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A crazy-expensive, poorly functioning remote access app that is still fascinating

This is going to be one of those ultra-rare reviews in which I think something is so interesting and nifty that I’m eager to write about it right away … and yet the thing in question comes with so many problems that after praising its many virtues, I can’t recommend it.

I’ve no doubt that Parallels Access, a spiffy new remote-access app for the iPad, could some day serve as a strong argument that nobody who owns a full-size iPad has any need whatsoever for a MacBook Air, or a Windows ultrabook. But this debut edition has too many rough edges to justify its eye-popping price.

The function of Parallels Access is familiar: it lets you connect to your Mac or Windows PC from anywhere on the Internet and operate it remotely through your iPad’s keyboard and screen.

I use one such app almost every day. Screens VNC (from Edovia) is the difference between my being able to tentatively say “My iPad can do just about anything I can do on my MacBook” and being able to say it with a kind of arrogant swagger. That’s because a remote access app locates my Mac (or a Windows PC) wherever it is on the Internet, has a brief conversation with a little helper app on the desktop, and then after a moment or two the desktop’s screen is mirrored on my iPad. It’s as if my iPad is running MacOS, or Windows. The experience is a bit laggy, but even on a mobile broadband connection it’s responsive enough that I can use this setup for real work without having to drag my six-pound notebook all over the world.

I haven’t traveled with my MacBook in a year and a half … even when I’ve been gone for a week. My needs are mostly covered by the iPad’s huge library of powerful professional native apps. On those rare occasions when only a desktop app (such as the “for real” desktop edition of Microsoft Word) will do, I can just fire up Screens, open a connection back to the Mac in my office, and have all of Word’s features available to me through this nifty lightweight tablet that lasts forever on battery and has its own mobile broadband connection.

Screens is my favorite remote access app, but there are plenty of choices on the App Store. They all need to address two unavoidable problems. The iPad’s screen is much smaller than the screen of the Mac or PC that it’s representing, and although the iPad will recognize a Bluetooth keyboard, you can’t connect to a mouse or a trackpad. Every click, double-click and drag that your desktop app is expecting has to be executed by smearing your fingers around the screen.

Parallels Access is a breakthrough for iPad remote access apps because it cleverly translates so much of the Mac and Windows interfaces into their iOS equivalents. You don’t need to launch apps through the Mac or Windows interface; your desktop apps are automatically represented in an iOS-style launcher. Whether you launch an app from within Access or it just happened to already be open on your desktop when you connected, all apps appear in fullscreen mode, scaled up to proportions that make them readable and accessible on the iPad.

When you terminate the connection, your Mac or PC is restored to its original display resolution, and every window that was already open when you activated Access is restored to its original position and size.

Parallels Access manages multiple windows much more smartly than MacOS itself does. A big rack of running apps slides up into view with the tap of a button. Each app’s live view is a thick popup menu, populated with live thumbnails of each app window’s contents. I’d love to have this on my Mac as a Dock replacement.

Access also pulls off a neat trick to help you manipulate text, which can be a big hassle in iOS remote access apps. In Screens VNC, selecting precise runs of text via the touchscreen is like defusing a bomb in the backseat of a running cab. It’s tough to slide your thick fingertip precisely between two letters, and the act of clicking and dragging is a multi-step process.

Parallels Access somehow manages to hand off Mac and Windows text selection to iOS’ own touch-optimized text interface (or a close facsimile, at least). Tap a word and it highlights. The familiar iOS goalposts surround it, simplifying precise adjustments and extensions. The familiar Cut/Copy/Paste palette is right there, so you don’t need to head up to the Edit menu.

None of the other iPad remote access apps are anywhere near as well considered and executed as this one. Parallels Access is so close to the experience of running MacOS natively on an iPad that, yes, many users who already own iPads would be better served by this app than by a $999 MacBook Air.

Highly interactive apps (like Photoshop) are too tough to use via remote access, thanks to the lag between the screen and your PC. But if you’re mostly pushing text and numbers around, it’s a perfectly sane way to run those one or two desktop apps for which there’s no iOS equivalent.

In fact, I’m writing this very review on my iPad, using Scrivener for MacOS.

But I’m not connected to my MacBook through Parallels Access. I began writing this review with it. I needed to switch to Screens after the first couple of paragraphs and I’ve been working with that other app ever since.

Why? Because Screens works great with Bluetooth keyboards. Parallels Access reacts to that same common and essential accessory as though it’s made out of garlic-flavored Kryptonite.

Problem One: Access won’t even recognize my Bluetooth keyboard as an input device until I activate a control. Which rolls up a bank of virtual function keys that steals some of my iPad’s already-limited screen space. It’s a waste. But actually, no, those virtual arrow keys and such aren’t a waste at all, because of …

Problem Two: The arrow keys on my Bluetooth keyboard don’t work. Yes, every time I want to reposition the cursor or select text, I need to take my hands off the big, comfortable, and fast “real” keyboard, and delicately start poking at the fake keys on the screen.

