A Review of Desktop / Screen Sharing Software

Published 18 July 10 12:32 AM | Scott Mitchell
I work as an independent consultant and trainer. Most of my business involves me meeting with clients (in person or online), discussing their needs, and then building a new application or enhancing an existing one from my own desktop. However, a growing part of my business has been what I call "online consulting and training," which involves me using screen sharing software to remote into the client's computer. The client is seated at his computer and we are on the phone and during these meetings we'll either practice pair programming, hash out a particularly difficult block of code, or use the time as a one-on-one tutoring session. Some clients I meet with regularly (like 3 hours every week, say), while for others we meet when something comes up and they need a helping hand.

If you're interested in such online consulting or training, please drop me a line at mitchell@4guysfromrolla.com. You can find out more about my experience and rates at http://www.4guysfromrolla.com/ScottMitchell.

In any event, I spend a fair amount of time - 5-15 hours a week, usually - sharing my desktop or working from the client's desktop. During these sessions there's the same sort of activities you perform when developing ASP.NET applications at your workstation: typing in code, switching between Visual Studio, the browser, running queries from SQL Server Management Studio, and so forth. I've evaluated four different screen sharing programs and thought I'd share what I liked best about each and what I liked least. Keep in mind that my rankings are based on my typical usage when sharing screens. If you are doing something different - showing a PowerPoint presentation, for instance - your mileage may vary.

Here they are, from worst to first:

#4.) FogCreek Copilot
Copilot has a couple of really nice selling points when compared to the other three competitors:

  • It's the most affordable - starting at $244/year, or $24/month, Copilot is about half of what the other competitors charge. Plus you can buy a one-day pass for $5 during the week - on the weekends, it's free!
  • It's especially easy to start the meeting - unlike some of the other options, which involve first time users to download and install software prior to joining the meeting, Copilot is run from an executable that doesn't require any installation steps. Just download the file, double-click it, and you're off and running. This can be helpful when assisting a computer "challenged" friend or when working with someone in a corporate environment that prohibits them from installing software on their machine.

The big problem with Copilot is that it is slooooow. Switching from one full screen window to another can take a could one to three seconds. What's more, if you're not a slow typer you'll find that there is a noticeable lag when viewing a remote user's screen and typing into it. Type - wait a half-second - the letter appears. Type - wait a half-second - the letter appears. Needless to say, it can be quite frustrating to speedily type out a long line of code. I don't have the patience to type one character at a time, continuing only when the letter shows up. My clients, who are paying by the hour, wouldn't be satisfied with this approach either. So I end up typing a line of code and don't see the whole line complete until a couple of seconds after I finished typing. And if you transposed two letters or forgot a parenthesis you have to carefully (and slowly) move the cursor back to the right spot and then fix the mistake.

Another problem with Copilot is that you can't seamlessly switch control from one desktop to another. Say that I am viewing the client's remote computer and want to show them a diagram on my computer. It would be nice to be able to just click a button and have them see my screen, but that's not possible with Copilot. Also, Copilot only allows one-on-one screen sharing. You can't have a meeting with three (or more) attendees.

Copilot's ease of setup and low price point may make it attractive to people doing limited screen sharing or for those giving presentations or assisting a family member with a computer problem, but it is not a viable option for online consulting and training due, primarily, to its speed issues.

#3.) Adobe Connect Pro
Of all the desktop sharing products I evaluated, Adobe Connect Pro is certainly the easiest to get a meeting started. Adobe Connect Pro meetings are powered by Flash, which means if the participants have Flash installed on their computers (and, honestly, who doesn't these days?) then they can join the meeting. There's no software to download, nothing to install.

It seems that Adobe Connect Pro is more targeted to online meetings and eLearning scenarios than desktop sharing. While Adobe Connect Pro certainly allows the host (or a participant) to share their desktop with everyone else, it also has features like online quizzes, registration forms, and other features that would be useful for teaching an online class, but not at all needed for doing the type of online consulting and training that I do. And while I'm sure their online quizzes and other eLearning features are all top notch, I regret to report that their screen sharing is not - it suffers from the same speed issues found in Copilot. In short, there is a perceptible delay when typing on the remote user's computer; likewise with switching between windows on the remote computer.

Adobe Connect Pro is also the most expensive option out of the bunch. An annual plan will run you $540. By the month it's $55. Adobe offers a pay-per-use option, but that's $0.32 per minute per user, which can add up fast. While the two share similar speed problems, I decided to rank Adobe Connect Pro ahead of Copilot because it does offer more screen sharing features, like the ability to toggle between the host and participant's screens, and the ability to choose which monitor to share (if you have multiple monitors), and audio conferencing options. But for some these extra features might not be worth the added cost.

