Free alternatives to LogMeIn (updated)
This post was updated on 28/1 with additional content.
I’ve been using the free LogMeIn remote access service for several years now. I’ve never felt the need to pay for the commercial service, as mostly what I use it for is connecting to my home PC while I’m at work – or vice versa – and copying whatever files I need into Dropbox.
Now it’s been announced that the free service is being discontinued on 28 January – next week, in other words, meaning us free users don't get a sunset period so much as an abrupt flicking off of the lights. As of next Wednesday, the service starts at $49 a year for two computers. As LogMeIn points out, this gets you not only basic remote access, but also “premium features like remote printing, file transfer and cloud data access, plus desktop and mobile apps to improve your experience.”
I don’t need any of that, however: for what I need, I'd be fine with one of the numerous lightweight VNC variants, or Windows’ built-in Remote Desktop Connection tool... if only they’d work through the Dennis Publishing firewall. Since they don’t, I’m left looking for a properly free alternative to LogMeIn that I can switch to next week. Here's what I've found.
TeamViewer is marketed primarily as a business tool for virtual meetings and online presentations, but it also works as a remote access service. In use it feels at least as smooth as LogMeIn, with support for Windows, OS X and Linux, and includes built-in file transfer, chat and remote printing functions. The catch is that, unlike LogMeIn, TeamViewer doesn't permit you to use its free service for commercial purposes. That means I can browse and organise my personal files from afar, but if I want to access a work document I’ve been writing at home (hey, it happens), I’m in breach – and a commercial licence costs a steep £439. Ouch.
Like TeamViewer, RemotePC runs on Windows, Mac and mobile operating systems (there’s no Linux support). Again, it supports remote printing, and remote audio, and there’s no restriction on using the free service for work purposes. In this case, the catch is that a free account only lets you connect to a single computer: that may be good enough for some, but it means you can’t hop back and forth between work and home quite so freely as I’ve been doing with LogMeIn. The three-PC plan costs $4.95 a month, which works out to around £36 a year.
You might quibble with the name, but you can’t argue with imPcRemote’s generous licensing terms. Personal or business use is free for up to five computers, with an optional subscription at £29 a year for unlimited use across Windows, OS X and Linux. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get it working: following the setup instructions resulted only in an unhelpful (and rather rude) “USER ERROR” message. Since imPcRemote is based on VNC, I suspect that points to a firewall problem: if anyone wants to dig more deeply, I’d love to hear your findings, but frankly that experience was enough to drive me away.
4. Ammyy Admin
Ammyy Admin is another package that looks a lot like VNC, so you can forget about sophistications such as screen scaling and remote audio. It’s also available only for Windows, so cross-platformers needn’t apply. Like TeamViewer, it’s free only for non-commercial use, and the licensing terms refer ominously to “possible access limits, if software is used beyond 15 hours per month”. If you choose to pay, though, it’s not too expensive, by the standards of these things: a lifetime two-PC licence without restrictions can be had for a flat fee of $120.
I get the feeling CrossLoop hasn’t been updated in a while: the documentation evidently dates from the XP era, and the installer's digital signature is dated January 2012. This needn’t matter of course if the software does the job, but as with RemotePC the free licence only allows you to connect to one computer, and the built-in file-sharing tool won’t work in free sessions. PCs and Macs are supported (even though the documentation claims it’s Windows only): if you want to pay for a two-computer licence, it’s $19.50 per year, which includes Android support.
So where does this leave us?
It’s fair to say none of these is a perfect replacement for LogMeIn Free. Ethically, I can’t use the free TeamViewer or Ammyy Admin services owing to their non-commercial licences – the ability to work from home is a big part of what’s made LogMeIn Free so useful to me. But if I pick RemotePC or CrossLoop, I’ll only be able to connect in one direction – unless, of course, I install one server on my home PC and the other on my work system. That would actually work, but it’s hardly an elegant solution. Under the circumstances, it’s easy to see why LogMeIn has decided it's in a strong enough position to start asking free users to cough up.
There are a few other possibilities. The excellent (albeit non-cross-platform) Windows Live Mesh is gone, but SkyDrive Fetch offers the fairly useful ability to grab files remotely from other SkyDrive-enabled PCs — although obviously it's not a satisfactory replacement for a proper remote-access tool. Another possibility is to set up a VPN and run Windows' Remote Desktop Connection through that. That's fiddly, though, and you'll probably have to pay for the VPN, but that needn't break the bank: as it happens LogMeIn itself offers a system called Hamachi for £19 per year, which is cheaper than paying for remote access.
Update: Four more contenders
I knew I wasn’t alone in lamenting the abrupt closure of LogMeIn Free. In the seven days since I originally made this post, more than 100 of you have added your own comments, and shared many useful suggestions for alternatives that I hadn’t been aware of.
Several people suggested Chrome Remote Desktop, a simple platform-agnostic Chrome extension that looks highly convenient for those of us who are already tied into Google’s browser. Unfortunately, although it works over my home LAN, it can’t connect between my home and office, so it’s no use to me.
Another lightweight option that several commenters have mentioned is AeroAdmin, a compact standalone tool that’s explicitly free for commercial use and has some nice features, including clipboard synchronisation between client and host. It’s Windows-only, however, and though the website breezes “don't worry about firewalls and blocked ports”, it too failed to punch through the Dennis Publishing firewall: your mileage may vary.
One system that did work for me was BeAnywhere Personal Edition, a free commercial service with a fair few bells and whistles, including a shared clipboard and a web client – so if your computer can be reached via HTTP you can connect to it directly from a browser. The catch here is that free subscriptions are limited to a single session a day, so think carefully before you disconnect.
That leaves us with Remote Utilities, a feature-packed standalone tool with clipboard sharing, multi-monitor support, remote sound, camera control and more. It looks and feels like an Office 2013 app, and if all this sounds suspiciously like a commercial service, it’s because until last week it was indeed available only to paying subscribers. However, in response to the discontinuation of LogMeIn Free, publisher Usoris Systems has started handing out free licences allowing anyone to connect to up to 10 PCs for any purpose, including business.
Remote Utilities seems to work very well indeed: my only small misgivings relate to its lack of cross-platform support - there are viewer apps for Android and iOS, but only Windows PCs can be controlled - and the fact that frankly it feels like overkill for the simple tasks I do. I'm told that RealVNC is working on a hosted (and therefore, hopefully, firewall-friendly) service, intended to launch some time this year, so perhaps when that appears it will be a more suitable tool for my remote-access ambitions. For now though, there’s no denying that Remote Utilities ticks a lot of boxes.