During a recent family visit to Florida, I discovered that I'd left behind the photos of my infant niece that I'd promised to share with my parents. They were on the hard drive of my new PC, far from any cloud service.

That was mistake No. 1. Mistake No. 2 was not having installed a remote desktop app on my computer. Doing so would have allowed me to pull those images up on a laptop or tablet.

Once the lofty domain of IT administrators, long-range control of a PC can now be enjoyed by anyone, on any device, anywhere with Internet access. (I should add, free of charge, too.) If there's no WiFi where you are, you can also connect via cell phone service, though keep in mind that that's a quick way to pile up data plan charges.

TeamViewer Is the Top Choice

If you look around, there are numerous ways to get remote access to your computer. If you're a Mac user, for example, you can buy Apple Remote Desktop for $80. If you're a Windows user, you don't have to buy the software. In fact, you don't even have to download it. You can simply activate Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) on your home server, though that requires some network savvy.

In my opinion, you're better off choosing a third-party option called TeamViewer. It rates among the most popular remote desktop apps for good reason.

It's compatible with Windows, Mac, Linux, Chrome OS, Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and even BlackBerry devices. And, while it's essentially designed for business use, there's a free version—available for personal use only—that pretty much provides every feature you need.

You can transfer files, start chats, communicate with your contacts using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), and even restart the host machine if, for some reason, you want to install new software while you’re away from home.

You can remotely access peripheral devices as well, which means you can print out instructions for the cat sitter from an airport terminal in Thailand.

The setup is simple, too. Just download the software from an app store or the TeamViewer website. You'll need to have the system administrator password for your computer handy to install it, but after that, friends and family members can use the service as well.

TeamViewer generates a random user ID and password for you. But, if you don't want to risk forgetting that info when you're on the road, you can create an easy-to-recall username and password by selecting Unattended Access in the Connection menu at the top of the TeamViewer screen. You can also arrange to have TeamViewer launch when you start your PC, so you don't have to remember to turn it on.

Start to finish, it took me around 20 minutes to get my PC’s desktop streaming to my iPad. A short time later, I was seated with that iPad at a nearby café, firing up programs housed on the iMac in my office.

A Word of Caution

In the last few weeks, TeamViewer users have reported incidents in which devices were breached by cyber criminals who used the remote access to steal money from bank and PayPal accounts. In a letter following the attacks, the company stated that it has found "no evidence that there has been a data breach at TeamViewer." It pointed instead to user passwords that had surfaced online following hacks to services such as LinkedIn and MySpace. The company promptly released security updates requiring users to identify the devices they use with TeamViewer.

To prevent such attacks, the service also supports two-factor authentication, which requires users to insert a code sent directly to a personal email address or smartphone to complete the log-in process.

Bottom line: If you decide to give TeamViewer a try, be sure to create a strong password. And then, just to be safe, go one step further and put that two-factor identification to use.

Copyright © 2005-2016 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.