Apple has made it very clear that it intends to keep a very tight rein on just what software you can run on your iPad. But if it runs on Windows or Mac OS X, you can get it–sort of–on the iPad.
The key is LogMeIn Ignition, a $30 app that brings full-featured remote desktop access to the iPad. Ignition has been available for the iPhone since last year, but the small screen size made it not much more practical that running the Windows Remote Desktop client that’s built into Windows Mobile phones. The iPad’s big screen makes a huge difference, in short, the difference between practical and unusable.
To use Ignition you first need to install the LogMeIn service on any Mac or windows PC that you want to control. The Pro version costs $50 a year for up to five computers, but if you only plan to use it with Ignition, you might as well stick with a free account because advanced features of Pro, such as file transfer and remote printing, won’t do you any good with an iPad.
When you fire up the Ignition app, you first log in to the LogMeIn service and then to the computer you want to control. The target computer must be powered up and have the operating system loaded, but no user need be logged in. You can skip the second step by remembering the credentials, but I don’t recommend it. Once in, a remote user has the same rights as someone sitting at the keyboard, so the security of requiring a second login is worth the little bit of extra trouble.
Within seconds, the whatever appears on the screen of the target computer is duplicated on the iPad. Depending on the resolution of the computer display, text may or may not be readable on the iPad, but you can easily stretch and shrink the image and pad it around as needed with the usual iPad gestures. Wide-screen displays are letterboxed to fit the iPad’s 4:3 aspect ratio.
Actually working on the remote computer takes a little getting used to. The biggest challenge is navigation. Your computer wants a mouse and the iPad doesn’t have one. Instead, you have a choice of using your finger to move the mouse cursor around the screen or dragging the screen image under the cursor. I found myself switching back and forth between these modes without a clear preference. Then you tap to activate; a two-finger tap gives you a right mouse click. This is all a little unnatural on an iPad. I had hoped that using a touch-equipped ThinkPad T400s would let me simulate windows 7’s touch features with taps on the iPad screen, but it’s no go. LogMeIn only recognizes mouse and keyboard control. You also have to get used to the fact that screen dragging works as though you had scroll bars–a flick to the right moves the screen to the left.
Screen refresh rates are low, which can be an issue with some uses. Yes, this is a way to run Flash on your iPad, and it works fine for relatively static Flash Web pages or Adobe Air apps such as TweetDeck. But don’t even think about Flash video. You’re going to see one frame per second at best and there’s no audio.
With these limitations in mind, Ignition can be a very handy tool. One of the most obvious uses is for remote administration of servers, something for which I have long used the desktop version of LogMeIn. You can also run most desktop apps with relative ease.