REVIEW: PC Anywhere 12.5

Ian Yates puts an updated version of Symantec's remote maintenance tools through its paces and finds more-than-useful enhancements.

Symantec’s pcAnywhere remote computer access software just got upgraded to version 12.5 and should be available in stores right now for a smidgen under $200. Don’t pick up v12.1 by mistake – the new version is out there and it’s worth hunting it down. For your money you get a CD and a slim 60-page getting started booklet in Symantec’s familiar yellow packaging.
The getting started book has only eight pages in your favourite language, but there are 22 choices so it’s unlikely you won’t be able to read at least one of them. You won’t need to refer to the booklet very often, if at all, after installation as the program is pretty easy to figure out, and with the 12.5 upgrade of pcAnywhere (PCA) the program now looks almost identical on all the supported platforms – Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.
You get all three platforms for the price, in both remote and host versions – you need to install it on each end of your remote link so you can connect via the Internet to control one PC or server from another. The good news is that you don’t need matching platforms at each end. You can install a host PCA on a Windows Server 2008 and then control it using PCA remotely from your Macintosh or Linux computer. And you can do this vice-versa and in any cross combination you can dream up.
So, what did Symantec put in the new version other than making each platform look as similar as possible? Users of the previous v12.1 on Macintosh won’t notice too much difference – it’s their interface experience that has slithered over to the Windows and Linux clients. For starters there is now a separate tab showing you all the sessions you have open, making it much easier to switch to the one you want. Yeah, okay, not everybody will have multiple sessions, but if you do, v12.5 makes it a lot easier to manage them.
The other main area of improvement will appeal mostly to users with Windows servers they want to remotely control. Previously you had to choose whether to use the host server’s Active Directory to control logins, or use PCA’s built-in users and passwords. Now with v12.5 you can have both at the same time, which means you could allow users with limited admin powers to connect via the AD and still allow a “superuser” to login via PCA to take control when things have really gone pear-shaped.
There is also a big improvement in the level of logging, reporting and notification options, so you can keep informed about who is using your host remotely, if it isn’t you and your support team. The logs contain fully qualified domain names of computers in session, IP addresses, logged-in user names, keyboard and mouse status changes, and additional chat conversations – if you choose to enable logging them of course.
The new v12.5 will connect remotely to earlier version hosts, but once you install v12.5 host you’ll need to install the same version on your remotes to get connected. And if you decide to install the free download trial version, it won’t connect with the full v12.5 retail product, which is a tad annoying. Even more annoying is that you must uninstall the trial version to install the real v12.5 – there’s no “click to authenticate” button. This isn’t a major problem but it is inconvenient if you’re trying to do everything remotely via PCA. A classic case of Catch 22 in real life.
Of course, you don’t have to go out and buy PCA to remotely control your Windows servers from your Windows PCs. You can use Microsoft’s built-in Remote Desktop Control (RDC) for the same purpose and it’s free in the box with the operating system. But RDC takes over the PC or server console when you connect, shutting out anyone who was sitting in front of the screen. PCA takes over in a co-operative way – so you can let them watch you perform your remote magic. It’s nice to have both available. Sometimes you want to keep the remote users in the dark.
PCA also includes a very handy button, which can sometimes save you from a totally frozen server situation. If you can still connect, but nothing is happening when you get connected, say a typical console hang, while the server is still running in some limited capacity, you can press the “restart host computer” button. When all else has failed this little button is almost worth the price of admission all by itself.
Of course, to make any of these remote control programs work, you’ll have to open a few ports on your router and forward them to your host computer as well as allowing PCA or RDC through any intermediate or host-based firewalls. Opening any ports on your router and/or firewalls does involve some element of risk, but Symantec’s pcAnywhere v12.5 now supports smart card logins for that little extra peace of mind on the security front. Now you’ll have to go out and get some smart cards won’t you?
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