Review: Jump Desktop for iPad
A while back, I got fed up with Splashtop’s constantly deteriorating user experience, and went looking for a new remote PC app. Having such an app is paramount to me being able to use my iPad mini as a portable computer, as it allows me to control a full desktop computer from the iPad. I use it quite a lot as a teacher, as dealing with educational websites more or less demands a full PC OS. After a bit of searching, I ended up with Jump Desktop, and I have to say I’m glad I switched.
RDP vs VNC
Unlike Splashtop, Jump Desktop is a client app for stock remote desktop protocols, rather than being a proprietary solution. It supports both RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) and VNC (Virtual Network Computing), two protocols that have been around for ages. RDP is built into Windows, and doesn’t require any third party software, while VNC support can be achieved with any number of free apps on many platforms, including jailbroken iOS devices and Android devices.
On top of this, Jump Desktop offers a tool that will help bridge the gap between these protocols and the proprietary solutions out there, the latter of which tend to have much more reliable discovery systems. The tool will both set up RDP and VNC for you, and also allow you to use your Google account to help discover your computer over an internet connection, meaning you won’t have to deal with IPs, port forwarding, and so on. This has worked flawlessly for me, and that’s a requirement for me to use such an app at all; I need to be able to reach my computer any time I need to.
As for RDP and VNC, the two protocols differ quite a bit. RDP essentially logs you on as a remote user, kicking the local user off (meaning the computer you control gets locked/logged off), giving you the screen optimized for your device (meaning a single screen 1024 x 768 picture on the iPad mini), and applying certain interface changes (like deactivating Aero) to make it more usable over the remote connection.
VNC on the other hand is closer to Splashtop in functionality, and essentially mirrors your screen(s) to the remote control device, as well as allow for remote keyboard and mouse input. This means that the computer you control won’t be logged off, you can see what happens on it while controlling it, it doesn’t change the resolution or number of screens, and you see the device exactly as it would otherwise appear.
I quickly realized that VNC simply wasn’t an option for me. Remote controlling two 1080p monitors with a 768p iPad isn’t exactly the best experience, and unfortunately Jump Desktop doesn’t have any feature to change the resolution to fit the device. VNC in itself doesn’t have that capability, but since Jump Desktop has a helper tool, it would be perfectly possible to get it working anyways. In fact, when I asked them about it, they said that it’s on their to do list of things to do.
My issue with Splashtop, aside from the horribly treatment of customers, has always been lack of features rather than lack of speed or connection stability. That’s also why I started using Jump Desktop, as it solves a lot of the issues I had with Splashtop.
First and foremost, mouse support. If your iPad is jailbroken, and you use BTC Mouse & Trackpad (a jailbreak tweak) to get Bluetooth mouse support, the same tweak has a build in scenario for Jump Desktop, where it takes direct control over the mouse. You can read my full post on this here, but bottom line: Jump Desktop is the only/one of few (not sure which) remote computing app for the iPad that can handle a mouse like a mouse. I can’t emphasize enough what a difference this makes, and that feature alone would have made me stick with Jump Desktop, even if it lacked other things.
Luckily though, it doesn’t lack a whole lot. One issue I have with Splashtop is that it doesn’t handle Bluetooth keyboards in any way that can be considered logical, as it requires you to bring up the in-app keyboard in order to use the external keyboard. Both Jump Desktop and Splashtop operate with the stock iPad keyboard with some specialized computer buttons on top, but while Splashtop requires this to be activated to input text at all, Jump Desktop allows an external keyboard to input text regardless. Obviously that’s how it should worked, but sometimes “obvious” s apparently relative.
Unfortunately, Jump Desktop does fail in a related matter. If you use multiple languages, like me who’s Norwegian but type a lot in English, you will likely run into problems. My iPad have both US English and Norwegian keyboard enabled, my Bluetooth keyboard has a US layout, and my computer is set to Norwegian. In order for the English Bluetooth keyboard to work properly, both the iPad keyboard and the computer need to be set to English for it to work.
This is highly annoying, and I don’t quite understand why both devices need to be set to the correct language for it to work. Splashtop only requires the iPad language to be correct, which makes more sense. I think it has to do with Jump Desktop’s extended external keyboard support, which allows you to use various computer keyboard shortcuts. Unfortunately, if that’s the case, it’s actually the second issue I’ve found with that feature, as it also prevents the Bluetooth keyboard’s iOS-specific function keys to work.
One final issue I have with features is how RDP disconnects are handled. The RDP protocol is designed to lock out the current user when a remote user logs in, so that when you disconnect, you’re still locked out of the other computer until you enter your login details again. You can still log back in remotely with RDP, but not other services like Splashtop. This means that if you use RDP together with other services that need to contact software on your computer, you’re out of luck as using RDP will mean you’re locked out of those until you physically log back in on the computer.
