There you are, wandering around Venice or Tokyo or Montreal, when you suddenly get an urge to access your home computer. Perhaps you need a certain file or the address of your Quebecois pal. Or maybe you just miss the little fella. Whatever your reason, there are ways to access your computer from anywhere in the world, whenever you want. In most (but not all) cases, you'll need to leave your home computer connected to the Internet and find a way to get online while you're away.
SURF ON. A Web service, such as GoToMyPC (www.gotomypc.com, $20 a month), is the simplest option. How does it work? Before you leave home, visit the Web site and sign up for the service, downloading and installing its software onto your home computer. Once on the road, use a Java-enabled Web browser (such as Internet Explorer or Firefox) to connect to www.gotomypc.com and you can use your home PC to do anything you want, such as print a file or chat with someone sitting at your home computer.
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A bonus: GoToMyPC provides one-time-only passwords (a hard-to-find feature). This means that if you write your password on a slip of paper for use at an Internet cafe and accidentally leave it behind, no one else can use it to access your home computer. (Other services similar to GoToMyPC include LogMeIn, at secure.logmein.com, and WebEx, at www.webex.com.)
PAY TO PLAY. If you're away from home quite often, a more cost-effective option is to use software such as PCAnywhere (www.symantec.com, $199.95). Simply load it onto your PC and set up a password. Then, surf to your home computer by typing its IP (Internet Protocol) address into the Java-enabled browser on your remote computer (your Internet service provider can tell you what your unique IP address is; it'll be a string of numbers).
This software also allows you to dial your computer directly. Note, however, that your home PC, as well as your remote PC, needs a modem connected to the telephone jack via a cable for this to work. On the pro side, you don't have to worry about finding Internet access. On the con side, you may face astronomical long-distance charges.
FUN WITH FREEBIES. What? You don't want to pay to use your home computer from a distance? No problem. First, you must have Windows 2000 or XP Professional on your home computer. Second, you need Windows 95 or higher and Remote Desktop Connection software on your remote computer. (Remote Desktop Connection comes with recent versions of Windows, but if your version doesn't have it, you can download it free from www.microsoft.com.)
As ever, before you leave, make sure your home computer is on. Then, from afar, launch Remote Desktop Connection and enter your IP address in the text box that automatically pops up. Just keep in mind that you get what you pay for: This basic software doesn't allow you to accomplish the more advanced tasks that GoToMyPC and PCAnywhere allow, such as dragging and dropping files from your home computer to your remote computer. But you can accomplish more basic tasks, such as opening software and looking at documents.
Want to know how to do something? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.