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Parallels Access Puts a Real Computer on Your Phone or Tablet

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Yahoo Tech

Parallels Access is a phone/tablet app that lets you see and operate your Mac or PC over the Internet. From the screen of your tablet, you can run all of your Mac or PC programs and open all of your computer’s files. It’s very useful.

Here’s the effect:

It’s extremely handy when you desperately need some document or program that’s 3,000 miles away. And it’s essential when you’re troubleshooting a distant computer from the beach.

Parallels Access 1.0 was a terrific refinement of a category called remote access software. It could have made life easier for a lot of people if it weren’t for its price: $80 a year to access one computer. That pricing scheme was, as they say in the biz, nuts.

Now Parallels Access (PA) is back with version 2, and the company has seen the error of its pricing. It’s now $20 a year to access up to five computers (Macs or PCs).

This time, an iPad isn’t required; PA also works on an iPhone, Android phone, or Android tablet. (You can “phone home” from any number of phones or tablets for the $20 a year; there’s no limit.)

One of PA’s best features is the simplicity of its setup. You download a free app on each end — computer and phone/tablet — and then enter your email address and Parallels password. And that’s it: You’re connected. There’s no fiddling with ports, routers, or firewalls. You just tap the thumbnail of the distant computer you want to use:

In a pinch, you can even borrow a phone or tablet. Download the app, enter your email/password, and presto, you’re surfing your distant computers.

The connection is encrypted on both ends, so evildoers can’t intercept your activity. You can also opt to black out the computer’s screen as you work. (That should probably be the factory setting, but it’s not.)

The competition
Now, corporate system administrators, who must occasionally troubleshoot or configure PCs back at the office at ridiculous hours, will be quick to point out that PA is not the first remote-access software. Programs like LogMeIn, TeamViewer, and Real VNC let you perform the same stunt. (LogMeIn used to have a free version but now costs $100 a year to access two computers, or $250 to access up to five. TeamViewer is free for personal use. Real VNC is a one-time $20.)

But there’s a huge, whopping difference. PA doesn’t just squeeze the image of your computer’s screen onto your tablet or phone, shrinking down your icons to the size of carbon atoms.

Instead, it “appifies” the computer’s programs so that they look, feel, and work like touchscreen tablet apps. For example:

• Your computer’s programs neatly fill the tablet’s screen, edge to edge.

• You can use your fingers to “click” and “right-click.”

• You can zoom in to the screen by spreading two fingers against the glass (in some programs).

• A keyboard appears automatically whenever you tap where you can type. It looks just like the regular iOS or Android keyboard — except that it has a row of keys that operate the Mac or PC, like Option and Command (Mac) or Alt and Ctrl (PC). (Rival apps show those keys, too.)

• You can select text and copy it using the same techniques you would in iOS or Android. For example, here’s what it looks like to copy some text in a Microsoft Word document on an iPad:

• PA offers a customizable launch screen just for your Mac or PC programs, making it infinitely easier to open them without having to wrangle a tiny Start menu (Windows) or Dock (Mac):

• Instead of struggling to switch apps by hitting some weird onscreen version of Command-Tab (Mac) or Ctrl+Tab (Windows), you can use PA’s own app switcher. It appears when you tap a button on the tiny palette at the right edge of the screen:

• You can copy text and graphics from your computer to your tablet/phone apps. For example, you could grab an image from a PowerPoint file sitting on your PC in London and paste it into an outgoing email message on the iPad.

• You can use your tablet/phone’s microphone to record audio on Mac or PC programs. That’s crazy wild. It means that you can use a full-blown dictation program like Dragon NaturallySpeaking, if you so desire, using your phone as a microphone. It really works.

• Your Mac or PC screen is much bigger (higher resolution) than the tablet’s. So in PA you can specify what you want to see on your screen: your Mac/PC programs reformatted to fit the tablet’s screen; your Mac or PC screen in its entirety, shrunken to fit the tablet; or something in between.

