First look: Microsoft Remote Desktop apps for iOS and Android

Late to the game, Microsoft releases Remote Desktop apps for rival mobile platforms, but they're bare-bones at best -- and where's the WinPhone version?

After what seemed like an absurd amount of time, Microsoft has released the first official Remote Desktop client for iOS and Android. Until now, people had to make do with a patchwork of third-party programs -- some good, some bad, and some abysmal. (I know -- I've tried.) Microsoft's official solution is not quite as ingenious or convenient to work with as I'd hoped it would be, but it gets the job done. (No version for Windows Phone has been released yet, but Microsoft has stated it is working on one to be released later.)

Remote Desktop works a lot like its Windows counterpart: It connects to any Windows PC that can support a Remote Desktop connection and is accessible through a network. Once connected, you're presented with the remote computer's screen and can pass mouse gestures and key commands. To use the mouse, swipe with a finger and tap to click, and long-press to simulate a right-click. For typing, the program provides you with the native onscreen keyboard in iOS or Android, albeit with additions for sending special keys. Attached Bluetooth keyboards, such as on my iPad Mini, also work.

Because your local device and the remote desktop are likely to be at different resolutions, Remote Desktop tries to set the remote system to use the display resolution of the local device. For a device like the iPad or an Android tablet, with its relatively large screen, this isn't a bad idea. But for a phone -- such as my HTC One, which sports a 1,080-line HD display -- this can result in serious eyestrain.

To help offset this, Remote Desktop has a zoom function. Tap an icon at the top of the screen and you get a zoomed-in view of a portion of the remote screen. To scroll around, tap on a four-way arrow icon near the middle of the screen and drag in the direction you want to move the viewport to. It's somewhat clumsy on a smaller screen, as a lot of dragging is required to get around.

What's really inexplicable is the way neither client version supports pinch-zoom as a workaround. Time and again I caught myself trying to pinch-zoom both in and out of a remote view, but no dice. Maybe Microsoft can add this as an option in a future version?

Microsoft claims "high quality video and sound streaming with improved compression and bandwidth usage" for the app. My experiences weren't quite so rosy. Audio streamed from the remote machine came through OK, but playing back 1,080p video was too laggy to be useful, even on a local LAN. I suspect the results may vary widely depending on the hardware you're using.

The iOS and Android versions that I tested vary slightly. On Android, there's a graphics acceleration option (you can choose "hardware" or "software") that I didn't see in the iOS edition. But both have gateway and certificate management options, and the behavior of the two is similar enough that a user of one could jump to the other without issues.

Important to remember: Remote Desktop doesn't do anything except connect directly to other machines. It's not a front end for a service like LogMeIn, which allows machines behind firewalls to be reached from any other client. But if you are already using the desktop version of Remote Desktop and have been itching for a proper mobile version from Microsoft, here it is. Just don't expect it to be anything more.

This article, "First Look: Microsoft Remote Desktop apps for iOS and Android," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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