When Microsoft announced last month the availability of Server 2012 R2 and Windows 8.1 (among other things), one item that I overlooked was the release of Microsoft’s own RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) app for iOS and Android devices. As someone who spends a lot of time working on different devices and different computers and servers, a dependable RDP app is a must have for any device I’m using. My two primary devices are an HP laptop and a Microsoft Surface Pro. Both of those are running Windows 8 and have the RDP client installed natively, but sometimes I find myself, like lots of other business people I know, holding an iPad. As an iPad user for the past several years, I’ve struggled to find an RDP app that didn’t frustrate me.
RDP apps allow you to remote in to a server or PC using Microsoft’s remote desktop protocol. For organizations that have TS or RDS servers deployed (Terminal Services or Remote Desktop Services—the terms are used interchangeably), there are great advantages for both the IT staff as well as end users. In general, network admins find it easier to support users and their applications via TS/RDS sessions, and users aren’t as dependent on their local machines, so things are simplified for them. All they need to connect is a working network connection, and they can run their applications on the server. One reason I like to use RDP on my iPad is that I don’t have to worry about my kids messing with my work email or files when they are using the iPad. Rather than setting up my email on the iPad, I log in to one of ABC’s TS servers and check it. I can also run programs that don’t have an app in the iOS app store through TS, and best of all, when I’m finished, I simply log off and there is no corporate data left behind on my iPad…a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) solution, perhaps?
When I came across the Microsoft RDP app in the app store, I had high hopes. For anyone who spends a lot of time with an iPad, you already know what a powerful tool it is when running applications that are optimized for its touch interface. For those of you who don’t already own one, I will warn you that trying to use an iPad to run an application that isn’t optimized for its touch interface can be horribly frustrating. I had been using iTap Mobile as my RDP client, on which, coincidentally, Microsoft acquired and used to build their RDP app. The interface was OK but had lots of room for improvement.
I downloaded the RDP app from the iTunes store (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/microsoft-remote-desktop/id714464092) and hoped for the best. I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to use. Setting up a connection to ABC’s TS3 server was simple and straightforward.
I entered in the computer name and my credentials and was off to the races. The app is snappy and responsive and brought me to my TS3 desktop. I noticed the simple bar at the top of the screen that had the zoom button on the left side and the keyboard on the right.
Clicking the zoom button brings you in tight to the desktop and allows you to use your finger to slide around your desktop to get a better view.
From there, I launched Excel, which in my opinion is the app that is the most frustrating to use on a touch screen device. I brought up the virtual keyboard, which takes up just the right amount of screen real estate. I should disclose that I was using the app on my son’s iPad mini, which obviously has a smaller screen than a full-sized iPad.
They keyboard was sized appropriately and had Windows keys in the top row plus the expansion buttons on either side which bring up this portion of the virtual keyboard, complete with a number pad.
After I experimented with Excel for a bit, I switched to Outlook. From there, I experimented with the speech-to-text functionality. I created a new email manually (by clicking on the “new email” icon in the Outlook 2010 ribbon), addressed it to my manager, and pressed the microphone button on the keyboard. This brought up the following screen as the app was listening to my voice:
After speaking a few sentences complete with punctuation, I tapped the “Done” button and was surprised at how accurately my speech was recognized and converted into text in the body of the email.
This was a very positive experience for my first time using it; however, there were still a few difficult spots. Right-clicking with this app is still a pain, although much less of a pain than it was before. You accomplish a right-mouse click by tapping with two fingers instead of one, and it’s mostly accurate as long as you touch both fingers at precisely the same time. The other tricky part is moving the mouse pointer around the screen. There is an offset between where your fingers are on the iPad and where the mouse pointer is on screen, and it takes a while to get used to it. That being said, the offset is constant, and the movement of the mouse pointer is very fluid and easy. Those two difficulties are a necessary evil of any RDP app, and in my opinion, Microsoft’s RDP app does it better than any other.
It was at this point that I decided to give the app one more test, and that was to connect to ABC’s TS1 server, which is running Server 2012. Chris Bartelt is the guru in charge of ABC’s TS/RDS servers, and he does a great job with them. His latest creation takes the next step in blurring the line between tablets and PCs. Remote Desktop Services running on Server 2012 (or Server 2012R2 for you eager beavers/early adopters) makes this app and any other touch screen device connecting via RDP amazing. Since Server 2012 is built on the same bits as Windows 8, you log in to a familiar, and in my case boring, Start screen. *Mental note: Pin more apps to my Start screen.
You can tell almost immediately that this app has been optimized for running in this environment. The first thing I noticed is that the mouse pointer was gone and so was the annoying offset. I could click on whichever live tile I wanted, and the corresponding program would launch. I could also bring up the keyboard and with one click of the Windows key, start typing to find the program I was looking for—in this case, Microsoft Outlook.
The virtual keyboard is cleaner on the Server 2012 server and has fewer options/keys. This is because Server 2012 takes advantage of a lot of the touch interface optimization so you can do more via touch and less via the keyboard. I hadn’t logged in to TS1 since our mail migration last week, so I had to set up my Outlook profile.
I brought up the email I had started on TS3 and immediately noticed another small but important improvement. The Microsoft Office 2013 programs have settings to optimize the use of touch.
I then launched Excel to see what that was like, and it was almost indistinguishable from running Excel on my Microsoft Surface. I was able to navigate around a spreadsheet with no problems, clicking in and out of cells easily. Some of the more cumbersome tasks like selecting multiple cells were made much easier by the touch optimization. I would touch one cell, which would bring up the circles at opposite corners of the cell. From there, I could drag either corner as far as necessary in any direction, and that would allow me to select multiple cells. When I wanted to perform the dreaded “right mouse click,” all I had to do was hold my finger on the small circle, and all of the right mouse click options came to life.
Copy/paste was a breeze as well, along with all the advanced paste options.
If you are looking for a great RDP app for your iOS or Android device, you can’t do any better than Microsoft’s newly released Remote Desktop app. It minimizes the challenges of working on a touch device in a non-touch environment, and when you use it in a Server 2012 environment, your kids or spouse may never get the iPad out of your hands.
If you are interested in learning more about this app or TS/RDS servers, please contact me. I probably won’t know the answer, but I work with a bunch of really smart people who will. If you don’t have a TS/RDS server deployed in your current environment, don’t worry. My next post is going to tell you how you can deploy a safe, secure server in the cloud without spending a dime in your server room.