Chrome Remote Desktop lets you take control of a computer on the other side of town—or the other side of the world. This software tool works through the Chrome browser, and it’s OS-agnostic, so you can control a Mac with a PC or a Linux computer with an iPhone.
In this post, we’ll look at what you can do with it, why you’d want to, and how to set it up.
What can you do with Chrome Remote Desktop?
Chrome Remote Desktop lets you take over another computer remotely. Essentially, you’re using one device as the input and display for another device.
You can use it to remotely access your own computer or someone else’s, or to allow someone else to remotely access yours.
With that, you can do things like access files on the other computer, use its apps via your device, or access your home computer from work and vice versa.
What devices can you use?
You can use a desktop, laptop, or mobile device.
- Desktop/laptops: Windows, Mac, Chrome OS, and Linux
- Mobile devices: iOS and Android
If you want to use a mobile device you’ll need to use the Chrome Remote Desktop app. Desktop and laptop users should use the Chrome Remote Desktop web app.
Why would you want to use Chrome Remote Desktop?
CRD is a versatile tool, and there are dozens more possible use cases than I mentioned above. But here are a few more of the most common:
Some people use Chrome Remote Desktop for on-the-fly tech support for relatives or co-workers. Others build entire businesses around providing tech support or IT departments that offer in-house support to team members. When you can’t figure out why Skype doesn’t work or why you can’t print that PDF, you can let someone else take the wheel.
Even now that lots of businesses rely on cloud-based productivity systems like G Suite and Office 365, it’s easy to leave a file behind. As cloud-based productivity has increased, so have nonlocal work patterns: some work at home, some in the office, some at the coffee shop. And the tools many designers use are desktop-based. If you left the final draft of that .psd file on your home rig, Remote Desktop could save your bacon.
“Internet connections vary” is the understatement of the century. If you’re working from home on a huge file you need to download to view, you might be wishing you still had access to the Gigabit broadband your office just installed. With CRD, you can download the file to your work machine and view it on your remote device.
CRD lets you access Mac OSX or Windows from any device. And sometimes you need the functionality that only comes with a certain OS. Whether it’s because that’s what everyone else in the office is using or because that OS supports the only tool for the job, you can use CRD to access it without installing emulator software or traveling across town.
How to use Chrome Remote Desktop
You will need:
- A Google account
- Chrome browser on both computers
- About ten minutes to set it up the first time. (After that, it takes less than a minute: you just open the app, enter a code, and you’re in.)
Here’s how to go about it:
First, open the Chrome user profile you want to work from. Then, open Chrome Remote Desktop here: https://remotedesktop.google.com/
The setup process is the same for Mac and Windows. Here it is for two key functions: remote access (access your own computers) and remote support (provide someone else one-off access to yours).
(Scroll down for special instructions on setting up Linux and Chromebook.)
How to set up remote access
On the computer you want to access remotely, go to the Remote Access tab. Then download the application:
This opens the Chrome Web Store page for the Chrome Remote Desktop extension. (Always make sure you’re downloading the one marked with the developed-by-Google “G,” not some third-party lookalike!)
Once the extension is installed, select it from the extensions bar to download and set up the app. (We did this on a Mac, so the download was a 44MB .dmg file. On Windows, it would be a Windows Installer Package file.)
Click the download button on the web page that opened when you clicked the extension. And don’t close the page: it’s the wizard for the early stages of installing the app.
After a certain amount of unzipping .pkgs and verification, the actual installer opens on desktop. For us, this was a standard no-frills Mac installer that offered the choice to alter installation location and then installed to the hard disk, all in about three minutes. You’ll need your computer’s administrator password to install this. (On Windows, you’ll need to Run as Administrator.)
Once it’s installed, go back to the web page to choose a name for your computer:
Then you’ll need to choose a PIN of at least six numbers. This will be the code that provides another machine access your computer.
Chrome will offer to save this as a password. That’s the final stage: now you’ll see your device as “online” in the CRD web portal.
So far, so good.
Now, you need to install CRD on the computer or device you’re controlling from.
Suppose it’s a mobile device this time. We’re going to connect an Android phone to CRD, then use it to remote-manage our Mac. To do that, download the CRD app to your phone from the Play Store.
Then you’ll see your computer’s desktop display on your phone screen:
At first, it’s not totally intuitive. You can’t just use it the way you’d use a normal mobile display. Instead, you have to move the mouse pointer with the touchscreen and mouse over things to select them. The touchscreen gestures take a little getting used to—more on those in a minute.
But you do have direct, complete access. You can open new applications and see anything on your phone that you can on your desktop.
