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Sharing screens with TeamViewer for iPad and Mac

Here at TUAW, we love enthusiastic readers. They tell us what they like and what they don't like, and nothing could be more passionate than the recommendations for TeamViewer that appeared in the comments on a post I recently wrote about using iTeleport and LogMeIn to provide remote support. Given the enthusiasm, I decided to give TeamViewer a try.

Like most other remote computing solutions, TeamViewer is made up of two parts. There's a computer-based server, available for both Windows and Macintosh, and clients including an iPad application. How much you spend on your setup depends on how you plan to use the application.
A free plan includes both client and server components, but is limited to non-commercial use only. You can support family and friends or call home from your iPad to your home system but if you want to use the software for any commercial purposes (beyond testing the software under trial conditions), you need to purchase licenses.

The paid version consists of an iPhone or iPad client ($100 and $140 respectively) and a lifetime server license ($750, $1500, and $2700 for Business, Premium, and Corporate licenses). That's serious money.

So how does the software perform? I gave both the server and client a good work-out, connecting from an iPad to a remote Snow Leopard Mac and testing both the free and paid iPad clients, using the unlicensed server on the Macintosh side. I did not test Web access, Windows, or the iPhone clients.

Account Set-up

I found the account set-up portion unnecessarily difficult. Although you can connect remotely using a software-generated ID and password, unless you are on the phone with someone sitting in front of the remote system, you'll want to create a partner account instead.

Basic connections work like this. The server software automatically generates an ID/Password combo and displays them on the main TeamViewer screen. In their default form, they consist of a 9-number session ID and a 4-number password. Enter these items into the client software and you'll establish a basic connection.

The problem arises when you quit the application. The next time you run the software, it generates a new ID and password combination. That's why you want an account. By signing in with an account, you can connect to the server as a partner, independently of the current session ID.

I created my account on the iPad, which turned out to be a bad idea. Building the account involves a lot of typing (including entering your home e-mail account twice). I had to pair a Bluetooth keyboard to the unit to get past all the clerical entry. The software insisted on a certain level of password strength, which also had to be double-entered.

But the big problem was that the user account was more important to associate with the server software in the end. So learn from my lesson and establish your account on your Windows or Macintosh application, not on the iPad. Sign into the account from the application's Partner List window, and enter a password in the applications' preferences screen. You can then add the account name as a partner on your mobile device and connect using that password to authenticate yourself.

Be aware that before you can select that partner, you need to sign in on the iPad using the user account credentials and then sign in again using the password credentials, with the user account username. It's unintuitive and clunky but once you get it done a few times, it's not that hard to work through the steps.

Interacting Remotely

Once connected, TeamViewer feels like the other players in the remote access arena, such as LogMeIn and iTeleport. The interaction touches work very much the same way. You can drag with one finger to move the mouse pointer, tap to click, use two-finger taps for right-clicks, and so forth.

The screen updates over Wi-Fi were very fast and smooth, and I had no problem zooming into and out from windows, switching between multiple screens (I have two displays connected to my Mac), and so forth. The display quality was excellent.

What's particularly nice about TeamViewer is that it includes a quick reference sheet as part of its settings (Settings > Instructions) which you can review at any time. Not having a reference sheet has been one of my big beefs about competing apps. So if you want to drag and drop items on-screen, it's easy enough to look up how to (double-tap and hold followed by a drag).

Bugs and Flaws

Unfortunately, TeamViewer has a number of basic flaws which let down what is otherwise an excellent application. For example, the connection shuts down when my iPad goes idle, and a big nag message appears, as you can see here. If you're using the free client on the iPhone or iPad, another nag message appears on-device, which you see once you wake the unit up. Paid versions are, obviously, nag-free. Regardless of nag screes, the client has to completely re-authenticate (partner passwords aren't stored) and establish a new session each time. This grows old pretty quickly.
I was also disappointed with the non-session iPad client GUI. This GUI is identical between the free and paid app versions. Instead of helping end-users simply connect using a unified screen -- there's plenty of screen room for that on the iPad -- you have to hop between three separate sign-in scenarios including Connect, Recents, and Partner List. It's really confusing which option you need to use and just a little user-centered design would easily eliminate this confusion.

In a similar manner, the first time you tap on the "Connect to Partner" button, the app doesn't actually connect you to your partner. It dismisses the keyboard but requires a second tap to place your connection. That feels amateurish in an application that's priced above $100 in the App Store.

Mac users who prefers to use command-key shortcuts when connecting need to be aware of a major TeamViewer bug as well. Command-key shortcuts help save touch strokes when switching between applications and performing other quick tasks. While TeamViewer had no trouble using the command key (for example, to hide applications via Command-H), it could not distinguish between shifted and non-shifted shortcuts.

In Firefox, Command-W and Command-Shift-W have separate roles, namely close the current tab and close the entire window. TeamViewer mapped both combinations to Command-W, which is a problem if you really need to use Command-Shift-W instead. I was unable to use TeamViewer with many of my custom QuicKeys macros due to this bug.

On the positive side, I appreciated the built-in right-mouse-click button that appears at the bottom of the interaction window, the easily-accessed extended keyboard options, which include all the standard function and arrow keys, and always-on access to application settings. This latter feature is a great treat, especially since you can update those settings without interrupting your current session.

Conclusions

For individual non-commercial use, TeamViewer offers a far less expensive option than LogMeIn and iTeleport. Both its server and client elements are completely free. It's hard to argue with that pricing. Compared to paid solutions, TeamViewer offers many of the same features, albeit with a number of rough edges including the somewhat cumbersome authentication procedure, the nag screens, and the keyboard-control bugs.

What I cannot recommend the application for, however, is commercial use. At a minimum cost of $750 plus $140 for the iPad client, the application should have shipped bulletproof, with far more sophisticated features, a better GUI and a lot more advanced testing and bug fixes.

All things considered, TUAW gives the free version a thumbs up and the paid version a thumbs down.


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iPad

Here at TUAW, we love enthusiastic readers. They tell us what they like and what they don't like, and nothing could be more passionate than...