• Here’s a big one: PA has a clever way for you to click tiny little icons and buttons in your distant Mac or PC software — and trust me, on a phone or a 7-inch Android tablet, those buttons are all tiny and little.

The feature, called “Lock ’n’ Go,” may sound like something developed by Tupperware, but it gets the job done. You hold your finger down on whatever little button you’re trying to click. A magnifying loupe appears, so you can see what you’re doing. If you hold your finger still, a ring around the loupe begins filling in with color. It’s a two-second countdown timer; when the circle is full, you’ve just clicked that spot. The time delay ensures that you don’t click something by accident as you’re peeking into the magnifier.

(My video, above, shows the timer ring in action.)

Once you get good at using this Lock ’n’ Go thing, here’s a handy shortcut: You can cut short the countdown, clicking immediately, by tapping with a second finger while the ring is filling up.)

The LogMeIns, TeamViewers, and VNCs of the world offer very few of those features; they make little attempt to “appify” your Mac or Windows programs.

“But some of those programs are free,” I said to Nick Dobrovolskiy, the Russian wunderkind who wrote PA.

“It’s all about convenience,” he replied. “You can do something with Parallels Access in 5 minutes. You can do the same thing with LogMeIn in 30 minutes. Or, if you really don’t care about time, you could actually drive home to do it on the PC.”

PA in Cloudland
The world has changed since Parallels Access 1.0 arrived, thanks to a little thing called the cloud.

If you belong to the Apple ecosystem, you can already work with a huge percentage of your life’s important data on any Apple product (Mac, iPhone, iPad). The free iCloud service makes sure that everything is always synchronized and available on all your Apple gadgets: your calendar, address book, email, passwords, photos, notes, reminders, bookmarks, and even documents created by certain Apple programs.

The Android and Windows ecosystems offer many of the same options.

In this hyper-synced world, there’s not as much need for a program that lets you connect to your Mac or PC hundreds of miles away.

There are still some compelling uses, though:

• A family might buy one copy of Microsoft Office, Quicken, Photoshop, and so on — and then let all the family members use tablets to access them within the house. (Only one person can be accessing the central computer at a time, however.)

• If you install PA on a parent’s computer, then you, the adult child, can always help out to troubleshoot by remote control.

• You could wear a Bluetooth earpiece and dictate into your phone, watching it be transcribed into text by the computer downstairs.

• Computers have a lot more storage than phones or tablets. In its way, PA turns your Mac or PC into a remote hard drive for your gadget. Now you can access your entire music, photo, or video collection — from your phone/tablet.

• Ask a designer how cool it might be to run AutoCAD on a tablet.

The fine print
If any of this sounds appealing, here’s the fine print.

First, your Internet speed makes a huge impact on performance. If both ends of the link have zippy WiFi connections, then you’ll forget that you’re seeing the screen image from across the world. On a 4G cellular connection (your cellphone’s tethering feature, for example), there’s a little lag when you tap or drag something.

On a 3G connection, you can forget about smooth playback of video, and the response to your finger can be quite laggy.

Second, it’s really frustrating to work on a phone screen, no matter how much appifying and Lock ’n’ Going you have. It’s just too small, especially when the keyboard covers up most of the screen.

Third, keep in mind that you can’t connect to your Mac or PC if it’s turned off. If it’s just asleep, you can probably wake it up remotely, depending on its settings; Parallels describes the steps here.

Finally, weirdly, there’s no way to transfer a file from the computer to your phone or tablet — at least not without emailing it to yourself or putting it into, for example, your Dropbox.

Otherwise, though, Parallels Access 2.0 works incredibly well. It’s ultra-simple to set up, does just what it promises, and no longer comes with nosebleed pricing. There may be less call for its services in the cloud-connected era. But $20 a year is a reasonable price for a fast, flexible safety net.

You can email David Pogue here