Software to Remotely Control and Reboot Your Mac

Part 1 of this series covers general considerations and Apple-supported methods available for remote system control that will generally work on any version of Mac OS X (Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, and Leopard) – and even OS 9. This article addresses some commercial solutions that also support multiple OS versions, along with how to force-reboot a remote Mac. Part 3 examines new options provided by Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard.

LogMeIn Free

PC users have long enjoyed a variety of web-based services (free and paid) to control their desktops from afar, including the popular GoToMyPC service (a product of Citrix, the corporate remote PC giant). Fortunately some services are now Mac friendly: LogMeIn provides web-based remote control for PCs and Macs without needing to know the IP address of either machine or do any special firewall configurations.

LogMeIn Free (the only Mac service at the moment) supports screen sharing between Macs or cross platform. Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger or newer is required on local and remote systems, and remote file transfers or system updates are not currently supported. Set up an account (with a strong password) on the LogMeIn website, then download the LogMeIn software. A menu icon (a series of dots in an arc near the clock) appears on the Mac to be controlled, and the shared (remote) system shows up in your list of available computers online.

When away, access your remote computer using a web browser. Safari and Firefox are both supported on the Mac and work equally well in my experience. The first time you try to control a remote system from your local Mac, you will be asked to install the LogMeIn web plugin and restart your browser. After installing it, go back to LogMeIn and click on the computer to be controlled.

A blue screen with a remote login dialog appears – enter the account name and password of the remote Mac here. You will finally be at the remote Mac’s control screen. Before clicking Remote Control on your Mac, I have found it best to first click Preferences –> Remote Control Settings and set the control method to use Java instead of ActiveX. Click Apply, then go ahead and use Remote Control.

In my experience LogMeIn has been speedy and reliable, with screen size scaling and no need to know the IP addresses of your local or remote computers. As of this writing (Jan. 2008), file transfers and remote updates are not yet supported, but the company has indicated that they are working on these options. In the meantime, as with VNC, you can use a shared disk or server accessible over the Internet or your local network to transfer data between the two computers.

The combination of VNC and LogMeIn currently provide my primary and secondary methods of remote control on many systems.

Timbuktu & Skype

Timbuktu is the granddaddy of Mac remote desktop solutions, going back to the days of dialup modems. Remarkably, this cross-platform software is still around and compatible up through Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. It’s a mature product, currently owned by Netopia (as of 2008, when this article was first published, and owned by ARRIS since 2013) with a clean interface and the ability to control Macs or PCs from Macs or PCs. Like Apple Remote Desktop (ARD), this makes it both a good single-user or network administration tool.

Timbuktu costs about $100 per computer, and separate copies are required on the local and remote systems (it checks serial numbers across the network). Remote screen sharing (with size scaling), file transfers, and updates are supported. On a local network or with an Internet connection with a fixed IP address, Timbuktu really shines. It also still supports dialup modems as a fallback when access is critical and speed a secondary consideration.

Timbuktu uses TCP port 407 for communication and (as with ARD and VNC) requires a static IP address and port forwarding through routers and firewalls. Access across VPNs is supported. If you don’t know the IP address of the remote computer or can’t perform local firewall configuration (a common situation), Timbuktu supports system location via Skype locator services.

Skype to the Rescue?

The popular (and free) Skype Internet call software uses it’s own locator engine and can traverse firewalls with no special configuration. As long as Skype services are permitted on your network, this provides an option for finding Timbuktu systems located behind dynamic IP addresses.

You must install Skype v2.5 or higher on both the local and remote Macs and setup a different Skype account on each. You can use an existing Skype account on one of the computers if you already have one. Once the account is created, launch Timbuktu on both computers and go to it’s little “double Mac” menu at the top right hand side of the Mac menu bar. Select the option for Timbuktu Access via Skype. You should then see Skype accounts listed in your Timbuktu Connection window.

On paper this sounds great; in practice I had mixed results. Under the best of conditions the remote system was more sluggish via Skype than with direct IP connections. At worst, the connection was unusable – crippling slow response, screen redraws freezing, and dropped connections. Performance seemed to vary with Skype traffic, time of day, and the bandwidth available. Eventually I found this combination too unreliable to use for business purposes, so now I only use Timbuktu with remote systems over LANs, VPNs, or with direct IP connections.

Reboot, I Command Thee

The ability to reboot your remote Mac can be critical, especially when nobody is around and the screen sharing software crashes (trust me, it happens). As an advanced fallback, turn on Remote Login (SSH) service on the remote computer (with a strong admin password), and make sure you have a way to access it (forward port 22 on routers and firewalls). In a worst-case scenario, you can use the Terminal application to force a reboot on the remote machine.

You must login to an administrator account on the remote Mac. Assume that your remote Mac has an account named remoteuser at address 10.20.30.40:

LocalMac:~ localuser$ ssh -l remoteuser 10.20.30.40
  • answer “yes” when asked do you wish to continue connection
  • enter the password for remoteuser; the remote Mac’s prompt appears
RemoteMac:~ remoteuser$ sudo reboot
  • you are warned not to abuse the superuser privileges
  • enter the remote admin account password
  • your SSH session will be disconnected and the remote Mac will reboot
LocalMac:~ localuser$ Connection to 10.20.30.40 closed
  • wait a minute or two, then try accessing the remote control software again

Methods of Mac Remote Control

This article was originally published on Adam’s Oakbog website. It has been adapted and reprinted here with his permission.

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