With all this talk lately of Apple's Magic Trackpad, you may have forgotten that your Android-based phone is basically a trackpad that you carry with you all the time. It's a relatively simple operation to use it to control input on your computer. Perhaps the two most popular such applications are Gmote, and RemoteDroid. Both apps have hundreds of thousands of downloads. While there is some overlap in their functionality, each one has unique features.
Upon launching the app for the first time, you will be presented with a screen offering brief instructions. Just launch the server that you downloaded on the PC, then type in your computer's IP address. The window for the RemoteDroid server will tell you the IP address, so no need to look it up. The address will be you internal network IP, probably something like 192.168.1.XXX. Any addresses you connect to will be stored in the Recently Used Hosts list on this screen.
Simple, yet functional
We found moving the pointer around with the touchscreen was smooth, even under heavy network load. A definite bonus here is that the trackpad area responds to multi-touch gestures in the form of the always popular two-finger scroll. This will work with any program on the computer side. This little touch makes RemoteDroid eminently usable as an input method. Typing with the software keyboard also works well.
We can think of one major use for this app, and that's as a way to control a media center PC. But really, any computer that you aren't sitting right next to would benefit from this app. What makes RemoteDroid an interesting solution for controlling computers is that the server doesn't need to be installed. It's just a Java app that is run by executing a .jar file. Any computer with Java installed can use it. You could carry around the server on a USB drive and plug it into any computer you needed to interact with (even those you cannot install software on). The only issue is that you'd have to leave this window open, unless you are able to launch it with an attached mouse. Overall, RemoteDroid is a great app, and it's even open source.
Where RemoteDroid focuses on just the keyboard and mouse part of the interface, Gmote goes much further. Gmote offers options to control and stream media on your computer, as well as direct control of the mouse and keyboard. This is a nice combination since much of what we'd do with RemoteDroid is related to media playback. Gmote is also a free app, but there is a donate version you can buy for $2.99 to support the developer. As with RemoteDroid you have to download a server on the PC side, but this is a traditional installer that runs in the background to facilitate the advanced media streaming features. There are versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The advantage here is that since it runs in the background, it is great for a PC that you don't usually have a mouse connected to.
The trackpad in Gmote is not really the centerpiece of the app, but it gets the job done. The entire screen is the trackpad. Tapping is a left-click, and a long-press equals a right-click. Unlike RemoteDroid, there are no multi-touch gestures. In our testing, the default sensitivity of the track pad was far too low. It took a lot of swipes to move the cursor across the screen. Turning it up in the settings solved that problem. A link to open the keyboard it in the upper left corner.
To control your computer's media library, get back to the remote screen by hitting menu, and choosing remote. There is a link in the upper left corner to browse the directories you added to the server. You'll have to input the password you chose earlier. There are two ways to use the media on your computer with this app. You can have it launched on the PC, or on the phone. If you choose to just launch files on your PC, you should be able to use any content your computer could normally play. If you open a video file, it will be shown on the computer in full screen.
One oddity to make note of is that playback of media on our Windows 7 box with Gmote caused system audio settings to be altered. We were unable to get sound from any system element after using Gmote. This turned out to be caused by our on-board Realtek sound controller being disabled. This may just be a random problem caused by specific hardware, but be aware.
Playback on the phone is labeled as beta. We found that it worked just fine for audio, but only a few video formats are supported. Most of the MP4 files we checked appeared to playback well, but it got confused by a few. This is a nice feature to have, especially for music, but it earns the beta label. Still, we're happy to see the developer continuing to work on new features.
These are the most popular remote control apps on Android right now. While we're very happy with the stability and portability of RemoteDroid, it's light on features. If all you need is a way to control keyboard and mouse input, it's a great choice. Gmote offers more features, but we felt it's utility for video was a little questionable. However, it's constantly running server application makes it a good choice for a persistent media center PC. Have you tried either of these apps? Are there any alternative apps you like on the Android platform.