#2.) GoToMeeting
After using Copilot and Adobe Connect Pro, the first thing you notice about GoToMeeting is that there is no longer a delay when typing. Sure, there may be a hiccup every now and then when the network gets congested, but for the most part every time you type a letter from your keyboard, wham, it appears on the remote computer instantly. Also, switching between windows on the remote computer is noticeably faster than with Copilot or Adobe Connect Pro.

Unlike the previous two products, GoToMeeting requires a bit more of an installation process to join (or host) a meeting. It's all very nicely automated - you only need to click a few "I Agree"s and "Next" buttons - but these extra steps might trip up a computer novice. And the need to install software may be a deal breaker in certain corporate environments.

My biggest gripe with GoToMeeting is that the client swallows (or outright disallows) certain keyboard shortcuts when typing from the host computer into a remote computer. And it's not just any keyboard shortcuts that are not permitted, but two of the most popular ones: Alt+Tab and Ctrl+C. Say you're writing code and want to copy some block of text and paste it elsewhere. If you're at all like me, you instinctively use the keyboard to highlight the selected text and then use Ctrl+C to copy it to the clipboard. However, this combination does not copy anything to the clipboard. Consequently, when you later hit Ctrl+V, what was previously in the clipboard gets emitted! In order to copy to the clipboard you need to select the text and then, using your mouse, right-click it and choose Copy from the context menu. Similarly, Alt+Tab doesn't work. Alt+Tab, when typed from the host computer, tabs out of the GoToMeeting window and to a different window on your desktop. If you want to switch between windows on the remote computer you have to use your mouse and click the appropriate window from the taskbar.

GoToMeeting has all of the screen sharing bells and whistles. You can have up to 15 participants. Sharing one participant's screen with the group or sharing the host's screen is quite simple, too. There's a phone number participants can optionally call to join an audio conference, or the conferencing can be done over the Internet using the computer's speakers and microphone.

Price-wise, GoToMeeting falls in between CoPilot and Adobe Connect Pro. You can sign up for an annual plan for $468 or go monthly for $49.

#1.) Webex
Webex is a lot like GoToMeeting. Both have a similar download and install story. Both cost the same. Both have comparable performance (although Webex does seem a tad bit faster to me). And both offer pretty much the same feature set.

The differences between the two are, by most accounts, minor ones, although as one who prefers using the keyboard over the mouse, these differences are important. Namely, the Webex client doesn't swallow keyboard shortcuts. Alt+C and Alt+Tab work as expected when typing from my keyboard to the remote client's computer. That's not to say the Webex client is not without its own annoyances. In fact, there are two that irk me. First, when the remote user is made the presenter and shares his screen with me, a little command window with various options appears on the remote computer's desktop in the lower right corner. These options are only displayed on the remote computer's screen and not on my screen. However, if I have control of the remote client's computer and move my mouse to the lower right corner and click it, my clicks are intercepted by that command window (even though I don't see it). The problem goes away if the remote client remembers to minimize that command window. It would be nice to have an option that would hide that command window right away (or not have it intercept my clicks or show it to me, as well).

The second issue is that when I have control of the remote client's computer a little bubble follows my mouse cursor that says to the remote client and me, "Scott has control of your computer. Click here to take control back." This bubble is supposed to be beneath the mouse cursor and offset to the right, but every now and then the mouse cursor gets positioned over it and, wouldn't you know, when that happens any mouse click is intercepted by that bubble. It doesn't revert control back to the remote client, but it does "swallow" my mouse click. I have to "jiggle the mouse" to get it off that bubble so that I can click what I meant to click in the first place.


In Conclusion...
So there you have it, Webex is the winner. You don't have to take my word for it, though - each of these products offers a free trial so you can experiment with each and find which one best fits your workload.

For background, when I first started offering online consulting and training I used Copilot for several months, suffering through the speed issues. I incorrectly had presumed that all screen sharing products were going to have a little bit of lag. After one particularly frustrating day I decided to try GoToMeeting for giggles as they had a free 30 day trial. I was blown away by the difference in speed and immediately switched. The $25 extra each month was definitely worth it. Earlier this year, GoToMeeting updated their software to a new version where the Ctrl+C shortcut no longer worked. Their telephone support was helpful and was able to roll me back to the previous version so that I could continue to use the keyboard to copy and paste. A month ago (or so), they stopped supporting the old version of the software and upgraded me to the new version (which still did not support Ctrl+C). At that point I evaluated Adobe Connect Pro and then Webex, which is what I use today.

Happy (Remote) Programming!

In addition to evaluating these four products, I also tried Microsoft Live Meeting. Unfortunately, the client I attempted to evaluate this product with received error messages when attempting to download the software used by the meeting. This happened on two separate occasions, so I threw in the towel.

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