Some people think the idea of controlling another computer through an iPad is a ridiculous idea—why wouldn't you just get a laptop and then it's not even an issue. I can see the argument that using the Apple tablet to spend an extensive amount of time dealing with a remote computer's interface would be challenging, but I can think of a few reasons you'd want the capability. You might forget to email yourself a document on your desktop hard drive that you want to read or work on using the iPad, or you might want to play a PC-only game that doesn't rely on split-second fragging (hypothetically speaking, of course).
There are a few apps that make it possible to connect to a Mac or a Windows- or Linux-based PC, falling into two camps. Some are able to use Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), such as Professional versions of Windows 7, while others need to use Virtual Network Computing (VNC). My fellow ZDNet blogger Jason Perlow has discussed one RDP solution here, but since my primary computer runs Windows 7 Home Premium, I needed to go the VNC route.
I had heard about Desktop Connect on a few other sites, and paid the $11.99 "introductory" price to download it to my iPad. It uses RDP natively, but can also work with VNC servers. I haven't tried it on our iMac yet, but the documentation the app delivers is a lot more extensive for Apple computers than Windows systems. For Windows PCs, it only tells you that you need to download a VNC server, saying that TightVNC had been tested and works with Desktop Connect. So I dutifully downloaded TightVNC on my PC, ran it, and then ran Desktop Connect on the iPad. It's clear enough that you need to add a new host, but you then are presented with fields asking for a Computer Name and Authentication. What it should tell you is that you need the PC's IP address and the password that you create when you set up TightVNC. Sure, most people who will want to download these types of programs are tech-savvy enough to figure it out, but how hard would it be to provide some contextual help or write a paragraph or two for the instructions documentation?
Once you fill in the correct info, make sure the VNC server is running, and press the big green on-screen arrow, you should see your desktop screen. You can run programs like Photoshop or Microsoft Word (see screens below), or even surf the Web for those few sites (cough, cough) that still use Flash. There are some icons at the top of the screen that let you access the virtual keyboard to type on your PC, use some virtual Function keys, or choose whether your finger tap controls the mouse's left or right button. I found using the touchscreen a bit trying to maneuver, as I often moved whatever window I wanted to view trying to get the app's pointer in position to click on something.
I also encountered some dropped connections and balky screen refreshes, neither of which came as a surprise but were still mildly annoying. On the whole, though, the app delivered what I had hoped: the ability to access the computer tethered to a desk wherever in the house I went with my iPad. Will pricier competitors work better than Desktop Connect? I don't know and I'm not in such great need that I'm going to pay to find out. I may at some point try a cheaper app if there are any that elicit raves. But if you see a need to access one of your computers via the iPad, it's good to know that that need can be met satisfactorily.