Timbuktu Pro full review

Your friends, family and co-workers are asking you for Mac help. They?re snowbound, and you?re sipping a Martini in Cannes, so you can?t just swing on by their home or office. Worse, they don?t know an application menu from a folder, so you won?t get far with verbal explanations. It doesn?t take long before you wish you could get your hands on their keyboard and mouse and see the screen.

Netopia?s Timbuktu Pro solves this very problem. Whether over a TCP/IP network or a direct modem connection, you can assist a befuddled user or administer a remote Mac or PC server as though you were sitting in front of it. A mainstay in the Macintosh tech-support tool belt since 1988, Timbuktu now faces competition from Apple Remote Desktop and the free, open-source VNC. Timbuktu Pro 7.0 eschews aggressive enhancements, however, and stays the course with Panther compatibility and a handful of new features.

Access options aplenty
The Observe (formerly Look) and Control features are Timbuktu?s heart and soul. Respectively, they let you see and control a remote computer?s screen. You can change the bit depth of the remote display, expand its image to fill your screen, or shrink it to fit within the screen-sharing window. Copying the Clipboard contents between computers is an easy click, as is capturing screen shots or QuickTime movies of the remote display. Timbuktu now observes user permissions during Panther?s Fast User Switching by disconnecting remote sessions when you switch users. Version 7.0 also adds support for mice with scroll wheels and multiple buttons, along with more choices for display bit depth.

The new Profile service is wonderfully simple and a boon to tech support. It runs System Profiler on the remote computer, and saves the text report to your local hard drive. It just works, and offers immeasurable value.

Not to be confused with Microsoft?s email server of the same name, Timbuktu?s Exchange enables file transfers between computers. It now uses the standard Mac OS X shortcuts for the Applications, Home, Desktop and Favorites folders. Exchange is otherwise unchanged. Disappointingly, it still uses a two-column interface, and it isn?t threaded for simultaneous transfers. (A transfer must complete before you can browse and begin another transfer.) Exchange sessions on a switched-Ethernet network were oddly slower than FTP in my testing ? particularly strange since the opposite is true for low-bandwidth connections.

With the long-standing Invite feature, you can invite another person to connect to your computer. An instructor can use Invite to let students use the Observe service and view a presentation on his or her screen, for example. Invite is particularly useful if the request traverses a firewall, as the answer uses the same network connection as the invitation.
Notify (formerly Knock) is an old friend that reports keyboard and mouse activity on a remote machine. If the help-desk staffers don?t respond to your Invite, Notify alerts you when they get back from lunch, the water cooler, or wherever they wandered off to.

The Send service is similar to email, enabling you to send text notes and file attachments to the remote machine. By default, the program stores these messages in an Incoming Messages folder at the root of the boot volume; administrators can specify an alternate location. The Chat and Intercom services seem redundant in the world of iChat AV, as they respectively enable text chat and audio conversations. As Timbuktu?s services all run on the same network port, however, these stalwart features remain useful if a machine is behind a firewall or otherwise unavailable for email or iChat.

Speaking of security
Fear not ? Timbuktu Pro doesn?t roll out a welcome mat for miscreants who want to invade your computer. Following installation, you must explicitly activate each of the TCP/IP and Dial Direct methods for allowing access to your Mac. By default, the anonymous Guest user can only use the Notify and Send services; beware the Guest user?s access to Send, as Send messages can carry potentially dangerous file attachments.

As you add Trusted User accounts, you can grant or remove access to each service. Unfortunately, version 7.0 remains blind to user information and access privileges you have stored elsewhere, unlike Timbuktu for Windows, which can find users in LDAP directories and authenticate them via Active Directory. We?d like to see Mac OS X?s Directory Services adopted as an available source for Timbuktu accounts and privileges.

The drastically unnamed ?only accept incoming access when application is open? preference should not be overlooked. When you check this option, the logged-in Mac OS X user owns the Timbuktu Host process (which monitors incoming connections) and inherits that user?s permissions. If you don?t check the preference, the Unix root account owns Timbuktu Host; remote connections are possible in the login window, but beware their unfettered access to the file system.

You can easily change Timbuktu?s TCP contact port for coexistence with firewalls, something network-security types will appreciate. This feature makes it easy to configure a Timbuktu computer for a network?s DMZ, with an obscure port open to the outside world while retaining normal contact with the internal network. Other options include proxy server support and advertising a public IP number in a Network Address Translation (NAT) environment. Timbuktu doesn?t send keystrokes in the clear, but dynamically scrambles them on a per-session basis. Nonetheless, proper encryption would put admins? fears to rest.

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