Walt Mossberg

Dell Remote Access Keeps Your Files at Your Disposal

Say you’re on the road and you need to look at a file that’s on your main computer back at your office or house. Or say you’re using a device with limited storage, like a smart phone or one of the tiny new “netbook” portable PCs, and you want access to a file that isn’t on the device at hand.

You might be able to get at the desired file if you have previously uploaded it to an online storage or photo-sharing service, or emailed it to yourself. But, in many cases, you could be stuck.

Now Dell (DELL), the big computer maker, is aiming to solve that problem with a new service called Dell Remote Access. Despite the name, the service can be installed on any brand of Windows PC running Windows XP or Windows Vista to make its files remotely accessible, as long as it has a broadband connection. You can transfer, or stream, or share these files with others. You can even remotely use the host computer’s Web camera.

And some of the service’s functions also work even if your remote device is one of Apple’s (AAPL) Macintosh computers or iPhones, or a computer powered by the Linux operating system, like Dell’s own Mini netbook.

For basic functionality — making the files on one Windows PC remotely accessible from other devices — Dell Remote Access is free. If you want to use its advanced functions, like the ability to remotely control the host PC or to access other devices on your home network, it costs $9.95 a month, or $99 a year. This paid version of the service also includes the ability to share with others access to files or to devices on your network, such as stand-alone Web cameras.

You only need to install special software on the host PC whose files are to be remotely accessed. For basic file access, the remote devices require just a Web browser and a password to tap into the host computer. You can download the software, and get started with the service, at dellremoteaccess.com.

I’ve been testing Dell Remote Access for a few days, at home and on the road, and found that it works well, despite a few glitches and limitations. It’s not revolutionary — many other services and software programs do part or all of what it does, with varying degrees of technical difficulty and at varying fees — but Dell Remote Access combines a wide variety of functions into a fairly simple package. It will be available as a preinstalled option on Dell’s PCs later this year.

Dell also is hoping it will give a boost to sales of its Mini line of very small machines with limited internal storage for files.

For my tests, I installed Dell Remote Access on my home Dell desktop, an XPS One model running Windows Vista. The installation was easy and quick, except for one oddity: To use the new service, you have to uninstall a network diagnostic utility Dell installs on its machines, called Dell Network Assistant. Since I had little or no use for the utility, this was no big loss, but if you rely on it, this conflict could pose a problem.

Next, I used the Remote Access software to select folders I wanted to make remotely accessible. By default, the program assumes you want to share your documents, music and pictures folders, but I added some others. The software tests your network connection to let you know how well it’s likely to work.

I used a variety of remote devices to access this home Dell. These included a Sony (SNE) Vaio laptop running Vista, a Mac laptop and an Apple iPhone. I even tried accessing the Dell machine from a virtual Windows XP installation running on the Mac.

Some of these tests were conducted from within my home network and others were conducted from across the country.

In general, the tests went well. With the Sony laptop, and within Windows XP running on the Mac, I was able to view photos and slide shows, and stream music and videos, from the Dell in all locations. I opened Microsoft Office (MSFT) files and PDF files remotely and transferred files to the remote machines. I was even able to remotely control the Dell at decent speeds and use the Dell’s built-in camera.

The only annoyance was that every time you want to remotely control the host machine, you must download and install a small utility. You also have to leave on your home computer.

Dell’s system provides more limited functionality if your remote machine is a Mac using Apple’s operating system, or a Linux machine or a mobile phone. With these setups, you can only view, stream or transfer files only from the main host computer. You can’t do remote control or view cameras.

But these limited functions did work pretty well on the Mac and the iPhone, although in some cases I had to first download a song to the Mac before it would play, rather than simply streaming it directly from the Dell.

But Microsoft Word documents stored on the Dell opened right up on the Mac. It was particularly impressive to be able to view a document or photo stored on the Dell from an iPhone thousands of miles away.

Dell Remote Access is a worthy service that’s worth a try.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

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