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How to Remotely Connect to Windows PCs

If you have a shiny, new Intel Mac, there are all kinds of ways to run Windows while keeping the friendly environs of OS X close at hand. However, there are times when you may need to hop back and forth between the two systems and you have a non-Intel Mac or your Windows PC is in a separate box (and possibly in a different part of town). Microsoft has a very slick (and free) solution that isn’t very well known: Microsoft Remote Desktop for OS X. Just like the Windows-to-Windows version, you can connect to a Windows PC and have the desktop pop right up on your pre-Intel Mac.

There are a few caveats we’ll need to toss out first. This tutorial will assume that you’re reasonably familiar with some of the ins and outs of networking and IP addresses. Also, if you’re planning to connect with or from a computer at work, you will probably need to coordinate your efforts with the IT department. (Why do we have this feeling that two thirds of you just clicked the Back button on your browser?) Most organizations of any size have policies about using Remote Desktop connections because of the security issues it raises. Another thing is that the PC will need either a static (permanent) IP address, or at least one that doesn’t change frequently. You’ll also note that in some of the screen shots we’re using, you’ll see the some names and numbers amateurishly blacked-out and replaced with cheap imitations. This will help us preserve our privacy.

  1. First, we’ll need to gather some numbers and try to find out if this exercise is even worth the effort. On your PC, click the Start menu and select Accessories and then Command Prompt. The DOS-like Windows version of Terminal will appear. At the prompt, type:

    ipconfig /all

    The results will look something like this:

    Click here for a larger version of this screen shot.

  2. Now, you need to open up the System Properties window on your PC. If you have the My Computer icon on your desktop, right-click on it and select Properties. Otherwise, My Computer may be hiding in your Start menu, so just right-click on it there. Then, select the Computer Name tab and take a look at the information there. If the screen shows Domain instead of workgroup, you’ll need to write down the Full Computer Name and the name of the domain (exactly as they appear). If the screen only shows Workgroup then the information from this window won’t be of any real use. In most cases, the IP address from Step 1 will be your best bet and should work even if your computer is part of a domain.

  3. Next, you’ll need to click on the Remote tab and check the box that says Allow users to connect remotely to this computer. As long as it has a password, the account you’re currently logged into will be added by default. At this point, you can log off your PC, but don’t turn it off.

  4. If the PC is on your home network and behind a router, you will probably have a "private" IP address that begins with "192.168" or "172" to connect to it from a Mac at work. In this case, you’ll probably need to set up what is called "port forwarding" or "port mapping." This will redirect Remote Desktop requests from the outside world to your local PC. You’ll need to redirect port 3389 (Windows Remote Desktop’s default) to your local PC’s IP address. A great little web site, coincidentally named "" has instructions for most home routers.

    If your PC is at work and has one of the above private addresses, you’ll almost certainly need to get one of the company’s network gurus to help you set things up.

    Click here for a larger version of this image.

  5. Now, go back to your Mac and download the client software from Microsoft ( It arrives as a Disk Image (DMG) file, so just drag the program it holds to your Applications folder. There’s no installer to run.

  6. Even though we don’t yet know if or how well things will work, this is a good time to click the Options triangle to open the tabs to open the basic settings. This will open in the General tab.

  7. Let's click on the "Performance" tab first and work our way back. This tab sets up a range of options to optimize the program’s performance based on your connection speed. In Microsoft’s anachronistic way, the dropdown menu defaults to “56 kbps modem”. If your PC is on the same local area network, select LAN. If you’re connecting over a broadband Internet connection, select that option. If you’re actually trying to do this over a modem, we admire your patience. The Custom setting allows you to change the graphics options you see at the bottom of the screen. The simpler the rendering of the PC’s desktop graphics, the more responsive the remote connection will feel.

  8. The Local Resources and Programs tabs are pretty much self-explanatory. Programs will let you automatically run an application on the PC each time you log in. Local Access controls access to local (to the Mac) drives and printers.

    The Display tab is fairly important. The PC will resize its desktop (and rearrange all your desktop icons) if the Remote Desktop window on the Mac is set smaller than the PC. So, for example, if your PC display is set for 1024x768, you should use the same setting here. We’ve been using the “Thousands” setting for color. It improves performance a bit, but allows us to keep the XP look and feel.

  9. Finally we head back to the General tab. This is where you enter the IP address of the remote PC (or the computer and domain name), enter your login name and, optionally, preserve your password in the Mac’s Keychain. Most importantly, this tab lets you save your settings for reuse. The program is supposed to automatically recall the settings you last used, but in our experience, it doesn’t do a very reliable job of it.

    At this point, it’s a good idea to save your settings. Then, cross your fingers and press the Connect button.

If everything worked, you should see the login screen on the PC and, if you elected to save your password, the PC desktop. If it doesn’t work, you’ve got a bit of troubleshooting to do. If you’re fairly comfortable with your PC knowledge and skills, try taking a look at this page from a site put together by some experts from Most Valuable Professional (MVP) program. (

On one of our test systems, we ran into the bug outlined in Microsoft’s KnowledgeBase article #898713. ( This is a situation where the PC almost instantly closes the connection. If this is the case, you’ll either need the saintly patience to call Microsoft for the “hotfix” mentioned, or the skill and daring to perform the registry edit the article outlines.

When you’re connected to the PC, its local keyboard will be locked and the desktop hidden. Your Mac drives should appear as local drives in the PC’s My Computer window, allowing you to easily transfer files. And, of course, you can run any of the programs installed on your PC.

If you can get Remote Desktop to work (and that can be a big "if"), it’s a really slick capability. As a dedicated Mac user, you’ll probably agree that the best place for Windows is in a window on your OS X desktop.

Meet Your Macinstructor

Ric Getter is a frequent contributor to MacDirectory. He started out working in media in the early 70's when nothing could out-gun a motor drive Nikon and a bandolier of Tri-X film. Life in Silicon Valley paid off in early 1984 when a Mac 128 landed on his desk and he's been in love with the platform from that day on. He has since retreated to Portland, Oregon with his Mac-loving wife where he writes about computers, works in education technology and still obstinately refuses to completely leave the television business.


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