O'Malley's Mash-up: Access your home computer from elsewhere

Columns & Opinion, O'Malley's Mashup

One of the big buzzwords surrounding web 2.0 is that of “the cloud” – the idea that the internet is replacing the hard drive, and we’re storing stuff online rather than on our desktop computers. Things like Google Docs, Flickr and Facebook means that it doesn’t matter what computer we’re sat at, we can always get hold of our spreadsheets, photos and people we haven’t seen since school.

But what if you want to do more heavy duty tasks? What if you need to access things stored on your actual home computer? There are some solutions out there, and that’s what I’m going to be looking at in this week’s mash-up.

First of all, what about accessing your media on the go? I think perhaps the internet’s best kept secret is a piece of software called Orb. It really is phenomenal, and has been doing what futuristic technology and what people speculate Apple will do next for years.

You install a piece of software to your computer that acts as a server, and it’ll give you online access to all of your media – your music, your videos and the like, as well as your hard disks online, once you log in to the Orb website. What’s great is that it’ll actually stream your media in a variety of formats (and will transcode in real time if need be) – including Windows Media Player and Flash format. Amazingly this isn’t all it can do – if you’ve got a TV capture card, you can stream your telly live over the internet and watch it wherever you are, just like a Slingbox. For free.

This isn’t my favourite thing about Orb though – my favourite thing is that Orb has a special mobile version of their website, meaning that if you have a suitable phone (ie: basically a 3G phone with a web browser), you can stream your media – including live TV – to your phone. Amazing.

They’ve even made special web interfaces for other devices, like the Nintendo Wii, meaning you can turn it into a (very) rudimentary media centre for your telly.

But what if you’re trying to download some media? If you’re a BitTorrent user, you might be interested to know that some clients offer a web interface to control them. If you’re a user of the Vuze BT client, for instance (it used to be called Azureus), you can install a plug-in through the intuitive plug-in manager in the app (it does all of the work for you), and then you can simply navigate any web browser to your IP address and the port specified and you’ll get essentially a web version of the client, allowing you to manage your torrents as if you were sitting at your home computer.

Similarly, the open-source media player VideoLAN has a web interface too. Though pressing play and pause on your home media when you’re a few miles away isn’t terribly useful, it’s damn useful if you’re on another computer on the same network – if you’re like me and would prefer to avoid getting up from the sofa wherever possible.

The ultimate tool in controlling your computer though, is a technology called VNC. There are lots of pieces of software that do it, so there’s a lot of choice here. What a VNC server essentially does is send pictures of your screen o’er the internet to wherever you’ve logged into a VNC client and gives you full access to your computer. Though obviously, this is quite a sluggish option, and how quickly you see stuff happen on your computer depends on the speed of your connection and the like, and you’ll probably have to stick to Orb for watching videos.

To make this work, first you’re going to need a VNC server for the computer you want to access remotely. The one I use is Ultra VNC. This will sit in your system tray and will allow client access – don’t forget to set a password so that others can’t get to your computer.

UltraVNC also makes a client which you can run on other machines and dial into your home computer – all you’ll need to know is your IP address and the port again. But like with Orb, the magical part comes when you want to VNC using other devices.

For instance, if you’re an iPhone user, Mocha VNC will give you access to your computer, or if you have a mobile phone running the Symbian operating system (most other phones), then there’s the aptly named app, VNC for Symbian.

There’s also a myriad of options available for Windows Mobile, Linux and practically every other platform that can talk to the internet – because the technology has been around for years. And if you can’t find anything native that does VNC, UltraVNC server has a built in Java web interface, so you don’t even need to install any software on a client machine.

So why not give this ENHANCED CONNECTIVITY a try? Take your desktop wherever you go and never have to get up to do a computing task again.

James O’Malley
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  • There are a lot of options for these needs, but I am a bit disappointed that you did not mention proxy networks anywhere in the article. Give them a look next time you do one of these roundups, I have a feeling you will be impressed by the quality.

  • I’m quite a big fan of Windows Live Mesh for my remote desktopping needs. It’s a little clunky, but does the job much better than other stuff I’ve tried (like Logmein.com)

  • If you want real connectivity back “home” try using the Amahi Home Server. Install it and you get a VPN (for SECURE access to your home network from anywhere!) Of course you get a whole lot more, like user authenticated file sharing (cross platform), a media server, a shared calendar, and a whole lot more!

    Take a look http://www.amahi.org

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