren't aware it is a completely new protocol.  NX3 was based on the X11 protocol and as a result would only work with Unix/Linux backends.  With NX4 they are using some sort of mp4-based stream... and they have Windows, Mac, and Linux servers now... so you can access your Windows, Mac, or Linux desktop from a growing variety of clients.  I'm not sure if they have an iPad client or not... but I'd love to hear what you guys think of NX4.  It supposedly does a good job with video a/v sync, recording, usb access, printing, etc.  I haven't put it through the paces... mainly because I'm more interested in FLOSS-based solutions and NX4 is all proprietary.  In related news, the x2go project seems to be putting the GPL'ed NX3 libraries to good use after the death of FreeNX some time ago... but that is Linux-only so I'm sure you guys aren't interested in it.


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That's good to know. I missed the announcement, and I sort of counted out NX a while ago for the reasons you mentioned. I'll add it to the list of things to take a look at.


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Apart from Parallels Access, you may also try R-HUB iOS app for web conferencing and remote support. It can be downloaded for free from Apple store.


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