VPN Vs. Remote Desktop: What Is A Better Option And When?

Remote work has brought technologies to the forefront that were background noise for most people and that only tech geeks used and really understood what they were and did. 

A couple of such technologies must be VPN and Remote Desktop. I find that most people still don’t understand what they really are or do but use them because their company said they needed to. 

To clear some confusion between VPNs and RDPs, let’s see what each of them is and does and what is a better choice. Here’s the quick answer if you’re in a rush:

VPNs let you access the internet via remote servers and give you the best privacy and security in personal and business environments. Remote Desktop, on the other hand, lets you access remote computers and use them as you would if you were using them directly.  

What is Remote Desktop or RDP?

Remote Desktop Protocol, or RDP, was developed by Microsoft and, simply put, lets you connect to another computer via a network connection. 

It’s generally used by IT tech support to take over the client’s computer in order to fix an issue or update the computer, etc. It’s cost-effective and eco-friendly as the technician doesn’t have to physically come over to the client anymore.

With the rise of work from home, tech support aren’t the only ones using the functionality. Regular office workers can tap into the processing power of a remote computer, network databases and resources, as well as software applications that don’t have to be installed on their, often subpar, computer. 

Your mid-range laptop can utilize the power of your company’s much more powerful machine and run very processor-hungry applications from, potentially, thousands of miles away.  

Literally, every version of Microsoft Windows from Windows XP onward contains RDP for easy connectivity. But, RDP is the name of a distinct remote desktop access system developed by Microsoft and built into Windows. 

There are however many other remote desktop programs available and personal and business users aren’t tied exclusively to just that one.

READ NEXT: 20 Reasons Why Your Husband Uses A VPN 

What is a Virtual Private Network or VPN?

The history of VPNs dates back to 1996 when a Microsoft employee developed peer-to-peer tunneling protocol (PPTP), a predecessor to VPNs. 

A VPN is, just like Remote Desktop, utilized by companies and personal users. It’s used to access the internet via remote servers for added privacy and security, among other benefits.

By connecting to the internet via a VPN, all your internet traffic is encrypted and sent to the VPN server, instead of to your ISP directly. That way, your internet service provider can’t track what you’re doing as your real IP address is masked and only the remote server’s address is on display.

If you work from home, a coffee shop, or a hotel, for instance, you can rest assured that your connection is truly private and all the information is encrypted, rendering it useless even if someone were to breach your connection. 

It’s the ultimate security solution if you’re accessing the internet over public WiFi or you’re simply concerned about your privacy. It’s easy to use and inexpensive, especially when you opt for an annual or multi-year contract.

READ ALSO: The 6 Ways To Hide Internet Activity From Employers (A Complete Guide)

VPN Vs. Remote Desktop Similarities

Although inherently different, RDP and VPN have some similarities. Let’s go through each of them briefly.

1. Ease of Use

After the initial adjustment period, which is standard for every new application, both RDP and VPN are fairly simple to use, especially if you enable the helpful auto-connect feature for VPN. By enabling it, you won’t even know that you’re running a VPN in the background. 

Granted, a VPN might slow down your internet connection a little bit, but it might also increase it in some cases. 

With RDP, you get used to browsing the remote computer pretty quickly, especially if you’re accessing your own device that you’re using regularly. In that case, you should know it like the back of your palm.

2. Security

Although VPN has an upper hand when it comes to security, Remote Desktop also offers a secure connection when accessing remote devices. It also funnels very little data compared to VPNs and no data is stored on the end-user device.

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VPN Vs. Remote Desktop Differences

Now that we’ve seen some similarities, let’s see what are the differences between VPNs and RDPs. 

1. Cost

Remote Desktop from Microsoft is free and ready to use at a moment’s notice. If you have Windows installed, of course. No wonder it’s such a widely used feature across the business world. 

There is a caveat though, as Microsoft’s RDP is only included in Pro, Business, or Ultimate versions of Windows.

VPNs, on the other hand, can also be free but getting a free VPN is generally not recommended as they have a rather long history of selling client data to advertisers and other third parties. After all, if a product is free, that means you are the product!

