These two popular means of accessing your computer remotely — remote desktop and virtual private network (VPN) — have some differences that make one preferable to the other.
On one hand, you get the speed advantage of remote desktop (which is typically faster than a VPN), but you also need to deal with potential security threats. With remote desktop, the device you are connecting to has to be trusted (more or less), and you must trust the software that you are running on the device (e.g., Microsoft Remote Desktop). If you are accessing a public computer (at a coffee shop, for example), then this is usually not a problem, but it can be when you are using a computer at a library or school. With a VPN, on the other hand, you are securing your connection to a remote device, so you must trust that device completely (e.g., Google Chrome VPN). The advantage of a VPN is that you can encrypt all the data traveling to and from the remote device, meaning that even if someone does hack into your device — or the device you are connecting to — they will not be able to read your emails, your browsing history, or anything else that you send or receive while connected.
Remote Desktop Vs. VPN: What’s the Difference?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of comparing these two technologies, let’s first discuss what they are and why you would want to use them.
A remote desktop is essentially like having your laptop or computer next to you. You connect to the device (via Wi-Fi or Ethernet) and can use your keyboard and mouse to navigate the screen and make changes to your files. You also get the benefit of the device being on (most of the time), so you can check your email, browse the web, and so on. Disadvantages include the need to trust the device you are connecting to (e.g., your home computer or office equipment) as well as the need to have an internet connection (either in the form of broadband or a wireless hotspot) to use remote desktop. A VPN is a tool that allows you to create secure connections between your devices (laptops, tablets, or mobile phones) so that your computer or device files can be accessed from any location (e.g., coffee shop, library, or school) that has an internet connection. Disadvantages of a VPN include the need to keep all of your devices (e.g., your home computer, office equipment, and mobile devices) on the same network and needing to trust all of them completely.
Secure And Trusted
Now that we understand what these technologies are, it’s time to discuss why you would want to use them. Let’s start with a security issue. If you are the type of person who travels a lot for work, then you know that being untrusted (untrusting, in this case) is never a good idea when you are out of state or country.
Using remote desktop or a VPN on the other hand, gives you (at least) two levels of security. First, you are securing your connection to a device, which is usually done via VPN. Second, you are securing the device itself (e.g., your laptop) from cybercriminals (hackers) who want to access your sensitive data. If someone does break into your device (or the device you are connecting to via VPN), then you will be protected from identity theft by using a VPN. Additionally, with a VPN you can ensure that all your internet traffic is encrypted, meaning that even if someone were to hack into your device (e.g., your office computer or school laptop), they would not be able to see what websites you are visiting or what email you are sending. This is especially important if you are using public Wi-Fi to connect to the internet wherever you go.
Another big difference between remote desktop and VPN is speed. While remote desktop is usually a faster option, you have to make sure that you are connected to a fast and stable internet connection. If you are using a cellular connection — either 3G, 4G, or LTE — then you will not be able to access the internet at the same speeds as you could when using a Wi-Fi access point.
A VPN, on the other hand, operates at the same speeds regardless of whether you are connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot or a cellular network. This is because all the traffic to and from your device is encrypted via tunneling, so it cannot be slowed down by the network as it makes its way to and from your device. Think of it this way: even if you did not have a VPN, all the traffic to and from your device would be going through the internet backbone anyway (usually provided by a service provider or internet service provider). Unless your internet connection is extremely slow, everyone will experience the same speeds regardless of whether or not they are using a VPN.
Finally, let’s not forget about cost effective. Often, schools and businesses have to consider the price of equipment as well as the price of internet access (whether through a mobile device or cable). Especially when you consider that many businesses have to lease access to office space (e.g., Google leased a whole floor of an office building in order to create their offices in Mountain View), spending money on equipment is often cheaper in the long run than paying for internet access. In other words, paying for a VPN instead of using a free trial version of Microsoft Remote Desktop is usually cheaper.
Now that you are equipped with the basics about remote desktop and VPN, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of comparing the two. First, let’s look at what each one can do individually.
Microsoft Remote Desktop
If you are using Microsoft Remote Desktop, then you need to make sure that you are always using the most up-to-date version. In most cases, this means that you will have to download the latest version from Microsoft either via the cloud or the app store (e.g., iTunes). Once you have downloaded the latest version, you should upgrade your hardware as needed (e.g., increase the RAM in your computer) to improve the performance of the program. Additionally, you should back up your files regularly and store them in a secure place (e.g., a hard drive that you plug into a secure external hard drive). This is especially important if you are sharing your computer with other people or using it remotely.
Google Chrome Remote Desktop
Alternatively, if you are using Google Chrome Remote Desktop, then you need to make sure that you are always using the most up-to-date version. This means that you will have to either visit the Chrome website or download the latest version from the Chrome app store (e.g., Google Play). Once you have done that, you should ensure that you always have the latest version of Chrome on your device. To do this, you can either click on the Chrome menu and then select the “Experimental features” option, or you can click on the “chrome://apps” URL in the address bar to bring up the Apps section of the Chrome web browser. In that case, click on the cog next to the Google Chrome Remote Desktop app and then select “Update now.” Doing this will ensure that you always have the most secure version of Chrome available whenever you need it.
With either of these two options, you can create a VPN connection that is secure. Once you have done that, your files and data will be accessible via the internet (e.g., from another computer or mobile device) wherever you go. Additionally, since all the traffic is encrypted, it cannot be slowed down by the internet service provider as it travels to and from your device.
Remote Desktop Vs. VPN: Which One Should You Use?
As you can see above, there are a lot of differences between these two technologies, not to mention the fact that they are completely different apps that you have to download and install separately. This means that you will need to educate yourself about the differences before you can make an informed decision about which one to use.
First, consider your needs. Do you need a fast connection? Does speed matter? Are you comfortable giving your devices (e.g., laptops, tablets, or mobile phones) to others for use as needed? Do you need to ensure that all your internet traffic is always private and protected?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then using a VPN is the clear choice. You will get the speed advantage of remote desktop along with the peace of mind of knowing that all your data is always protected. Additionally, setting up and using a VPN is usually a lot simpler than setting up and using a remote desktop.