Like I said, this is a “feature” with RDP, which is made by Microsoft, not Jump Desktop. It’s there for security reasons, but in typical Microsoft fashion, there’s no way to turn that feature off. For me, who has a computer that’s in a locked apartment all day, it’s a completely useless feature that serves no purpose other than to make RDP less usable. Luckily, there is a workaround, which I put in a separate article to keep things clean.
With that method, I just click the task bar icon I made to log off, which kicks Jump Desktop off and restores the local session. It works brilliantly, and should frankly be a feature in Jump Desktop itself. I have suggested it to them, and it turns out that no one has thought about it before- which I think is weird, since there’s a ton of talk about this issue for RDP in general online.
Speed and usability
First off, let’s get one thing straight:
Splashtop is much, much, much faster than Jump Desktop
No matter if you use RDP or VNC, Splashtop is faster. Much faster. Splashtop is fast enough to stream video and games on a local connection, and do it well enough that you will have absolutely no problems watching it. That is why I’ve been able to do things like this with Splashtop. It’s even fast enough that I’ve been able to do it on a fast internet connection, which is quite amazing.
I haven’t been able to get neither RDP nor VNC anywhere close to video-capable, not even on a local connection. Furthermore, Splashtop is more reliable on a slow connection, as it streams the image differently. When it comes to RDP, it seems to send every frame in the same compression format regardless of network quality, which means that on a slow network, you get perfect single frames of the remote computer, but at ridiculously low framerates (been down to about 0.5 FPS). Splashtop on the other hand works more like streaming video, in that it compresses the image more. You get a pixelated/blurry image, but at higher FPS.
The best way to properly explain this is to simply show you. The video below is a screencast I recorded a couple of weeks ago, while on the bus (hence the sounds), accessing the internet on my iPad via my phone working as a WiFi hotspot. In other words, far from the best connection, and so it works to show the difference between the two:
The speed thing is a limitation with RDP and VNC, and until Jump Desktop gets a proprietary protocol of its own, it’s unfortunately unavoidable.
However, I don’t think it really matters, at least not for me personally. I have a semi-decent WiFi connection whenever I use RDP, which means that speed isn’t really an issue. I don’t watch or play games remotely; I do things like use OpenOffice, heavy duty PDF editing apps (for things like Optical Character Recognition), and use the web browser to have access to Flash, Java, etc. For those things, on a decent WiFi connection, I never actually think much about the fact I’m remote controlling a computer, because everything is more than fast enough to keep up with what I’m doing. Coupled with storing everything in Dropbox, meaning that both devices have access to all files, it just becomes a natural thing to do to switch seamlessly between native iOS and Jump Desktop.
I know a lot of people are skeptical when it comes to using remote computer software instead of a full blown portable Windows machine. The thing is, the iPad mini is a 308 gram device that lasts for 10 hours on a charge, has a ton of (educational) software that you simply can’t get on Windows, and I can fit it and a ton of accessories into a bag whose only use for a laptop or Windows tablet user would be to store the charger. I only use Windows for things that I either can’t do on the iPad, or much more commonly, things that are easier with a desktop OS, mouse, and keyboard. The are advantages to both this setup and a native Windows setup, but to me, the advantages of a remote computer setup far, far outweighs those of having a native Windows device.
As an example, I often bring the keyboard and mouse to classes I teach. If the students are doing any individual/group work that doesn’t require me staring intently at them, I can take the time to do post files and messages on the school portal, or look at hand-ins as they come in- things that are easier with a desktop OS. If someone needs help, I just grab the iPad mini, leaving the mouse and keyboard behind. Then suddenly I have a notebook sized device that has the textbooks, tasks, keys, schedules, dictionaries, and everything and anything else I might ever need to answer questions on the spot. Rather than finding myself in a situation where my need for Windows at the desk has left me with an inferior device for moving about the classroom, I can just minimize Jump Desktop while I use the native, finger-friendly apps on the mini.
Point being, even if Jump Desktop is slower than Splashtop, it works perfectly for things like that. The combination of RDP interface optimization and Jump Desktop’s automatic discovery, mouse, and keyboard support, essentially just makes it feel more like a proper computer than Splashtop ever did.
Jump Desktop is in many ways a very different app from Splashtop. In fact, I still keep Splashtop around because of its speed. That being said, Jump Desktop is in my opinion a far better option for those who want to do common office tasks on their iPad, rather than use remote computing for video and games. I’ve been remoting into my computer far more often after I started using Jump Desktop, and a large part of the reason for that is the excellent mouse compatibility if your device is jailbroken and use BTC Mouse & Trackpad. I can honestly say that I really don’t miss my laptop when using it, though you have to find out if the same is true for yourself.
Jump Desktop will currently run you $15 on iTunes. That’s a fairly common price for remote computer apps, and in my opinion well worth it. The biggest issue is that there’s currently no trial version, and with the myriad of similar apps out there, it’s very hard to justify spending $15 on something that you haven’t tried.
For the record, Jump Desktop is also available on Android. As I haven’t tried the Android version, however, don’t consider this a universal review.