Leaving aside cosmetic differences in the appearance of the app, the functionality is the same across all operating systems: your computers appear in a list, you select one, enter the PIN you created, and you have access.
(If you wanted to do this from an iPhone, install Chrome Remote Desktop from the App Store and sign in. You should see your other devices in your My Computers list.)
How to set up remote support
Remote support assumes that you don’t want a permanent connection with the other person’s computer. Both of you need to have CRD installed, but beyond that the process is quicker.
If you want to get remote support, click that option and you’re given an autogenerated code that expires in five minutes:
If you want to give remote support, ask the other person for that code, select the Give Support option, enter the code, and you’ll have access to the other person’s computer.
(CRD control isn’t either-or. If you have access to my computer, I’m not locked out. I can still type, control windows, and click on things at the same time.)
How to use Chrome Remote Desktop on a mobile device
Here are those gestures for controlling a desktop computer remotely from a mobile device:
- Scroll up and down: Swipe with two fingers
- Click and drag: Drag with a finger
- Zoom: Pinch and stretch with two fingers
- Show keyboard: Swipe up with two fingers
- Show toolbar: Swipe down with three fingers
- Move the mouse: Swipe anywhere on screen (trackpad mode only in iOS*)
- Left-click: Tap screen
- Right-click: Tap screen with two fingers (trackpad mode only in iOS)
- Middle-click: Tap with three fingers (trackpad mode only in iOS)
*If you don’t have trackpad mode enabled, you can swipe down with three fingers to call up a menu bar that offers the keyboard, the mouse functions, and the toolbar.
How to install Chrome Remote Desktop on other devices
Last but not least, instructions for our Linux and Chromebook users.
First, download and install the CRD application as above.
Then, install the Chrome Remote Desktop Debian package: https://dl.google.com/linux/direct/chrome-remote-desktop_current_amd64.deb
Next, create a virtual desktop session, following these four steps. (If you have Ubuntu 12.04, skip to Step 4.)
- Look in /usr/share/xsessions/ for the .desktop file for your desktop environment. It’s usually named after the environment—Cinnamon uses a file called cinnamon.desktop, for instance.
- Create a file called .chrome-remote-desktop-session in your home directory, with this content: exec /usr/sbin/lightdm-session “<YOUR_EXEC_COMMAND>”
- Replace <YOUR_EXEC_COMMAND> with the command at the end of your .desktop file. In Cinnamon, for instance, this is: exec /usr/sbin/lightdm-session ‘gnome-session –session=cinnamon’. If you’re using a Unity desktop, you’ll need some additional code. This is the command you should use: DESKTOP_SESSION=ubuntu XDG_CURRENT_DESKTOP=Unity XDG_RUNTIME_DIR=/run/user/$(id -u) exec /usr/sbin/lightdm-session ‘gnome-session –session=ubuntu’
- Save the file called .chrome-remote-desktop-session
Allow remote connections on your Linux machine by following these steps:
- Open Chrome on your Linux machine.
- Type chrome://apps in the omnibar.
- Select Chrome Remote Desktop from your Chrome apps.
- Go to My Computers, then select Get Started.
- Select Enable Remote Connections.
- Enter a PIN, retype it, and click OK.
- Dismiss the information dialog.
Log into Chrome, find the Chrome Remote Desktop web app in the Chrome Web Store, and launch it. You’ll do the same Chrome extension install as you would on a Mac or Windows desktop, but then you’re finished—there’s nothing else to install.
Before jumping in, you should know…
Chrome Remote Desktop sounds like a great tool, and it is. But there are a few caveats you need to be aware of.
Everyone involved needs to have Chrome and a Google account. And every computer in the equation needs to have CRD installed. You can’t control a computer remotely if it doesn’t already have the CRD app.
In terms of potential problems, there are reports of issues installing Chrome Remote Desktop on Chromebooks and not a lot of Google documentation to help you. If you have a G Suite account, you’ll probably have better luck getting someone at Google to give you a hand, but otherwise, you can wind up in loops. There have also been reports this year of the Chromebook version not letting users add new computers.
What about functions CRD doesn’t support?
There’s no chat capability, so you’ll need to take your chatting elsewhere: a Google Doc, text messaging, or Hangouts, for example.
You can’t copy files to or from remote computers. And you can’t send remote files to a local printer. You can retrieve files—by either emailing them to yourself or uploading them to the cloud—and work on them remotely. But you can’t treat two devices as one environment spread across two pieces of hardware.
Finally, on desktop, the use of custom keyboard shortcuts is limited. You’ll be using the mouse a lot.