If your job is desk-bound, you probably can't see why anyone gets excited about remote connection software. But anyone who has to travel, who has both a desktop and a laptop, or who collaborates with someone at a remote site, knows only too well that pit-of-the-stomach feeling when you arrive after a three-hour car journey only to find that you've left a crucial file back at the office. Your PC is connected to a phone, yet it's no help. It sits with a look of smug ingratitude on its monitor and does nothing.
Unusually there are three strong contenders in this market. I looked at the Windows 95 version of the classic LapLink a few months ago - now I'm adding the 32-bit versions of pcAnywhere and Reachout to the equation.
SYMANTEC THE NORTON pcANYWHERE 32
The first thing that strikes you about pcAnywhere is the name. I know Symantec likes to hold onto the Norton name as a hallmark of technical excellence, but "Symantec The Norton pcAnywhere 32" doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. Like all these products installation's fairly idiot proof, though pcAnywhere is a little unnerving as it restarts Windows at the beginning of the process. All three products have a special variant of the usual software licence allowing you to install it on two PCs, but unlike the competition, the pcAnywhere box only contains the 32-bit version, so tough luck if your laptop is running Windows 3.1.
The first time you start pcAnywhere, a wizard sets up the default modem, network and cable connections. You then get to a screen with a reassuringly small number of chunky buttons. The first, Quick Start, sets up sessions.
Then there are buttons for each connection type: a host, remote control, file transfer, being a gateway, remote networking and terminal emulation.
Each of these displays a set of icons in the window below, corresponding to existing sessions.
The essentials of remote connection are file transfer and remote control (of which more in a moment), but it's worth noting that unlike LapLink, pcAnywhere has a terminal emulator. It may not be top-of-the-range, but it's good enough for most uses, and can record and edit scripts, making logon to a remote service much more user-friendly. Like the competition, there's a chat facility too, so you can exchange information between transfers.
All three products also have a good range of connectivity by cable, modem or network.
Connecting by cable is straightforward - pcAnywhere comes with a parallel cable - but it hasn't the transparent simplicity of LapLink. Where LapLink checks the active connections and automatically establishes a session when the software is run, pcAnywhere handles cable connection exactly the same way as a modem, so one PC has to be started as a host, then the other connects into it. After a rather odd, DOS boxish window, a file transfer session displays the usual views of both disk structures, though the lists don't have the Explorer-like friendliness of LapLink. Still there's the usual drag-and-drop support, and it's all fairly intuitive.
Unlike LapLink, there's no support for the Windows 95 briefcase, so you can only synchronise at a directory level, rather than a set of files across directories. Like all the products, file transfer automatically provides compression and a facility that attempts only to send the changes in a file.
Remote control is simple and works as expected, though I found it tended to start up when I closed down file transfer, whether or not I wanted it. Security, important in both tasks, is well provided for. pcAnywhere is unique in being able to encrypt the data flow to overcome physical security problems, has logon IDs and passwords and supports call-back.
Both pcAnywhere and Reachout are ahead of LapLink in including virus protection as part of the built-in security.
All-in-all, pcAnywhere is a strong package with good use of wizards to set up sessions. There's room for improvement in the all-important file transfer user interface, and it's a shame it doesn't come bundled with the 16 bit version, but it's a sound choice.
STAC REACHOUT 6.0
Stac was once best known for hard disk compression, but the ready availability of large, cheap hard disks and the bundling of compression with operating systems has taken the edge off the market. However, Reachout has kept Stac's flag flying. Reachout has the usual two machine licence, but comes with DOS, Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 versions to cover all combinations.
Like pcAnywhere, Reachout displays possible connections as a set of icons, but all in a single window. A rather fearsome toolbar handles the various features. Reachout also has a terminal emulator, although it's not as effective as the pcAnywhere equivalent. Although it has scripting, there's no facility to record a script - an absolute must with a terminal emulator.
Reachout's special strength is in the use of the Internet. LapLink and pcAnywhere can make TCP/IP connections, but Reachout has a built-in FTP browser and, particularly originally, the ability to use your PC as a personal FTP server. Connect to your ISP, set up the server and you will be able to download files from any Web browser, getting away from the need for a client PC with a copy of Reachout. This approach has its limitations - for example, your host PC needs to be connected to the ISP all the time, you can't just ring it up - but it is potentially a very useful addition to the connectivity spectrum.
Unfortunately, Reachout is a disaster for cable connection. LapLink makes it almost transparent. With pcAnywhere it's very easy. With Reachout it's a pain. In reality, Reachout doesn't really support cable connection itself, piggy-backing on the unsatisfactory feature built into Windows 95. This typically means installing another bit of Windows, then setting up a new connection, and after all that, if you can get it going, it only works in one direction in any one session. This really isn't good enough if you need cable connection. Not surprisingly, Reachout is the only product not bundled with a cable.
When using a modem or a network, Reachout is much happier. It's Explorer-style file transfer window is much better looking and easier to use than the pcAnywhere equivalent, though not quite as clear as LapLink's. Again, there's no support for the briefcase, but there is compression and delta copying. Remote control seemed a bit fussier about set up at each end, but when working was fine. Although lacking encryption, Reachout was otherwise comparable with pcAnywhere on security, providing user IDs with passwords and callback. As you might expect, it's possible to de-fine which areas of the PC are visible through the link.
Each of the three has their own merits. LapLink (not surprisingly) is the king of cable connection, coming bundled with both parallel and serial cables and making the whole business wonderfully simple. It's rather slow on a modem for small files, but otherwise holds its own. There's no terminal emulation, which is a shame. pcAnywhere is weakest on its file transfer interface, but does have a good terminal emulator and is next easiest to set up. You can forget Reachout if you want to use a cable, but it's fine for modem work and is certainly worth considering for the Internet features. In a subjective test (see box), Reachout appeared to handle remote control fastest of the three, which is backed up by Stac's figures.
I never got Reachout working satisfactorily across a cable. LapLink was noticeably faster than pcAnywhere on large files. Across a modem there was little difference with small files between pcAnywhere and Reachout, but LapLink proved to have a weighty overhead before copying started.
The transfer process was as fast or faster. LapLink's approach of only transferring changes significantly reduced transfer times, while pcAnywhere's actually increased them on the samples I used.
PRODUCT AND CONTACT DETAILS
pcAnywhere 32 is available from Symantec, priced at #139. Contact Symantec's Web site at www.symantec.com
Reachout 6.0 is available from Stac priced at #149. Contact Stac on 01344 302900 or at www.stac.com
LapLink for Windows 95 costs #149.95. Contact Travelling Software on 0800 374849. www.travsoft.com
VERDICT: File transfer performance
VERDICT: pcAnywhere 32
- Easy to set up
- Fair terminal emulator
- Parallel cable included
- Encryption option
- Poor file transfer interface
- No 16-bit version bundled
VERDICT: Stac Reachout 6.0
- Good file transfer interface
- Impressive Internet options
- 16-bit Windows and DOS versions bundled
- Awful direct cable support
- No encryption
- No terminal emulator script recorder.
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