Your virtual network

I said a few weeks ago that I was looking for free or inexpensive shareware programs that don't just make it possible for you to perform a task but actually do the task for you. I'll periodically describe the best of my readers' proposed applications as I test them all.

I said a few weeks ago that I was looking for free or inexpensive shareware programs that don't just make it possible for you to perform a task but actually do the task for you.

Such products might be called one-click wonders because they encapsulate what used to be a tedious manual process into little more than a single Go command.

Since then, I've received many nominations from readers. I don't plan to crown a single winner. Instead, I'll periodically describe over the next few months the best of my readers' proposed applications as I test them all.

First up is a deceptively simple program that's a powerful helpmate. Reader Thomas Price raves about the freeware he uses to expose any gremlins haunting the far-flung menagerie of hardware and software he supports in his company.

"One of the greatest inventions in shareware history is VNC (Virtual Network Computing) from AT&T Research Labs Cambridge," says Price. "I can easily troubleshoot any problem a user is experiencing. Being able to see what is happening on the desktop, instead of the user saying, 'It's frozen up and won't work', is wonderful."

There are many programs that provide you with the ability to view the screen on a remote PC. But VNC, besides being free, has the advantage that it's truly a cross-platform tool.

From a PC, you can use VNC to see what's transpiring on a Linux machine, or Solaris, or many others. Different versions of the program run on Windows 9x/NT/2000 platforms as well as Windows CE, Mac and the aforementioned Linux and Solaris.

VNC is also compact. You can run the Win32 viewer from a 150KB file on a floppy, with no installation necessary. What's more, you can walk away from one PC running VNC, go to another that may be in the next cubicle or miles away and reconnect to the machine you were originally working on. Everything you were doing will still be there. You can even finish typing a sentence that you'd begun on the original PC.

"The beauty of the product is that you don't need any special software on your computer to view the remote computer, just a web browser that supports Java," Price says.

"To view a computer named AR1," he says, "just type in your browser http://AR1:5800, enter the password for the remote desktop and you can see everything going on remotely. This program has saved me hundreds of miles of driving. I can pull up desktops across any of my four locations. They range in distance, from our headquarters, from 10 miles to 250 miles."

To get VNC, go to Virtual Network Computing.

Reader Price will receive a gift certificate for a free book, CD or DVD of his choice for being the first to send me a tip I printed.

Send tips to Livingston. He regrets that he cannot answer individual questions.

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