Paid VPNs are generally in the 9-12 dollar range if you opt for a monthly subscription. If you go for an annual or multi-year contract, a VPN could cost you as little as $2 per month. 

2. Flexibility

Arguably the main difference between Remote Desktop and Virtual Private Network is that with RDP you take control of the whole device that you’re connected to. That means all the files, resources, apps, computing power, etc. 

You don’t have to transfer your files to other devices as they are readily available in just a few clicks. 

With VPN, you don’t connect to a different device, just a remote server that gives you a new IP address and that’s it. You still use all the same files, dashboard, OS, etc. 

The difference is that you’re more secure as your changed IP address gives you privacy and no one knows your real location or what you’re doing online.

All that someone else can see is that you’re using a VPN, nothing else. And even that can be hidden as well with obfuscated servers that confuse ISPs into thinking you’re just another internet user without a VPN.  

RELATED: Why Do VPNs Cost Money (Explained)

3. Bandwidth

The two options couldn’t be any more different in regards to the bandwidth that’s passing through the connection. While a VPN passes significant amounts of data through its tunnel, RDP only transmits screen images, keystrokes, and mouse clicks across the connection, and that considerably reduces bandwidth requirements.

4. Access

This is where Remote Desktop really shines as it gives you access to all the functionalities and files of the computer you’re accessing. If it’s a supercomputer you’re connecting to, you get all the abilities and processing power of that powerhouse.

With VPN, you’re always using the same device as you’re only connecting to a remote server and not a remote computer. You still get to access files and data on a remote device, you just can’t use any of its functionalities such as computing power.   

What is a Better Choice, VPN or Remote Desktop? 

Both VPNs and RDPs have their place in personal and business use. As they’re fairly easy to use and are widely available at low or no cost, they are used by millions of people worldwide in day-to-day operations. 

The choice is simple. If you need to access not only the files on a remote device but also its capabilities, Remote Desktop is a better choice for you. 

On the other hand, if you need a secure and private connection and access to the internet and data on a remote device, a VPN connection will give you that, and more. 

You’ll be able to mask your IP address so you appear you’re in a different country (handy for streaming content), bypass censorship, and have an encrypted connection if you value your privacy or often connect to public WiFi. 

READ ALSO: The 8 Advantages And 5 Disadvantages of a VPN (A Complete Guide)

Do You Need a VPN for Remote Desktop? 

You can use Remote Desktop and still be safe enough when accessing a remote device. Some RDP versions did have issues and they were exposed to a man-in-the-middle attack if left in default settings.  

However, when any of the vulnerabilities came to light, Microsoft was quick to push out an update and thus closing the leaks. There are also many non-Microsoft versions of RDP clients and servers so you have to do your due diligence if you’re going down that route. 

To conclude, in general, you don’t need a VPN when using Remote Desktop as the connection should be secure enough. If you do opt for a VPN as well, the configuration might prove to be tricky and you should seek professional help if you aren’t versed well enough.  

What is Faster, Remote Desktop or VPN?

When you consider what the Remote Desktop has to do (give you complete access to a remote computer), it’s no wonder that it will be inherently slower than a VPN connection.

Although the bandwidth is much lower in the case of Remote Desktop and the data exchanged is far and between, it’s best to connect to a device that’s fairly close by and not in a different country, for instance. 

On the other hand, if you connect to a remote server with a VPN, your internet connection could also be lagging as there are heaps of data packets that have to go back and forth.

READ NEXT: VPN Vs. Firewall (Explained For Beginners)

Conclusion

For personal users that want heightened security and privacy, as well as the ability to bypass internet censorship and geo-restrictions, a VPN is a great choice in almost all use cases. 

Businesses around the world have come to rely on VPNs to make their working environment safer in day-to-day operations. 

They have also found Remote Desktop to be extremely useful for accessing remote devices and all their files, data, and capabilities. IT technicians aren’t the only ones using this software anymore and if you get the chance, try it out yourself. 

For maximum safety and usability, the best option is to use both a VPN and Remote Desktop. That way, any third party trying to access your device or data, will stand almost no chance. 

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