Compare and contrast this with the situation here in Screens, where positioning the cursor and selecting text is every bit as fast and convenient as it is on my desktop. I can even use the Option and Shift keys as modifiers as I move around; selecting and moving any run of text takes just seconds, with 100% precision and zero frustration.

But these problems pale in comparison to …

Problem Three: Bluetooth support appears to be broken here in iOS 6. It’s so bad that you shouldn’t even attempt to use a Bluetooth keyboard with this app in the first place.

I’m typing along, diligently shaping my observations into pure gems of perfect Truth, Beauty and Wisdom, as per usual, when ZAP. Ghost Editor takes control. Whole sentences are deleted as I watch helplessly, and then they slowly reappear. And then they’re deleted again, and they reappear, and finally it settles down and it looks like I can start writing again … then I do something as foolish as tap any key on the keyboard, when the Ghost Editing starts up all over again.

Nutty things can happen with a Bluetooth keyboard if the batteries are low, or if there’s some sort of incompatibility with this keyboard that you weren’t aware of. Which is why I’ve tried Parallels Access with three different Bluetooth keyboards and I’m getting the same problem, even after restarting my Mac and double-checking to make sure that I’ve disabled all other remote access software.

I gave up. I’ve been using this same keyboard with Screens for 45 minutes without incident. I have never encountered this problem with any other remote access app.

Parallels Access works fine for me if I don’t use Bluetooth. But what’s the point of this kind of an app if you’re going to limit yourself to just what you can accomplish with a virtual keyboard that covers up half of the screen?

Parallels Access is fine for performing remote maintenance chores but to someone like me who wants to run desktop apps on their iPad, Parallels Access is flat-out not usable.

But hey, Access was just released on Wednesday. Maybe Parallels will fix that stuff. It’s also important to note that Apple is only weeks away from releasing iOS 7.0. It’s possible that some or all of these Bluetooth dealbreakers will magically disappear with the new OS.

Even if we set aside the Bluetooth problems, Access it still be stuck with another dealbreaker: the price.

Sit down and take a deep breath.

It’s $79.99. Making it one of the most expensive productivity apps on the whole store.

That’s … um … kind of an ambitious pricing strategy, yeah?

Did I mention that the $79.99 is an annual fee?

Or that (if I’m reading the agreement correctly) it only allows you to connect to ONE Mac or PC?

I mean, whiskey tango foxtrot, Parallels?!

I can only assume that Access is priced to compete with GoToMyPC, which costs $99 a year. But Access seems to be a personal productivity app. GoToMyPC is enterprise-hardened, admin-friendly, scalable to groups and multiple computers, and lets you access your PC from any iPhone, iPad, Android phone, Android tablet, Mac, or PC.

Disclosure: GoToMyPC is a frequent advertiser on the MacBreak Weekly podcast for the This Week In Tech network, of which I am a weekly cohost. But I have nothing to do with the selection of advertisers and I don’t participate in the reading or discussion of those ads.

And even if that weren’t true, $80 a year would still be a whole goddamn spitpile of money for an iPad remote access app!

Suffice to say that I don’t really understand the value proposition of Parallels Access’ pricing structure.

Screens VNC costs $19. I’ve been using it regularly for a couple of years and I like it a lot. But would I be willing to spend $160 to use Screens for that time? With another $80 to spend every year afterward?

Or what about OnLive Desktop? It’s an app for iOS and Android tablets that connects you to one of OnLive’s remotely-hosted virtualized Windows PCs. It delivers the desktop editions of Microsoft Office. You don’t need to purchase a copy of Office yourself, and you don’t need to keep your own PC running 24/7 on the network. And OnLive costs just five bucks a month!

And in my haste to vent my frustrations about the Bluetooth and the pricing, I forgot to mention that Access had a persnickety tendency to keep dropping the connection to my Mac when I connected through LTE or through coffeeshop WiFi! Screens has no problems with either. Twenty damn dollars, forever.

Access’ network connection has been flawless inside the office, but do you really run a remote access app inside the same room as the host PC?

So Access is ungodly expensive and this version isn’t anywhere near stable enough to command an elite price tag.

It’s just crazy. Crazy, crazy, CRAZY.

Seriously. I can’t get over this pricing. Parallels must be targeting this app towards people who are buying software with someone else’s money, right?

Okay.

I have calmed down.

Despite my verbal fit of apoplexy, I still think Parallels Access is chock-full of terrific ideas. It’s definitely worth downloading and installing, just for the 14 day free trial experience.

But no way can I recommend it for purchase. It’s better than Screens VNC, Jump Desktop, or Air Login, three lovely alternatives. Clearly.

By no stretch of the imagination is it so much better than any of those that its pricing is justified.

Crimeny! Should I remind you all that I was able to write this column and actually do something productive with the “$20 and you own it” iPad remote access app. Whereas the …

(All right, so I haven’t calmed down. I’ll just end this review and stomp off to rant in solitude.)

(Eighty freaking dollars! Per year! … )