Hands-on with iPad VNC clients

iTeleport lets you connect to your computer remotely using free software provided by iTeleport LLC

When you look at VNC clients for the iPad, there are really two uses you have to take into account. First, can the software connect locally, allowing you to screen share your desktop computer? Second, can it connect remotely, providing off-site access to your computer? With these two issues in mind, TUAW recently took a look at several iPad VNC clients. Read on to discover how they stood up to real world testing.

iTeleport offers a polished (albeit early release) solution for both scenarios. Retailing for $24.99, iTeleport for iPad lets you call home and take control of your home system. Supporting Windows, Mac, Linux, and AMX Touch Interface systems, iTeleport encompasses a lot of power in a small package.

The remote scenario works like this. At your home system, you install a server system. For the Mac, that's the Vine-Jaadu open source server. You then install and run a second application called iTeleport Connect. This application negotiates between the VNC server and the iTeleport web service. It uses standard Google credentials to make that connection. It sounds complicated but the iTeleport website walks you through all the installation steps.

On the iPad side, you log into the same service with the same credentials using the application's Internet tab. iTeleport coordinates the authenticated client on the iPad with the authenticated server on your computer, matching the two together. Instantly, your home server appears as an on-screen option, allowing you to start a remote session.

Unlike the LogMeIn client I tested out a few weeks ago, iTeleport experienced no difficulties using shift-modifier keys like the Command key and Control key. I was able to easily manipulate the system using standard shortcuts like "Command-W" and "Command-C". Best of all? iTeleport worked seamlessly with Quickeys, allowing me to access my home-built macro system, launching applications through keystrokes. (iTap VNC, discussed below, also had no problems using shift modifiers and Quickeys integration.)

That's not to say that iTeleport was perfect. Unfortunately, I did experience intermittent crashes during testing. Not unexpected for first generation software on a new device.

Like the other VNC clients I tested, I found that I was unable to enter text via a Bluetooth keyboard unless the on-screen keyboard was shown. I had to type into a text field attached to the on-screen keyboard as well as into whatever open application was on-screen. From a coding point of view, I suspect this could have been worked around by letting their screen display conform to the UITextInput protocol -- but I know that iTeleport as well as the other developers showcased here was under a time crunch to get their client to market, without access to actual hardware before the April 3rd iPad launch.

And, like other VNC clients, I could not use the shift-modifier keys on the external keyboard, with the exception of "Shift"; they were not interpreted or accepted by the application. To use Command, for example, I had to tap the on-screen representation. I could not use the keyboard version. This issue appears to be par for the course for iPad VNC applications.

On the local side, which does not require the Vine-Jaadu server, I found iTeleport's VNC discovery system to be excellent. I had no trouble finding and then accessing local systems -- that is, I had no trouble once I let the application do the work for me. Until I realized that the "Discovered" tab would scan for available screen shares, I wasted a lot of time attempting to set up a Manual connection. That extra work wasn't necessary. Just tap on Discovered, wait a few seconds, select a local share, type in your password and you're good to go.

Despite being docked for early instability issues and its odd keyboard entry GUI, all-in-all iTeleport for iPad is an excellent product with a strong backing web service.

iSSH offers VNC support as just part of its large feature set.

The second VNC client I looked at was iSSH. iSSH retails for $9.99 at App Store. More than a simple VNC client, iSSH offers SSH and telnet features that emulate standard VTxxx terminals. For purposes of this write-up, I was only interested in its VNC capabilities. So how did it stand up? I would classify iSSH's VNC support as workman-like. The application's focus on non-VNC features means that the VNC interface (mostly) gets the job done and little more than that.

I'm not going to be coy here. The VNC client was not terribly strong. Keyboard support was minimal. Although the Zingersoft support site says that command and control keys could be accessed via the arrow icon pop-up, I was never able to successfully access that feature. I found the application's tap-to-move-the-mouse interface extremely confusing, especially since I didn't seem able to make selections in text. Using a separate floating palette to click the mouse was difficult as well. The display also seemed laggy, even on a direct Wi-Fi connection without any remote access.

All in all, I'd recommend iSSH only to those people who are interested in its other (excellent) features. Consider the VNC client as a bonus feature rather than a primary draw for the application.

It can take a bit of learning to master iTap VNC's full gesture set

For just $7.99 (during a 35% off sale), the iTap VNC client can be used by anyone who does not need remote server access, or who has arranged for that remote access through a secondary provider and simply needs a VNC client. iTap VNC offers a dedicated VNC application with a well designed feature set. Although, like the other applications I tested, it still feels preliminary (I'll get to those issues shortly), the developers really have thought long and hard about the way you can and should interact with the screen. The client is responsive and easy to use. Like iSSH, iTap is meant for local area use although you can connect it to remote services.

I found the iTap controls to be pretty useful once I had worked with them for more than a few minutes. I still keep a cheat sheet on my main computer though, because trying to remember whether to do a triple-swipe up/down or left/right isn't exactly an intuitive mapping between actions and results. I really wish that VNC clients like iTap, iTeleport, and LogMeIn Ignition would all add a small, simple floating help button (it wouldn't take up much screen space) to provide instant access to an on-screen reference from in-app. All these apps require some degree of leaving the session to hunt around for gesture references -- and all of them would benefit from providing an easier way to view that information.

iTap's support for a hardware keyboard is, unfortunately, a bit buggy. At times instead of displaying the onscreen keyboard (like other VNC apps, iTap requires the onscreen keyboard to open before you can use the hardware keyboard), iTap would show a big black rectangle where a software keyboard would normally appear. There were also redrawing glitches when hiding the onscreen keyboard after use.

The in-application documentation was dire. They need someone to clean it up, reorganize it, and make it easier to find the bits you're looking for. For example, I'd have personally moved the keyboard shortcut reference right to the top of the docs, because that's what I kept having to hunt for until I got my on-computer cheat sheet written.

On the positive side, I really liked iTap's secondary onscreen keyboard. This second screen offered access to standard function keys, arrow buttons, a numeric keyboard, and other helpful items like the special Windows key. Their hold-to-magnify option is simply brilliant, especially when used on a large zoomed-out display. Another excellent feature, which is easy to overlook, is iTap's automatic optimization for low-bandwidth 3G and EDGE connections.

iTap would definitely benefit from partnering with a remote access service. Their otherwise solid product might get overlooked by any customer looking for the all-encompassing remote-iPad-back-to-my-computer solution that is currently offered by LogMeIn Ignition and iTeleport.

The final application I tested was the extremely basic (and free) Mocha VNC Lite client. Although limited in functionality, I found that it did a decent job in terms of local VNC access. I did not, unfortunately, get a chance to test out the $5.99 full application. Like iTap VNC, Mocha provides a simple client without service integration and is best used for checking in with a computer screen from across the house or while sitting out on the porch. You can't beat the price for basic use. I did not personally encounter many of the stability issues mentioned in the iTunes reviews page but at the same time I only gave Mocha a cursory once-over.

All things considered, it's great to see this many VNC clients available for a platform that just launched a month ago. If you have any success or horror stories regarding VNC connectivity to Macs, PCs, and servers, leave us a comment.