For business travelers looking to travel very light, the simply--but aptly--named Screens app lets you access your notebook's desktop remotely from your iPhone or iPad. Better yet, its touch-optimized interface supports gestures and works with AirPlay. But is this $19.99 app the best remote desktop app of all? Read on to find out.
Screens is a VNC (Virtual Network Computing) client that lets you access another computer when you're working remotely. Using VNC, keyboard and mouse input are relayed from one system to another over a network, and the display in front of you is updated according to how it would look like on the original machine. Screens is intuitively designed for the iPad's touch capabilities and incorporates a number of smart shortcuts.
Screens will let you control virtually any desktop system, whether you're running Mac, Windows or Linux on your remote machine. After downloading the app to our iPhone or iPad, we could immediately add as many computers--or "screens"--as we wanted. Mac or Linux users don't need any additional software, either; they simply enable remote management in System Preferences.
On our Windows PC, we had to download TightVNC onto our laptop first. Using Screens on Windows required some extra effort, since we had to write down the port number and IP Address in order to add a server manually. You also must first install the companion Screens Connect app on the PCs you want to access remotely.
Interface and Gestures
Upon launching Screens, you'll see thumbnail images of each desktop you've loaded onto the app. You can switch between thumbnail view and a slideshow view, which presents the desktops as full-screen cover pictures you can quickly flip through. We touched a screen to launch the particular remote desktop we wanted to access.
The main body of Screens is taken up by the screen of your remote desktop. The bottom right corner has buttons for launching two kinds of keyboards: a traditional QWERTY, and the second with big buttons for shortcut commands such as Desktop, Ctrl-Alt-Del, Find, Copy, Paste and Cut. When accessing a Mac, we could invoke specialized functions such as Spotlight using the special keyboard.
Right beside these keyboard buttons, you'll see a shortcut that lets you disconnect from your current session, take a screenshot, adjust the settings and access help. Four directional arrows sit on this left side as well. On the bottom left side, you'll find icons for common keyboard functions (escape, tab, shift, control, alt and command).
Navigation was a breeze. Unlike other remote desktops, we didn't have to take our finger to the screen and drag the cursor around to interact with the interface; we just tapped on any spot. Screens responded to our touch, and each tap sent a click to our remote computer.
On longer pages, we could scroll through by dragging up or down with two fingers. Other gestures included a two-finger tap, which acted as a right click; a four-finger swipe to the right or left let us switch between apps; and pinch-to-zoom. We appreciated the handy "pull" gesture that let us yank on the side of the screen to reveal or hide the dock. We had to disable icon magnification, though. Since we could only click on the desktop by tapping, the magnification was delayed and our clicks constantly launched the wrong app. We missed being able to hover over a spot on the desktop, too.
Of all the remote destkop apps for tablets we've tested, Screens is probably the most feature-stuffed. We especially liked AirPlay mirroring on the app, which worked flawlessly. While accessing our remote desktop, we beamed a high-quality image from the iPad 2 to our Apple TV-connected screen. Static images worked just fine, but we experienced some dropped frames and audio didn't stream along with the picture.
Screens also supports iCloud for synchronizing all your stored screens across all iOS devices to which you've downloaded the app. For the security conscious, SSH tunnelling ensures your session is encrypted and safe.
We tested Screens on our iPad 2 with a MacBook Air and a Windows 7 desktop. On both systems, Screens worked well on both a local network and remotely using Screens Connect, and we appreciated the zippy rendering of our desktop. Screens exhibited minimal lag, and gestures worked precisely.
However, this app clearly wasn't built for video streaming. When we played a 720p trailer for the movie "Drive," images were sharp and clear, but the video skipped multiple frames, resulting in a jarring viewing experience. Also, audio didn't stream to the app, so we watched the stuttering animation in silence.
While Screens' $19.99 price might seem a little stiff, it's still a good value compared to other remote desktop apps that require you to pay a monthly or yearly fee. For instance, GoToMyPC charges $10 per month or $99 per year for its service. Also, Edovia's companion software, Screens Connect, is free.
Screens is a great option for iPad owners who want to control their desktops remotely. The multitouch and AirPlay Mirroring support are both top-notch, and the overall performance is smooth. Just don't expect to stream movies or music, as you can with Splashtop, or the ability to transfer files to and from your PC and iPad. Bottom line: If you're looking for the most painless way to get your desktop onto your tablet, Screens is a very strong option.