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The Poor Hacker's Remote Control

by Drew Dunn

About a month ago, I wrote a piece that talked about the great new Sound Blaster Audigy card and how I'd integrated it into my stereo system as part of a computer-based MP3 player. It sounded great then, and it sounds great now. But it has just one problem...if I want to change a song, I have to get up from my desk, walk over the the computer and go through a fairly awkward procedure to use the mouse. Unfortunately, my audio equipment doesn't really accomodate a computer very well.

I knew that there had to be a solution, some sort of remote control setup. I knew that I could get a wireless keyboard and mouse, and since some of the newer models use radio frequencies, I wouldn't be limited to line of sight. I just didn't want another keyboard and mouse cluttering up my desk. Also, as a starving college student, cost was a factor.

Fortunately, I think that I found the perfect solution. Not only is it free, it doesn't add any new hardware to my desk and I don't have to squint across the room to see the 14" monitor on top of the amplifiers.

AT&T Laboratories Cambridge is one of Europe's leading communications research labs. And one of the projects that they've been working on for a while is something they call Virtual Network Computing (VNC). It's a way to connect from one computer to another's desktop and remotely control that computer over a TCP/IP network. The software package is quite well developed and, best of all, it's free.

Originally, the software was designed to allow PC's to run UNIX software without actually installing UNIX on the PC. Naturally, I think that I've found an even better use: remotely controlling my MP3 server!

You can download the software for many different platforms at this site. I used the Windows version, which runs on Windows 9x, NT, 2000 and XP. The downloaded file contains both the client and server programs. For Windows, just run the setup program on the server, then copy the client program to the client system. The server can run as an unattended service on NT, 2000 and XP Professional. The setup program will prompt you for such security niceties as passwords and ports. Once that's done, you're ready to rock and roll!

My MP3 server is a fairly minimal configuration that I've thrown together from bits and pieces of hardware that I've had sitting around for a while. The motherboard is an Abit BP6 with two 333MHz Celerons and 384MB of RAM. I'm honestly not sure what AGP video card is in it, it has a 100Mb ethernet card and the Audigy card. The hard drive is just whatever was sitting around...all of the action happens over the network.

I installed Windows XP Professional on this system. My MP3 player of choice is Winamp. After installing VNC on the MP3 server, I ran the client program on my main desktop computer, also running Windows XP:

Just enter the IP address and click on OK. You'll receive a prompt for the password that you entered on the server, then you're in:

If I looked over my shoulder as I moved the mouse, I'd see the cursor moving on the MP3 server. Once I select the music I want to hear, I can close the VNC window and Winamp will continue playing. Want to change the volume or the song? No problem, just log back in and make the adjustment.

Over a 100Mb network, there's very little lag, and since in this case the desktop is only 640x480, the response is quite snappy. Of course there are a million and one other uses for VNC, I'm sure, but at right now, for me this is the very best one! Oh, and of course it runs on Linux too!


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